Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How far is too far: The sunk cost fallacy

"We've come too far and spent too much to turn back now."

That's the RDC's argument-of-last-resort for finishing Beale Street Landing. In the previous post, I tried to put a percentage on the descriptor "too far." One City Council person suggested that over 50% is "too far".

I believe he is not alone. Most people think of the halfway mark as a threshold -- since it is the point at which you are getting closer to the end than to the beginning.

In my calculation we are actually just reaching the 30% point, provided the steelwork contract hasn't been signed. But is 30% still "too far to turn back?" For many people, yes it is -- but not because they are thinking rationally.

It's a classic problem that is discussed in every business school and it has a name: The "sunk cost dilemma." "Sunk costs" are those that have already been incurred and are not recoverable.

Large pile of sunk costs at the foot of Beale Street, May 23, 2009. Photo by Michael Cromer.

In traditional micro-economic theory, you should not consider sunk costs when you make a decision about a future course of action. They are losses already incurred and have no relevance to the future. To make a strictly rational decision, you should only consider the prospective costs of your various options.

The question should not be "How much have we spent? ($11 million.)"

The question should only be whether spending $26 million more makes sense, given what we know today.

But people have emotional biases. One common bias is people's reluctance to accept the reality of their losses. People would rather proceed (even with a low probability of success) than to quit and have to acknowledge a 100% loss.

Therefore, people do consider sunk costs and allow them to influence their decision-making -- even though that kind of thinking is fallacious. The sunk cost fallacy results in too many "zombie" projects (and wars) that never seem to end.

To be continued...

How far is too far to turn back?

The RDC's been quietly making the rounds, visiting your City Council representatives, Mayor Wharton, and others, to shore up support for the Beale Street Landing (BSL) project and convince the City to approve an $8.9 million budget increase. Their bottom-line argument for finishing BSL goes something like this:

"We've gone too far and spent too much to turn back now."

But that begs the question: How far, really, is "too far?"

One City Council person told me that he had been going along with this argument, assuming all along that we were "past the halfway mark." But now he says that it appears we may be less than a third of the way -- and that would change his thinking. Presumably, other Council persons might feel the same way.

Let's do some more math.

Our best guess is that BSL is now going to cost at least $37.6 million in total.

How much have we already spent? According to the RDC last May, about $11 million, with Phase II about "95% complete." (Click image at left.)

That means BSL as a whole would be about 30% complete (11 divided by 37.6 equals 0.2925), or less than a third, with $26.6 million remaining to be spent.

Phase III, the steelwork, would make a major difference, however. If we had gotten to the point of committing to that steelwork contract, itself worth about $17 million, the RDC could then argue that we had reached the 75% mark, rather than just 30% (11 plus 17, divided by 37.6 = 0.7447).

You can bet your bottom dollar that the RDC would like to make that 75% argument. Or even the earlier 68% argument (calculated before the price increase). Obviously, the RDC would like very much to get that contract signed.

That is why it is critically important for Mayor Wharton to establish whether or not the steelwork contract has actually been signed. Assuming it hasn't, he should order an immediate halt on the project so that the city can preserve all its options and can rationally decide whether and how to proceed.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What's it really going to cost?

What is Beale Street Landing really going to cost?

Good question. Let's try and figure it out.

But you can't figure it out by checking the RDC's own website. Go ahead and look for yourself: Not here, not here, not here, nor even on this page. Nowhere is the total cost mentioned. Evidently, they don't want you to focus on that total-cost number.

But focus we should. It's a fair question because the argument RDC's been quietly making to your City Council representative goes something like this:

"We've gone too far and spent too much to turn back now."

All inquiring Memphis minds should want to know: How far, exactly, have we come? And how far, exactly, do we still have to go?

You can't figure it out by looking at the City's Capital Improvements budget (PDF). That's just a rolling, five-year budget plan, not a construction cost ledger. The actual expenditures may not occur in the same year as they are allocated in the budget. And when a project drags on beyond five years, the older years drop off the spreadsheet, without a reconciliation.

This project has already run six years, and has at least two more to go.

You really can't go by the the number you saw in the Commercial Appeal a couple weeks ago, which was $35 million. It's probably what the RDC told the reporter when he called and asked about it. It came from the RDC, so he had to take their word for it.

But as we already know, we can't take their word for it. Case in point. Here is what the RDC handed out to City Council members during the budget subcommittee hearings on May 11:

"Construction estimate=$33 million."

But when John Branston began citing the RDC's $33 million estimate a few days later, Benny Lendermon dashed off a huffy email clarification to the RDC's board and political friends, claiming Branston was wrong. The total cost, he said was $30.7 million. But Lendermon gave no explanation for why he had recently told the subcommittee $33 million. Which number do we believe?

Now we find out that the construction cost is going to be $6.9 million higher than planned. Do the math. It tells us that the total will be somewhere between $37.6 million (if we give Lendermon the benefit of the doubt) and nearly $40 million (if we believe his earlier representations to City Council).

What is certain: Mayor Wharton needs to have the RDC's projects independently audited -- before he allows any further work to be done. That's the only way we will know the full and true story. In the meantime, we have rely on our best guesses.

$37.6 to $40 million...for a boat dock to nowhere.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Boat dock to nowhere

Why are people still surprised to learn that we’re building a $37-40 million boat dock for riverboat cruises that have long been out of the business?

It must be a failure of the media. We hadn't been told of this startling news. Oh, wait. John Branston told us a year ago [Away All Boats: Beale Street Landing is missing a key ingredient, December 18, 2008]:
Beale Street Landing, the Riverfront Development Corporation's $30 million project at Beale Street and Riverside Drive, has a serious problem before it even opens.

The riverboat cruise business is disappearing. The Majestic America Line steamboat company in Seattle is going out of business. Two years ago, Majestic America acquired the New Orleans-based Delta Steamship Company and three steamboats — the Delta Queen, the American Queen, and the Mississippi Queen — that docked in Memphis en route to Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. That leaves RiverBarge Excursion Line and its floating barge hotel as the only overnight touring boat on the river.

The American Queen, loading passengers and supplies at the Mud Island River Park boat landing, July, 2005.

But we still have the RiverBarge Line, right? Oh, wait. Oops:
RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc. has been forced to curtail all operations for 2009 due to economic conditions. Rising costs and very soft bookings have forced this decision...

We want to assure our guests that RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc. deposits all payments for excursions in a special escrow account at the Whitney National Bank. This escrow account is overseen and regulated by the Federal Maritime Commission. As soon as these funds are made available to us, guest refunds will be processed.

