Saturday, May 31, 2008

Beale Street Landing vs. Mud Island

At the recent CIP budget hearings, RDC's Benny Lendermon was asked by Councilman Shea Flinn to explain why we're spending $30 million on Beale Street Landing, rather than using the same or less money to enhance Mud Island, which to Flinn seemed like a more sensible approach.

Click here to read more.Click here to listen to the 7-minute discussion (1.2 MB MP3). My transcription of the discussion follows below. Following that, I've added my own comments.
FLINN: Thank you Mr. Chairman. And thank you Councilwoman Ware, because you provided a perfect segue to my commentary and question, which is:

We spent a lot of time talking about Beale Street Landing cause it’s where the focus is. I’ll get to that in a roundabout way, but I’d like to flip over to the Mud Island landing and discuss…you sort of touched on it there. Conceptually […] You all started in 1997? When did RDC…


FLINN: This Master plan was created in 2000…

LENDERMON: 2002, I think is when the City Council approved it.

FLINN: ...2002. Obviously it’s a very different climate now than it was then. Is the Master Plan still…I mean have you done any audits of its feasibility, given the change in times…

LENDERMON: It’s like anything else, it’s a living document. Number one is, the RDC board back two years ago, maybe longer, you know, decided that the land bridge concept, including the land bridge, shouldn’t be included, okay, so we’ve pretty much jettisoned that out of our strategic planning.

And what that did was, is that it opened up a whole number of questions on Mud Island proper itself. So now what do you do? I mean Mud Island – we can talk a long time about this – but Mud Island had its issues, okay. It’s an absolutely wonderful place celebrating the Mississippi River. It’s also very detached from the land side. And even when we have concerts, the monorail system doesn’t function very well, bringing in people, and that’s 25,000 people, bringing people back and forth for a concert it doesn’t function very well…but, it’s got a unique [authority?], you know... And we certainly think that the river model and the museum and a number of things over there have great values, okay.

Now, there’s… Ericson’s ideas were that you’ve also got areas down at the tip, and areas up where the Memphis Belle used to be in the parking lot that frankly are now underutilized. And we agree with him on that. We don’t necessarily agree on what that purpose would be, but we think, absolutely, we think there needs to be somebody to look at: Does the park need to be expanded out to fill in that area in the future? Does the Mud Island Museum itself need to have something done to it? It’s very static. It was created in 1975 and finished out whenever the park opened. So we have actually had a museum expert come in and do a look at what could be done within the existing configuration. And some pretty neat things could be done to that museum long-term within its consistent [existing?] boundaries. But by the same token, what we think needs to happen is – and we’re working with Robert Lipscomb frankly – is coming up with this joint relationship where we think there’s some corps of engineers planning money that could be utilized, where we do some facilitated planning for Mud Island River Park and have a whole series of public meetings, obtain the services of some appropriate planner…


FLINN: When you look at the practical purpose of the Beale Street Landing Project, it seems like we have a better opportunity there at the Island. Now I know to some degree that horse is already out of the barn…but…conceptually, well this Councilperson I would have started that way [Mud Island] and moved the other way, rather than have project one be the Beale Street Landing because…maybe I’m just a bad guy, but I don’t why I’d go down to stare at the river from a park, whereas if you utilized Mud Island better, you could have more of a magnet to attract people. You know that’s more of a “if you build it, they will come” than necessarily Beale Street Landing. And it seems like it would be more cost effective. Now I could be wrong on that.

LENDERMON: I think Beale Street Landing was being there for several purposes. One thing is you need something there on the cobblestones and Riverside Drive and Tom Lee Park. You have nothing, you have no place of respite for people.

FLINN: But at least its not costing any money. Now Mud Island Park is.

LENDERMON: Correct. So you’re .. it gets get to the issue of, you wanted to do away with, the basic concepts is, do away with Mud Island River Park. You could save a lot of money doing that.

FLINN: Well I think just re-using it to turn it into a profit center, and when that attracts people downtown, working with the other areas. Instead we’re taking land that wasn’t costing us any money, wasn’t bringing any money in, but wasn’t costing us. So I mean we’re spending 30 million dollars to develop that, whereas if we’d spent half that or all of that over on Mud Island, we could have taken something that’s costing us money and turned it into a profit center. Seems like more wise way to approach it…


LENDERMON: And we agree with part of that. And the issue is, assuming people are okay with changing the River Park, at some point in time…

FLINN: Not everyone’s okay with changing Tom Lee Park. There’s going be resistance…

LENDERMON: And there [are] certain things you can’t do with Mud Island. No matter what you do, Mud Island River Park is still going to be detached, okay, so you’re still going to either… I mean you can’t build bridges to it, bridges don’t work, they have to be high, they have to be basically as long as it is, too far to walk. You have to have car access… What we’re hoping is, it should probably be re-looked at now, because now that you have Auction Street bridge, and you have the Grant Brother building that residential housing, now all of a sudden this is no longer detached as much as it was. So that’s why we think it needs to be re-looked at now.


What’s missing here is the original context for the idea of Beale Street Landing (BSL).

It must be remembered that the 2002 Master Plan would have completely done away with Mud Island River Park (except for perhaps the river walk), and would have eliminated the monorail, replacing it all with a Land Bridge and millions of square feet of residential, retail, hotel, and mixed-use development.

It would also have done away with the current boat landing on Mud Island (as well as the marina). Therefore, the raison d’etre for BSL in 2002 was to serve as a replacement for that dock, for the big riverboats. The Master Plan envisioned a new $10 million replacement dock -- for big boats only.

For reasons that would make perfect sense to a marketing person, the RDC decided to start on BSL right away (though it was not needed yet), and so they held a world-wide design competition. In the competition documents, they encouraged designs on a much grander scale than was envisioned by the Master Plan, including docking for all sizes of boats. And that’s exactly what they got.

They were assuming, of course, that the Land Bridge would eventually get built, and Mud Island River Park would go away. But in 2005 they were forced under public pressure to remove the Land Bridge from the Master Plan, thus eliminating the original justification for BSL.

Stuck with Mud Island, and with no signs that it is going to be torn down in the forseeable future, they are in the ticklish position of having to explain why we’re spending all this money on BSL instead of putting the money into improving Mud Island. Mud Island, after all, was supposed to go away.

If I were a cynical person I would say this: Whether the public needs BSL or not, the RDC certainly needs it, to save the reputations of the Memphis luminaries who have served on its board and supported it over the past 9 years, given that the Master Plan is essentially “jettisoned.”

Benny’s comment at the very end is intriguing. Does he really mean that Beale Street Landing “should be re-looked at?”

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