The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and the Friends for Our Riverfront (FfOR) met February 23rd over common ground -- specifically, the area downtown from Adams south to Union between the harbor and Front Street.
Members from the two groups discussed the final draft of the RDC-commissioned Memphis Promenade Land Use Plan. In recent months, FfOR has expressed concern about the RDC's plan and the chance of turning over public land -- created by the city's founders and an easement in 1828 -- to private interests.
"We don't think it's a good idea to abandon the easement," said John Gary, the group's vice president. "The only reason there is still a 10-acre tract of land available downtown is because of the easement."
The promenade plan, which was developed by architects Cooper, Robertson & Partners, consists of an upper and lower promenade. The upper promenade on the Front Street level would include shops and restaurants; the lower would be at Riverside Drive, giving direct access to the river. The two would be connected by "grand civic stairs" with parking tucked under the upper promenade.
"Everybody is totally in agreement that what's there now is atrocious," said RDC president Benny Lendermon. "We're in agreement that the post office building has to stay, but there ought to be a better use for the building. We're in agreement that we should save the old remnant of the Cossitt Library; we're in agreement that there ought to be some type of public promenade."
But the two groups differ over how much of the land should remain as park land. The RDC plan would develop 40 percent of the property into commercial and residential uses, and the money from that would go towards other public improvements.
Lendermon said that when the easement was created, there were not as many opportunities to view the river as there are today. "Tom Lee Park didn't exist," he said. "Mud Island didn't exist. ... Since then we've moved the green space closer to the water where people want to be."
Lendermon said the plan is to put appropriate developments on the land, bring the city closer to the river, and at the same time keep the views and connections open. Gary is not so sure.
"Instead of having a one-and-a-half-story building at the corner of Jefferson and Union, the presented concept has a 40-story building there," said Gary. "They say they aren't going to interfere with sight lines, but I believe that's impossible."
His group's main focus, though, said Gary, is to bring attention to the easement and the chance of abandoning it. "We're trying to keep the 'public' in public promenade," he said. "If we're going to abandon the easement, we should do so in a public forum. It should be up to the citizens."
FfOR is working with local architects to develop an alternative land-use plan, but Gary said they are not out to compete with the RDC.
"If we create a better understanding, everybody will win," said Gary. "Best-case scenario: We all end up with an enhanced riverfront."