RiverBarge Excursions would like to express our gratitude to all guests who have traveled with us in the last 10 years and thank you for your support and for being a part of the RiverBarge Family.

A huge floating hotel, the double-barge River Explorer docks at Mud Island in November, 2007. Photos by Michael Cromer.

Someone needs to clue in the RDC. According to their website they're still living in hope:
Because the Beale Street Landing project is under design, the former Delta Steamship Company has increased its dockings in Memphis by 40%. They are trying to build their market here in anticipation of the new docking facility, adding a strong economic development aspect to the project that benefits the City for years to come.

Obviously, the RDC hasn't updated their web page in two years.
But what if these riverboat companies actually do somehow come back to life? Won't we then need a place for them to dock?

Nope. We have a perfectly respectable, and more authentic, riverboat landing at Mud Island -- the one the cruise companies had been using for years. And there's a snack bar and gift shop right nearby!

Further reading

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Questions about the steel contract

Updated December 22 (see below).

The RDC's bombshell raises more questions than it answers.

We now know that the cost of Phase III of Beale Street Landing -- the steelwork for that unnecessary boat dock and helical ramp -- has gone up by $6.9 million.

According the Benny Lendermon (in June), the total cost of the steelwork was then estimated at around $10 million. With this latest increase, the cost now seems to be close to $17 million. The steelwork is a very large part of the project, whose total cost has recently been reported to be $35 million. (My reckoning puts the total at closer to $37-40 million, but that's another story.)

According to a recent email, reproduced below, from City Administrator TuJuan Stout-Mitchell, the contract for the steelwork was "awarded August 2009".

In my opinion, that raises a lot of serious questions and I believe Mayor Wharton and the City Council ought to seek the answers.

-- Does "awarded August 2009" mean that Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery signed the contract?

-- If so, had the RDC advised him in August of the cost overrun of $6.9 million? Did he sign it and commit the City anyway, even though the City Council hadn't yet approved an increased CIP (capital improvements) budget for the project? Was he duped?

-- Or: Is the RDC now claiming that the steel prices have increased since August? (And if so, why wasn't a price protection clause included in the contract?)

-- Was the RDC's "Plan B" to take the money away from Phase IV if the CC didn't ultimately approve the increase? Or did they just assume that the City Council would inexorably feel compelled to approve it?

-- When exactly were City Council members told? After the contract was signed? Shouldn't they have been told before and given an opportunity to have a voice?

The RDC's bottom-line argument for continuing BSL amounts to this: We've gone too far and spent too much to turn back now. But Phase III is a huge portion of the cost ($17 million) and may itself be the tipping point (e.g. halfway).

-- What was the urgency to sign in August rather than wait for the new Mayor? Does this award amount to RDC backing the City into going "too far"? Was Lowery deceived into signing this contract?

-- Does the City still have the option to cancel this contract? Or at least put a hold on it? Does each day that goes by put the City deeper into the hole, and help foreclose on any other options?

People's jobs are at stake (not to mention reputations). In particular, the jobs of RDC officials and even those of the architects' and contractors' who advise and depend on the RDC for work.

-- Whether or not Lowery and City Council were deceived, doesn't this go to show that a private-public partnership operating without proper public oversight creates a situation with built-in conflicts of interest?

All these questions and more ought to be answered at the first City Council meeting in January. I respectfully suggest to Mayor Wharton that he have his personal staff start finding the answers. I mean personal staff -- and not anyone associated with RDC or with decisions made in the past.

Updated December 22, 2009: I've been told that officials of Friends for Our Riverfront asked the City to search for such a contract. I was told that that no such contract could be found, although there is a contractor's number assigned for LCI (the company that was supposedly awarded the job).

This suggests the high probability that the contact hasn't been signed yet. "Awarded" would have meant only that the bidder was chosen. If so, then that is very good news. It means that $17 million hasn't been spent yet on the steelwork, and if the project is cancelled then much or all of the cost is still recoverable. That gives the Mayor and City Council more flexibility in considering alternative courses of action.

Continues...The email [my bold emphasis]:
From: Stout-Mitchell, TaJuan
Sent: Friday, December 11, 2009 10:59 AM
To: Keplinger, Juaness

All Federal funds for Beale Street Landing, with the exception of the FY 2009 grant, are included in Phase 3, which was awarded in August 2009. Approximately $800,000 has been expended. The FY 2009 grant is not yet available.

No awards have been made on the Cobblestone Restoration and Walkway project.

TaJuan Stout Mitchell
City of Memphis
Office of Intergovernmental Relations
125 North Main Room 336
Memphis, TN 38103

Addendum: If you want to make your thoughts known to City government, here are their emails:,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

RDC Bombshell

The bombshell news is that the RDC has to go back to City Council for another $8.9 million in order to get Beale Street Landing finished by 2011. If it does not go still higher, the total cost will reportedly be $35 million for what was a $10 million feature in the original Master Plan.

A report appeared in this Sunday's Commercial Appeal, on the front page of the Local section. The next day the RDC confessed as much to the public, burying the $9M bombshell several paragraphs down after reminding us once again how much we need BSL to find our way to the river. On Tuesday, John Branston had some choice things to say in the Flyer. On Friday, he had much more to say. On Wednesday, an edited version appeared in the printed edition.

In short: Steel prices have gone up, adding $6.9 to the construction cost. The rest of the shortfall, about $2 million, is because they lost some Federal money they had counted on.

Frankly, it was a bit of a shock to me. I had taken Benny Lendermon's statement to his own Board of Directors at face value. On June 22 he told them that the bids for Phase III (the steelwork) were coming in at around budget, and that they were pleased. Three months earlier (the March meeting) he had been worried, but now things were just fine. You can listen to the audio of his June 22 report to the Board by clicking here.

I'm told by someone in City government that the bombshell news had already gotten around to the Mayor and the City Council by the time the CA article was published, which apparently forced the RDC to go public with it.

If Mr. Lendermon was being truthful to his Board in June, then the steel prices have jumped within the last five months or less. Presumably, the RDC hadn't protected itself against inflation in the contract they wrote less than five months ago. Something went wrong, but it clearly wasn't Katrina.

This project has major flaws, and has had them nearly from the start. I have been kicking myself for not having come out in strong opposition long ago. My excuse is that the full and true picture didn't really become clear until the RDC showed us their Cobblestones plan in early 2008. That's when I started my Web site. I suspect that the RDC's holding back the Cobblestones plan until BSL was locked in was very deliberate -- a key element in their bait-and-switch strategy.

