Saturday, March 1, 2008

Landmarks Commission, February 28, 2008

On February 28, 2008, the editor of this Web site spoke before the Memphis Landmarks Commission during their final hearing on the appropriateness of Beale Street Landing's design. (The vote was 4-2 to approve the design.)

Click here to listen to the audio of my remarks (8:14 minutes). This low-bitrate MP3 file should be suitable for online listening, or for offline use as a podcast.

The full text of my remarks follows below (click to read).

Members of the Landmarks Commission:

There is an elephant in the room.

You can't see it because the furniture has been arranged so that you have your backs to it. So let me describe it for you.

First of all, please remember that Beale Street Landing is not a landmark. It hasn't been built yet. All of us have opinions about its worthiness, both pro and con, but none of us really knows whether it might, someday, become a Memphis landmark

What Landmarks Commission is rightfully concerned about is whether Beale Street Landing, if and when it is built, might adversely impact the landmarks and historic districts we already have.

More specifically: How might this artificial landmark impact the authentic landmark right next to it, the Cobblestone Landing?

According to the Memphis Landing Cultural Resource Assessment (also known as the Garrow report) which was commissioned by the City in 1995:
The Memphis Landing is perhaps the one historic resource that best exemplifies the scope of the City's history. When constructed during the nineteenth century, the Memphis Landing was second only to the St. Louis city landing in its scale and level of commercial activity. Today, of all the great river landings on the Ohio, Missouri, and upper Mississippi rivers, the Memphis Landing is acknowledged to be the best preserved of these important commercial places.

The Cobblestone Landing has been in continuous use for over 150 years. Even today, it is a popular tourist destination and a place where people may embark on riverboats, just as they did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But not much longer.

A few days ago a preliminary plan to restore the Cobblestone Landing was presented to a small group of stakeholders. It confirmed many of my fears about the future of the Cobblestones.

Members of the Commission, we have done this whole process literally backwards.

We are preparing to start work building an artificial landmark, without having a plan of record for the real landmark. And, as a result, we're not seeing the full impact Beale Street Landing will have on the Cobblestones.

What we're not seeing is that Beale Street Landing expects to take over the public activities from the historic landmark. The Cobblestones will get fixed, yes - but those activities will never come back.

The City says that Beale Street Landing is guided by the overall vision of the Memphis Riverfront Master Plan of 2002.

That is not true. The design that you are being asked to approve is quite different from what was described in the original Master Plan.

That Plan recognized the great historic, aesthetic, and commercial importance of the Cobblestone Landing. On that point, everyone agrees. But the original Plan wanted the Cobblestones to continue to be the central focus of riverfront activity. Let me quote:
The Cobblestones are Memphis’ most treasured historic river resource. No credible Master Plan could be put forth without their inclusion. In fact, the Cobblestones are situated in the most strategic Downtown location, at the foot of Union Avenue. In order to have a successful Downtown Harbor and riverfront, the Cobblestones must be greatly improved from the vast eyesore that they are today. … The Cobblestones themselves must be properly reset and retrofitted in an historically sensitive manner with state-of-the-art services and dock facilities needed by commercial riverboat operators. … The entire length is proposed to become the riverwalk esplanade, establishing the Cobblestones as the new civic centerpiece of Memphis’ riverfront.

To put it simply: The Riverfront Master Plan called for the Cobblestones, not only to be seen, but also to be used and enjoyed, as a vital and active part of our living waterfront. The Master Plan called for this treatment, just as did the Garrow Report in 1995-96, just as did the Center City Development Plan for the Riverfront in January 1987.

But that's not what will happen if the current plan for this project is executed. In the current plans for these two neighboring projects, the Cobblestone Landing will be repaired and restored, but its historic and current uses will all be removed – moved to Beale Street Landing - in effect, making the Cobblestone Landing a mausoleum for the bygone history of Memphis.

Mausoleum is my word of course, but I think it's appropriate. With a historical marker or two, the Cobblestones will, at best, become a brief stop for the tour buses, before they move on to Beale Street Landing.

Neither tourists nor Memphians will feel compelled to stay, and experience, much less use the Cobblestone Landing as they do today. Boats will no longer dock here. There will be some walkways and some historic markers, but the Cobblestone Landing will become a large field of rocks, devoid of activity, in the center of the riverfront.

Instead of enhancing the Cobblestone Landing, Beale Street Landing clearly supplants it, and (if you are seeing the elephant now) hopes to replace it. It is two and one-half times as large as originally planned. It now consumes part of the north end of Cobblestones, and a whole section of Tom Lee Park.

How about that restaurant at Beale Street Landing? It's not a new proposal. The Mayor's 1996 riverfront plan envisioned a “floating restaurant" right at the foot of the Cobblestones. What a great idea! But now that restaurant will be at Beale Street Landing.

All of this amounts to a profound negative impact on a historic landmark. In another 20 years, I predict, someone will be asking whether we need the Cobblestones at all.

It’s a familiar tune. We've seen it all over town. Brand new shopping malls go up, siphoning stores and business from older malls, leaving them derelict, with our historic neighborhoods paying the price. And we saw it with FedEx Forum, not just making the Pyramid useless, but also with a covenant not to compete that affected entertainment venues citywide.

How did we get to this point? Again, I say: We did it backwards - by designing Beale Street Landing first, and leaving the Cobblestones to become an afterthought.

This is how things go wrong when we do the process backwards. And the community pays the price.

What can you do about it?

We request that you defer approval of this project until you are presented a fully realized plan for preserving and revitalizing the use and enjoyment of the most important landmark on our riverfront. Compliance with the City's 1995-96 Preservation Plan would require the two locations be considered together, as a single plan.

Only when you have both plans in front of you will you be able to evaluate whether this project will have a negative impact on the historic district and adjoining landmark. Only then will you be able to consider whether Beale Street Landing is an appropriate design - or needs to be redesigned.

As the Landmarks Commission, your stated purposes include: "to preserve and protect…historically significant areas," and "to promote the use of Historic Districts for the education, pleasure, and welfare of the present and future citizens of Memphis."

Appropriateness isn't only about the color of paint. It is also about the continued use and enjoyment by the public of an important historic landmark.

Please do not allow yourselves to be cornered into approving Beale Street Landing when its design is clearly intended to overshadow and ultimately replace the authentic landmark you are supposed to be preserving and protecting. Your vote is important, and you should not be asked to support any project without having full information and the time to carefully consider and analyze the new project’s potential negative impact on a historic site.

Please don't be made an unwitting signatory to the demise of the Cobblestone Landing.

Thank you for your time.

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