What finally became clear: In the RDC's eyes, BSL was intended to replace, not just enhance, the historic Cobblestone Landing. This viewpoint was directly contrary to the RDC's 2002 Riverfront Master Plan, and the change in direction was never made very clear to previous City Councils. And when the land bridge was cancelled and the City wouldn't take the Promenade by eminent domain, Beale Street Landing was all the RDC had left to build.

After January 2006, BSL was no longer "just" an RDC project. It was do-or-die.

But the good news is this: Here is a opportunity for the City Council, the new Mayor, and the Memphis public to take a fresh look at the situation and devise a new plan, before the RDC digs the City into an even deeper hole between Tom Lee and the Cobblestones.

My recommendation: Stop the Beale Street Landing project immediately. Spend a couple million dollars cleaning up the mess and re-sodding. And then -- without the pressure of RDC officials coming hat-in-hand, spinning up a storm -- we can all take some time to rethink the process for managing and improving our riverfront.

Ten years of nothing ought to tell us something: The current process doesn't work.

To be continued...

Addendum: If you want to make your thoughts known to City government, here are their emails:,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Saturday, October 31, 2009

FfOR wins 2009 Clearwater Award

Since 1987, the Waterfront Center of Washington, DC, in an annual juried competition, has recognized excellence in waterfront projects, plans, citizen organizations, and student work - those that show sensitivity to the water, public spaces, unique historic and cultural features, human scale, civic pride, economic sustainability, and environmental values. Friends for Our Riverfront was honored with the 2009 Clearwater Award, given to citizen organizations that embrace these values for their waterfront.

FfOR secretary Renee Lartigue and president Virginia McLean accepted the prestigious international award on behalf of FfOR on Friday, Sept. 23 at the annual Waterfront Center conference, held this year in Seattle.

  • Editorial in Commercial Appeal
  • Article at FfOR's Web site
  • Waterfront Center
  • Thursday, October 29, 2009

    August 11 transcripts and comments

    Updated, March 25, 2010

    The transcripts and comments from the TDOT/Army Corps public meeting on August 11 about the Cobblestone Landing have been published and can also be found at the links below. There are in several PDF documents, which I suggest you save to your hard drive for reading.

    Public Meeting Transcript Part 1 (PDF, 12.7 MB)
    Public Meeting Transcript Part 2 (PDF, 5.6 MB)
    Public Meeting Transcript Part 3 (PDF, 11 MB)

    All three parts combined into one file
    (PDF, 28.6 MB)

    Post Meeting Public Comments 1 (PDF, 7 MB)
    Post Meeting Public Comments 3* (PDF, 7.2 MB)

    *probably misnumbered by TDOT/Corps.

    Notable quotation

    "You need to make the heart, or center, of the city attractive, safe and lively. People help nourish and sustain the city. In the restoration of a city, you need to be sure that you restore that sense of people wanting to be active. It's not just about the tax base or the jobs. What the top cities in the world have is a happy, active public realm-the arts organizations, festivals and events that allow people to celebrate their city and love their city."

    - Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, SC (via Smart City Memphis)

    Saturday, October 3, 2009

    Short and sweet: The real purpose of MILUP

    Below is the short-and-sweet version of my explanation of why the Mud Island Land Use Plan (MILUP) is bound to disappoint many of its public participants. (The long version is here.)

    • The RDC has a contract with the City to be the exclusive developer for the riverfront, including Mud Island River Park.

    • The basis for this contract is the 2002 Cooper Robertson Riverfront Master plan.

    • The land bridge (and lake) in that plan turned out to be very bad ideas.

    • The land bridge was quietly taken out in 2005.

    • That effectively gutted the plan, making it obsolete and irrelevant.

    • If we admitted it and just threw plan away, we’d be admitting the RDC itself is obsolete and irrelevant.

    • (Not to mention incompetent, for proposing the land bridge in the first place.)

    • Jobs must be saved. Reputations must be preserved.

    • The RDC must come up with a new master plan before contract renewal.

    • The Mud Island Land Use Plan (MILUP) will arrive in time to save their contract.

    • To be credible, MILUP must involve the public in a “process” of some kind.

    • To avoid tying RDC's hands, MILUP can’t be too specific.

    • To be legally sufficient, MILUP need be little more than a zoning map.

    • When the public finds out they are getting little more than a zoning map, they will feel like they have been used.

    • They have been.

    • You won't be getting a skatepark, but maybe your children will.

    Further readings

    The real purpose of the Mud Island Land Use Plan, explained in detail

    My sense is that many of the people who have been participating in the Mud Island Land Use Plan (MILUP) process are right now feeling a bit disappointed. I certainly was, and commented to that effect on Mary Cashiola’s article (see “Mike” at 10:06 PM.)
    Just got back from the second meeting. My overall impression? This was a step backwards. They've got three versions of a color-coded zoning map, and that's all they wanted. The citizens' work is done. No specific plan, no theme, no unifying vision. Move on, somebody else will make the decisions from here on out.

    But rest assured that the RDC will not be disappointed, because a “color-coded zoning map” is all they really needed out of the process. I will explain. (It's rather lengthy. You might prefer the short and sweet version.)

    Continues...The RDC has a big problem and the MILUP is intended to solve it, but it’s not the problem you might think it is. To help you understand what the MILUP process is really about, I need to take you through some background and history.

    Where RDC derives its authority

    In reality, the RDC is not a public agency or commission* but a private corporation. Besides a bank account and some office furniture and equipment, it has one very big asset. It has exclusive authority for developing and exploiting the Memphis Riverfront, which is of tremendous value if it can be fully realized.

    But the RDC only possesses this authority by way of a City contract that must be renewed from time to time.

    In reality there are two contracts, one for management (renewable every 5 years), and one for development (renewable every ten years). To keep the management contract, it merely has to do a good job, at a reasonable net cost, and keep the public happy. In the RDC’s mind, the management contract is mainly tactical.

    The development contract is the strategic one for which the RDC (middle name: Development) was really formed. That contract presupposes the existence of one other, very important thing: an approved master plan.

    A master plan is the supposed to be an overall framework for the development projects the RDC will propose, get approved, and implement over the term of the contract and subsequent renewals.

    To repeat: There cannot be a development contract without an approved master plan underlying it. Indeed, the contract specifically refers to it. Both are necessary conditions for the RDC’s continued existence as the riverfront developer.

    Currently, the master plan of record is the one drawn up by Cooper Robertson and Partners in 2001 and approved by City Council in May, 2002. Call it the 2002 Master Plan (capital letters). The development contract based on that plan was executed in early 2004. It comes up for renewal in 2014, but requires two years' notice of non-renewal.

    The problem

    By 2005, high-level officials of the RDC and within the City administration had realized that the 2002 Master Plan was very deeply flawed. Even worse, word of its flaws had leaked into the community at large, thanks in large measure to the grassroots organization Friends for Our Riverfront, which had, on its own, figured out these problems.

    The most obvious flaws had to do with the so-called “land bridge” and the lake it would create. If you want a refresher course, read this article. To summarize:

    1. The lake would have been an environmental disaster, trapping the runoff and pollution from most of North Memphis.

    2. The land bridge would have created a prestigious “new downtown” that competed with the old downtown, which by then was already languishing.

    3. The plan would have cost taxpayers $300 million or more to implement.

    Something had to be done, and swiftly, before things got too out of hand. The land bridge was the centerpiece of the 2002 Master Plan, so the proper thing to do would have been to go back to the drawing boards. But there wasn’t the time or money to draw up a new master plan.

    Regardless, doing so would have been a major embarrassment, calling into question the RDC’s own competence for having proposed the 2002 Master Plan in the first place.

    So in October of that year the RDC’s board decided to just delete the land bridge and lake from the plan. They got the City Council to ratify the decision in January, 2006. The Council’s resolution was a single sentence.

    Looking busy

    No pictures of the new, revised Master Plan (sans land bridge) were ever drawn up. That’s understandable because it would have been impossible if you really think about it. The erasure of the land bridge itself gutted more than half of the proposed development. Without the land bridge, much of the rest of the development made little, if any, sense. And if they didn’t develop the rest of it, Mud Island River Park would remain in place. (In the 2002 plan it was mostly bulldozed for new development.)

    The RDC needed to look busy. The only two pieces they could conceivably start working on were the Public Promenade and Beale Street Landing. The Public Promenade was very problematic. To do that plan the City would have had to file an eminent domain lawsuit taking the land away from the public domain. Politically speaking, that wasn’t very palatable.

    Therefore, Beale Street landing became the all-important project for RDC’s own continuing survival. It therefore took on a life of its own, and a direction that was markedly different from what was described the original 2002 Master Plan. In fact, it’s sucking the life out of the Cobblestone Landing right next to it.

    Even still, the BSL project would only carry the RDC at most through 2012. Their development contract comes up for renewal in 2014 and requires two years’ advance notice of non-renewal. That is cutting it too close.

    RDC tries to explain the Master Plan

    Their predicament became all too obvious in 2008, when Wanda Halbert and other new City Council members asked RDC for an explanation of the Master Plan. The transcript of that Parks Committee meeting can be read here, here and here.

    Hoping not to have to show the Master Plan’s drawings (which of course were obsolete), the RDC brought only three hard copies and produced them only when someone asked for them. Instead of showing pictures, they did a lot of hand waving and talked about the Master Plan being more of a “vision” than a specific plan.

    An aside: If the Master Plan is only a vision, who’s in charge of that vision? Whose vision is it going to be? Who owns it? Wanda Halbert’s comment at the end of the meeting got to the crux of the issue:
    HALBERT: I hope you all understand what I’m saying. This just does not appear to be a City project. This appears to be an RDC project. And the final comment that I have is, also during the budget hearing… I mean I asked the question because I didn’t know what this was. Who are you? Where did you come from? How long are you going to be here? How long are we going to be dealing with this? And you all said that the Master Plan was a 50 year plan, but we have five-year increments [of] contracts with RDC.

    I can understand putting together a concept that we think may take up to 50 years. But we hire the experts to come in and, here’s our direction, this is what we need to do, whether we agree to it together… But if this is going to be going on for 50 years, I mean even though we’re approving it five years, to me the City needs show, where is your ownership of this? What is the CITY’S direction? It’s just…that to me is where some of the confusion is coming from. I don’t see…what I see in you, the leadership in you and the expertise; I need to be seeing that for the City. And I’m missing that. And I’m going to talk to the Mayor, and I hope his administration is listening. They need to have ownership of this, and they need to tell us, where are we going with this. I mean, I’m feeling like other entities OWN the City’s business. And that’s just how it looks to me.

    Because this meeting was the RDC’s show-and-tell, Wanda Halbert and other City Council members did not get fully briefed on the quality of RDC’s “vision” e.g. the near-disastrous land bridge idea.

    MILUP to the rescue

    The RDC realized that sooner or later, the 2002 Master Plan would have to be put out to pasture, but, since their development authority rested upon it, that couldn’t be done until there was another plan to replace it. They needed a new plan that could serve as the basis of RDC’s development authority for the next 10 or 20 years, and could be turned into a pretty brochure for marketing purposes.

    That was the real purpose and intended outcome of the Mud Island Land Use Plan process. It only needed to be specific enough to qualify as the “new master plan,” and to serve as the basis for renewing their development contract when it comes up for renewal. A color-coded zoning map is easily specific enough. Too much specificity would unnecessarily tie the RDC’s hands.

    It was also important to be able to claim that this plan was the result of a true public process. That’s why the RDC held a six-month dog-and-pony show. But the public has been misled into thinking that the process would determine what will actually be built on Mud Island, if anything. In reality, the public was being used to legitimize the MILUP “zoning map,” which could then be used to re-legitimize the RDC itself.

    The final step in the RDC’s process (not the public one) is to get the City Council to approve this color-coded zoning map. Then the RDC’s problem will be very neatly solved. They will have a new master plan as a basis upon which they can renew their development contract for ten or twenty more years.

    * By the way, here’s an interesting factoid: Did you know that Benny Lendermon (president of the RDC) makes quite a bit more than the Mayor of the City? Lendermon’s cash salary is well over about $200,000, plus benefits. On top of that he also collects a City pension. The Mayor's base compensation is currently $171,500.

    If the RDC were really an arm of the City government, not a private corporation, would that $200,000-plus salary package be possible?

    Correction: According to the company's IRS filings for 2007-2008 (latest available to me), Mr. Lendermon's cash salary was $197,405, plus an employee pension plan contribution of $14,764.

    Further reading

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009

    Solution is simple and obvious

    My letter to the editor of the Commercial Appeal:

    You're right. Everyone wants the cobblestones preserved (Sept. 1 editorial, "Inflexibility and the riverfront"). But that's only half the job the Riverfront Development Corp. was supposed to do. The other half — restoring the riverboat landing — went by the wayside, conveniently forgotten. So let me remind you.

    The 2002 Riverfront Master Plan (approved unanimously by the City Council) said: "Restore the Cobblestones to their historic uniqueness, and establish them as a great commercial boat landing and civic square at the foot of Union Avenue...

    "A full restoration and retro-fit of the Cobblestones into a contemporary state-of-the-art riverboat landing with dining and retail opportunities is essential to the success of the Harbor. ..."

    Beale Street Landing was only part of the picture. In fact, it was needed for only the largest overnight riverboat cruises (no longer in business). But the RDC decided instead that the new dock would replace the historic Cobblestone Landing. They have already told the Memphis Queen Lines they'll have to use it.

    RDC asked the city to spend a total of $30 million for an artificiality that completely overshadows the historic area and has no relationship to Memphis history. And now it doesn't want to ask for the money (over what the feds gave them) to restore the historic Cobblestone Landing.

    When you and Jimmy Ogle say we are "inflexible" and ought to "compromise," you are ignoring the plain truth: With its half-baked plan, the RDC has already severely compromised the historic Cobblestone Landing — in favor of its new toy.

    The solution is simple and obvious: Slim down the $30 million plan for Beale Street Landing by, for example, getting rid of those pointless "islands." That's how you'll find the $5 million savings needed to do the right thing for our historic Cobblestone Landing.

    Friday, August 28, 2009

    National Historic Landmark

    The authors of the Garrow Report and others have recommended that Memphis nominate the Cobblestone Landing for designation as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). What does that mean?
    National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Today, fewer than 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction. Working with citizens throughout the nation, the National Historic Landmarks Program draws upon the expertise of National Park Service staff who work to nominate new landmarks and provide assistance to existing landmarks. [emphasis added]

    The benefits of a National Historic Landmark include enhanced prestige and tourism, and special access to Federal grants.

    Continues...Memphis currently has four National Historic Landmarks:
    It should be noted that NHL status can be withdrawn, and that Beale Street Historic District (designated in 1966) is currently in jeopardy. From the NPS website:
    Statement of Significance (as of designation - May 23, 1966):
    This district is recognized for its importance in the development and influence of the "blues," a unique Black contribution to American music. This popular musical style was born on a Beale Street lined with saloons, gambling halls, and theaters. William Christopher Handy (1878-1958), a preeminent figure in the establishment of composed blues, wrote "Memphis Blues" here.

    Deterioration, neglect of maintenance, and incompatible usage are threatening the landmark district.

    Recommendation/Change since last report:
    The city of Memphis should enforce maintenance of the historic buildings in the district by lease holders. The Tennessee State Historic Preservation Office has recommended an assessment of remaining cultural resources within the district.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    My additional comments for the public record

    Click the "Continues..." link below to see the text of my additional comments, submitted by email today to the U.S. Army Corps. My original statement is at this link.

    Continues...Public Information Meeting Comments - Cobblestone Landing
    U.S. Army Corps of Engineer
    Memphis District
    Attn: Mitch Elcon (
    167 North Main Street
    Room B-202
    Memphis, Tennessee 38103-1894

    Dear Sir:

    My additional comments, for the public record, are as follows:

    1. The RDC's "Historic Cobblestone Landing Restoration and Walkway Project" (the Plan) is fatally flawed and must go back to the drawing boards, for the following reasons, among others.

    2. Regardless of how they titled it, this Plan (by RDC's own statements) is clearly intended just to preserve the cobblestone-covered areas, not to preserve the historic Cobblestone Landing, which is today an active public wharf and landing for riverboat cruises.

    3. When the RDC claims the Plan offers "improved boat docking," that is a misleading statement by the standards of ordinary English. They mean "to dock" only in the incomplete sense of "to park" -- not for the loading and unloading of passengers and baggage.

    4. The Plan is directly contrary to the Riverfront Master Plan agreed to by City Council in 2002. It is questionable whether the RDC even has the authority to propose this Plan, much less to carry it out.

    5. Rip-rap is for erosion control, not for boat landings. Any boater can tell you that. The use of rip-rap in this plan is compelling if not prima facie evidence that the RDC intends to de-commission an active boat landing.

    6. The north-south walkway is inauthentic and obstructs the Cobblestone Landing's use as a boat landing.

    7. The RDC told City Council over a year ago they planned for the Memphis Queen Lines to board and de-board passengers at the (to-be-built) Beale Street Landing, but because of the Queen II's historic status they would probably have to let it dock (park) at the Cobblestones in between boarding times. I can produce an audio record and transcript of those statements.

    8. I question whether Federal transportation money can lawfully be used to shut down an active transportation facility, as is clearly the RDC's intention.

    9. Because RDC is a private company, not a government entity, it should always be compelled to testify under oath and penalty of law. It is not sufficient for the public to listen to marketing promises while viewing PowerPoint presentations.

    10. In 2007, TDOT allowed Beale Street Landing (BSL) to be approved over the strenuous objections of historic preservation specialists, such as TN-SHPO, following the questionable theory that BSL only impacted a small portion of the Cobblestone Landing where the two overlapped. If TDOT allows this Plan to decommission the Cobblestone Landing to go forward, it would amount to enshrining its own 2007 mistake, and would cause irreparable harm to Memphis historic preservation.

    Monday, August 24, 2009

    RDC bombshell: Misunderstanding — or bad faith?

    On August 11 at the public Cobblestone Landing meeting, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) left a quietly-ticking time bomb. In their meeting handouts was a revelation that was so stunning that they had sat on the news for seventeen months. Even now, they had buried it on page 27 — the very last page.

    This week, Memphis historic preservationists are coming to the realization that the RDC, it seems, had tried to usurp them all. The company had ignored the expert advice of the City’s consultants, and was even preparing to renege on a promise to City Council.

    In their own words, the RDC had "decided not to pursue designation" of the Cobblestone Landing as a National Historic Landmark. Their justification? The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) staff had told them it wasn’t eligible, said the RDC.

    But SHPO tells a somewhat different story about that meeting.


    The bombshell

    August 11 attendees were given close to 40 pages of handouts when they arrived, and the meeting began promptly. Even if they had tried to read them while Mr. Lendermon and others gave presentations, no one in the audience would have gotten to page 27 that night.

    There, on the last page, it said:
    Designation of the Cobblestone Landing as a National Historic Landmark

    The Historic Cobblestone Landing is currently on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Cotton Row Historic District. This objective was designed to give the landing increased status as a National Historic Landmark once it had been restored. However, in discussions with the Tennessee State Historic Preservation Office [SHPO] staff in March 2008, during a review of the conceptual design of the project, their staff stated that, in their opinions, the cobblestone area was not eligible as a National Historic Landmark. Thus, it was decided not to pursue such a designation. [emphasis added]

    [You can download their handout here as a 2.6 MB PDF.]

    Was SHPO giving RDC an advanced determination of the Cobblestones’ eligibility for listing? And if so, on what basis? They would apparently be contradicting the City-sponsored study in 1996 that had recommended pursuing Landmark status. What had changed?

    Had the SHPO staff actually even said what the RDC now claims?

    Not really — if you ask them. I contacted the Tennessee State Historic Preservation Officer (TN-SHPO) myself. He replied with this statement.
    Our National Register staff has stated that they believe doing a NHL nomination for the Memphis cobblestones will be difficult and may not be successful. However, I do not believe that we have been asked to make a formal determination about the cobblestones. The staff assessment is based on their discussions with the Southeast Region of the National Park Service (SERO) and their knowledge of what is necessary for a successful NHL nomination. [emphasis added]

    Everybody in the business knows that the nomination process is lengthy and difficult, and not guaranteed to be successful, so that’s not really big news.

    Furthermore, this wasn’t the proper forum to obtain such a determination. The nominating process starts and ends with the National Park Service. Tennessee’s SHPO staff would, in due course, be asked their opinion about the nomination, and there's no doubt their opinion would be very influential.

    Would SHPO be privately telling the RDC, before anyone had officially asked, that their opinion at some future point would be negative? I don’t think so. It would be improper.

    Could this all be a big misunderstanding on RDC’s part? After all, they don’t have a perfect track record when it comes to understanding history.

    Possibly a misunderstanding — but I think you also have to consider the background and context that might have influenced their thinking.

    Glass half empty

    The RDC is quick to remind you these days that the Cobblestones are in deplorable shape. "Sadly," they say, "the historic cobblestones have fallen into disrepair as they settled and sloughed at the toe,” as they show you the photo after photo of the blighted Landing, and even a picture of a man sinking to his chest in mud. (No mention, however, that the RDC has been responsible for the Cobblestones' upkeep for the past nine years.)

    On another page of their website entitled "The Need", they present a desolate photo of the Cobblestones and ask, “Is this how Memphis should greet her guests visiting from the river?” (In fact, it’s a page arguing the need for building Beale Street Landing — not for restoring the Cobblestones.)

    But that’s only the glass-half-empty version of the story. There is another version from the experts.

    The city-funded 1996 Garrow & Associates Memphis Landing Cultural Resources Assessment and Preservation Plan (the "Garrow Report," downloadable here) stated that the Memphis Landing — aka the Cobblestone Landing — is the best preserved of all the 19th century landings in the Mississippi River drainage basin.

    Unlike landings in other major cities, our Cobblestone Landing remains largely intact in its historic dimensions and physical composition. Later changes have not severed its contact with the city that it continues to serve to the present time. Every day, season permitting, Memphians and tourists use the Landing to board a riverboat for scenic cruise on the Mississippi. Four nights a week, there is a dinner cruise. Private boats also use the landing.

    On a national level, the Memphis Landing may best represent the significant national themes of 19th century river commerce and westward migration. As there are no resources listed as National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Garrow recommended that the nomination of the Cobblestone Landing as a National Historic Landmark be pursued.

    In addition, the Garrow Plan prescribed treatments that would minimize adverse effects that currently exist on the site or that may be imposed or proposed in the future.

    Promises made

    Since that time it has been an accepted truth in the Memphis historic preservation community that the Cobblestone Landing would be restored in a sensitive manner and nominated for listing on the register of National Historic Landmarks by the City.

    When the RDC took over the riverfront in 2000, the job of restoring the Cobblestones fell to them. But preservation wasn’t their biggest priority — they wanted to get busy building things. First they had to produce a Riverfront Master Plan. Then they immediately started on a plan for Beale Street Landing, then developed a Promenade Plan. So many millions of square feet to develop, so little time.

    Seven years later: If there was a Cobblestones plan it hadn’t been seen by anybody outside the RDC.

    In May 2007 — while still seeking final approvals for their Beale Street Landing design — RDC listed National Historic Register as their first objective when they presented their 5-year Capital Improvement Budget for the Cobblestones to City Council:
    This project provides funding for restoration and improvements to the historic Cobblestone Landing including designation on the National Historic Register, restoration of the cobblestones, installing sidewalks to the riverbank, underground utilities, and floating walkway. [emphasis added]

    Ten months later
    having just locked in the last BSL approvals they neededthe RDC showed their plans and objectives to SHPO. Apparently a listing on the National Historic Register wasn’t one of them. Neither was the floating walkway.

    Unveiled: "Half" a plan

    The RDC went to SHPO in March 2008 with a “conceptual plan,” not very different than the one they presented to the public on August 11 of this year. (If you want, you can review that draft at this link.)

    In their design, they wanted to split the cobblestones in half lengthwise with a sidewalk/retaining wall (underwater half the year). They wanted to fill in the waterside half of the landing with rip-rap — a cheap material that's used for erosion control but not for boat landings.

    Half a plan — at half the cost?

    Presumably they had estimates that this design would fit within the budget they already had in the bank, so to speak — about $5.5 million of Federal money and another million or so from the City.

    By then, the RDC must also have had an inkling that any plan to restore the Landing properly (without the rip-rap) might cost several million more. It would require them either to raise more Federal money, or to go to the City Council for a larger budget for the Cobblestones project.

    And that could endanger the budget they were counting on to finish Beale Street Landing — most of the balance of which, though budgeted, still has to be appropriated by the City Council.

    If they already knew all of this by the end of 2007, they probably saw it as a Hobson’s choice: Finish Beale Street Landing, as designed, with all those “islands” — or put it at risk by restoring the Cobblestones properly. In that context, with that mindset, you might almost understand how they could be told one thing but hear something else.

    What the RDC officials were actually told was not really such surprising news. The surprising part was the following stark assertion by the RDC on August 11 handout:
    Thus, it was decided not to pursue such a designation.

    "It was decided" by a private company whose middle name is “Development,” who quietly took it upon itself to make such a momentous choice on behalf of all Memphis, and then said nothing about it, even to stakeholders, for seventeen months.

    Now that’s stunning news.

    Further reading

    Monday, August 17, 2009

    A new plan for our Great Memphis Landing

    For a little change of pace, I’m going to offer something positive. I am going to present a solution: A five-point plan to fix the riverfront problems, making the best of what we already have, and having a good shot at something we can enjoy and be proud of in the future.

    More good news: We might be able to pay for it within the amount we’ve already budgeted.

    My plan consists of five simple principles. I can’t give you drawings because I’m not a designer. But I think you can get the general picture from these five principles. I’m a great believer in working from principles and objectives. I know the importance of getting them right from the start, and then abiding by them.

    1. Re-adopt the objectives and priorities of the Master Plan.

    Our goal should be to
    Restore the Cobblestones to their historic uniqueness, and establish them as a great commercial boat landing and civic square at the foot of Union Avenue.

    More specifically,
    A full restoration and retro-fit of the Cobblestones into a contemporary state-of-the-art riverboat landing with dining and retail opportunities is essential to the success of the Harbor. This Harbor is the place where river life will come to rest in Memphis.

    It shouldn’t have been necessary to say that. The above words are quoted directly from the 2002 Riverfront Master Plan, as approved by City Council, and presumably still in effect. The Master Plan also defined quite clearly the proper relationship of Beale Street Landing (BSL) to our historic landmark: as an adjunct, not a replacement.

    But the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) chose to ignore the Master Plan, before the ink was hardly dry, and steered the projects their own way. This time, the project's goals will need to be explicitly stated and explicitly agreed to. Otherwise, let the RDC itself go their own way, and let someone else take charge.

    2. Redesign BSL and Cobblestone areas together, as one Great Memphis Landing.

    Let's face reality: To accomplish these goals, both the Beale Street Landing and the Cobblestone Landing plans will require re-thinking and a fresh design. This time, however, let there be single, unified plan for a restored Great Memphis Landing, with historic and more modern (Beale Street Landing) areas.

    Yes, we can re-design BSL, and now is the opportune moment. We might still be stuck with the red steel boat dock and helical ramp. But the “islands”, terraces, restaurant, gift shop, terminal, and parking lot have not yet been started, and depend on yet-to-be-appropriated City funding. They should all be on the table for re-consideration in the new design.

    This time, we should use local designers. We are not lacking for professional talent and vision here in Memphis. Our problem is that we tie their hands with wrong-headed, misguided requirements.

    3. We must rebuild the lower portion of the Cobblestone Landing properly.

    As Benny Lendermon said in the August 11 public meeting, almost nobody objects to the repair and restoration of the Cobblestones themselves. But there is a huge difference between standing around looking at some old cobblestones, and actually using a historic Cobblestone Landing to board a riverboat for a cruise on the Mississippi, or to launch your own canoe.

    The real objective should be to restore the Cobblestone Landing, hopefully for another 150 years of continuous use. That will entail rebuilding the lower portion with concrete and other materials – not cheap rip-rap – and the use of a coffer dam at an (alleged) $5 million of extra cost.

    So be it – and here's how to get the money.

    4. Remove those “islands” from the design, and recoup $5M.

    The terraces might well remain in the new design, but those awful “islands”? They. Must. Go.

    However you feel about them, the islands (or “pods” as they've been called) are the biggest part of the problem with the original Beale Street Landing design. They dominate the view, distort the riverscape, and overpower the historic Cobblestone Landing – while bearing no relationship whatsoever to the Memphis riverfront and its history.

    By getting rid of them, we might also save the $5 million needed to restore the Cobblestone Landing properly.

    Furthermore, we might avoid some significant security problems. Looking at the drawings gives me nightmares of falling children. One can see opportunities for late-night muggers and errant skateboarders. Do we need to bring those problems on ourselves?

    5. Consider treating MIRP and its riverboat landing as resources and perhaps part of an integrated solution.

    When BSL planning started in 2002, it was thought that Mud Island River Park (MIRP) and its own boat landing would eventually be gone, covered over by a land bridge, and that BSL was to be its replacement. That land bridge has since been aborted from the Master Plan.

    Even though we knew in 2006 that it was no longer needed, the City stood passively by and allowed the RDC to redouble its efforts to get the $30 million Beale Street Landing built. RDC needed its big project to justify its continued existence.

    Therefore, with this opportunity for a do-over, it makes sense that we now consider Mud Island River Park to be part of the resources we have to work with. Indeed, perhaps the current planning process for the future of MIRP should be suspended if necessary to dovetail with the Great Memphis Landing design.

    Next steps for this plan

    What can you do?

    1. Submit a comment on the Cobblestone Landing proposal (click here for PDF form). Make a point of telling the Army Corps of Engineers and TDOT that you want it to continue as a fully-functioning riverboat landing. Therefore, the lower part of the landing must be rebuilt properly, not filled in with cheap rip-rap. The Landing must not be broken in two by a retaining wall and pointless underwater sidewalk. Get your comments postmarked by September 1 for them to be considered.

    Note: Mitch Elcan of the Army Corps has told Friends for Our Riverfront that he will also accept emailed comments for the record. When you write him, I'd appreciate getting a copy, too.

    The period for public comments is closed.

    2. Contact your City Council person. Ask them to sponsor a resolution adopting the above five principles, and denying further funding until both projects are redesigned according to those principles.

    3. Ask the Mayoral candidates what they intend to do about our 10-year riverfront fiasco. If they express strong support for the status quo (the RDC), it tells you something about who their friends really are, and how independent they'd really be if elected Mayor.

    4. Forward this link to your friends. Recommend they read the other articles on this site. The best of the articles are linked in the sidebar under Important Questions.

    5. Do you know any of these people? Ask them why they sit idly by and allow the RDC to decommission our historic Cobblestone Landing after 150 years of continuous use. Ask them why they think it's so much more important to have this instead.

    Sunday, August 16, 2009

    The "islands"

    Whether you think they look like urban art, giant bustiers, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or a championship skate park, those "pods" or "islands" are going to be the most prominent feature of the still-under-construction Beale Street Landing. They are also being paid for by you, with up to $20 million of your city taxes. (The red boat dock was mostly financed with $10.9 million of State and Federal grants.)

    Birds-eye view of main and second pods, at Riverside and Beale. A game of Putt-Putt golf, anyone?

    Main pod is above and behind your left shoulder. You're looking south. Do you see any security risks?

    Near the top of the helical ramp, looking north. Hanging Gardens of Babylon?

    The helical ramp, as if seen from a big riverboat. Does the word "cheesy" come to mind?

    Saturday, August 15, 2009

    I get a mention

    Cobblestones Under Glass, by John Branston:
    5. The plain fact, as RDC critic and the riverfront's institutional memory Michael Cromer and others have noted, is that "development" is the RDC's middle name. Without a big project, there is little need for a quasi-public agency to beautify and maintain the riverfront parks and build a roundabout on Mud Island. The RDC's original big table had four legs: founder Kristi Jernigan, the master plan featuring the aborted land bridge, Beale Street Landing, and Mayor Willie Herenton and his buddies. Three of those are gone. But thanks to Beale Street Landing and the cobblestones, the RDC can probably hang on for a few more years.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009

    My four take aways

    The audio and main handout from last night's meeting can be found at this earlier post. My initial thoughts? I think there were four main things I took away from the meeting.

    1. You remember that silly sidewalk that runs along the western edge of the Cobblestone Landing -- and helps destroy its continued use as a boat landing? Mr. Lendermon confirms that the sidewalk will be under water about half the year. (He didn't say what part of the year that sidewalk will overlook a field of rip-rap.)

    That silly, underwater sidewalk.

    2. The bullet that suggests the plan will "Continuation of and improvements to the docking of boats?" Mr. Lendermon and Captain Lozier confirmed that the word "docking" should be parsed in a very narrow sense: Parking of the Memphis Queen Lines riverboats when they are not in use. They will board and unload at Beale Street Landing.

    3. Mr. Lendermon confirmed that the two acres of cobblestones that the City carted away in 1994 haven't really been lost. They are stored on a City dump somewhere and will be brought back when their time comes.

    Doing it on the cheap

    The first three points were not the biggest news to me. But the fourth item was a great revelation. As a "take-away," it took my breath away.

    It turns out that the RDC considered and dismissed the alternative of doing the job right. Restoring the lower part of the Landing with anything other than rip-rap would require building a coffer dam to dry the area out. That would cost an additional $5 million. Whereas, rip-rap can be applied "wet" (i.e., dumped into the water) and is itself much cheaper than concrete or other materials.

    That $5 million savings could go into, say, building bustier-like "islands" for Beale Street Landing, which is a bigger priority since those islands will no doubt attract so many tourists to the City.

    Artist's conception of the tourist magnets.

    Further reading

    Audio and handouts from the meeting

    If you weren't able to attend Tuesday night's public meeting about the Cobblestone Landing, I've posted links below for you to listen to the audio and obtain some of the handouts.

    Update: A warm welcome to visitors sent here from Memphis Heritage! Before you leave, please also see A new plan for our Great Memphis Landing, and do click on some of the Important Questions in the sidebar to your right.

    RDC Handout

    Click this link to download the RDC's handout from the meeting [PDF, 2.7 MB]. It's a 27-page document that appears to be an illustrated script for the RDC presentation of their plan. (Hardcopies were handed out at the meeting.)

    Note that the document doesn't bear the logos or names of Tetra Tech (environmental engineers), Ritchie Smith Associates (urban landscape architects), or Clark Dixon Associates (architects), who have all been consultants to RDC on this project. If it had borne their "signatures", then you could be sure that those consultants would have reviewed this document before release.

    Since their names do not appear, the document would seem to have been written internally by RDC, and may or may not be completely accurate. As we have already seen, the RDC's marketing department doesn't always read consultant reports with as much thoroughness as might be deserved. Indeed, the same historical mistake (cobblestones as ballast) reappeared on page 2 of this handout -- until someone at the RDC noticed my mention of it here, and edited the document.

    It is the first time the general public has seen this level of detailed information. Other versions of the material have been circulating among the "stakeholders" for about 18 months, but haven't been on the RDC Web site or in the public's hands, until the people walked in the door of the meeting last night. So you can imagine that the public audience was already well-briefed and fully-prepared to discuss and debate the details of the Plan. Not.

    One thing you will not find in the handout document is any discussion of the alternatives. By law and regulation, however, the permitting process does require the applicant to expose and discuss the alternatives. If you want to know about the alternatives, you'll have to listen to the audio below. They're mentioned in passing near the end of Part 3.

    Audio recording

    I recorded the entire meeting from my seat in the audience. Because the meeting was so long (almost two hours), I have broken the MP3 down into seven more convenient, logical sections.

    Official, pre-addressed comment form

    There are still (as of 8/20) 11 days remaining in the comment period. If you get your comments postmarked by September 1, they will be included in the official transcript, and presumably considered by the regulators before issuing permits. I've scanned their official, pre-addressed comment form and made it into a PDF, which you can download at this link.

    Note: Mitch Elcan of the Army Corps has told Friends for Our Riverfront that he will also accept emailed comments for the record. When you write him, I'd appreciate getting a copy, too.

    Killer Rip-Rap

    Rip-rap (aka riprap) is used for erosion control, not boat landings. It is a layer of jagged rubble that absorbs and deflects the waves that would otherwise wear down the shoreline.

    It is not used for boat landings. Any boater will tell you that you land on rip-rap at your own risk. Rip-rap can even sink barges, as happened in a recent incident at Tom Lee Park (below).

    Memphis Flyer, August 13:
    "Access for whom?" is a question that likely came up at the public meeting. Recreational boaters would like to land their canoes and kayaks at the cobblestones, but fear they will be excluded from them and Beale Street Landing. Expect to hear a lot about riprap in the coming days.

    One recent boating event did not go well. The powerboat regatta hosted by the RDC July 31st through August 2nd was plagued by bad weather and spotty marketing. There was also the matter of a barge, owned by the Memphis Yacht Club and used for parties and Memphis in May activities. A spokesman for the club says the RDC borrowed a blacktop barge, approximately 30 feet by 12 feet, for the powerboat people to use as a platform to take pictures and movies. It was moved to the south tip of Mud Island, a muddy sandbar suitable for landing a barge. But for some reason, possibly to get a better vantage point, the barge was moved by a police boat to the other side of the harbor, along the riprap and cobblestones.

    There it sat, until wave action pushed it over some sharp rocks. The barge sprang a leak and sank. No one was aboard. As of Monday afternoon, it was still at the bottom of the harbor. The yacht club is trying to work out responsibility for salvaging it with the RDC, the powerboat people, and the police department.

    "There are so many hands in this darn thing that it's hard to figure out responsibility," said the yacht club spokesman. "All we know is that it wasn't us. We know how not to sink our barge. We're probably talking $5,000 to float and fix the thing."

    What rip-rap looks like. Not healthy for boats.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    My remarks at today's public meeting

    In 1994, the City was caught, red-handed, carting away over two acres of Cobblestones from the exact location that will soon be covered up by Beale Street Landing. By a Memorandum of Agreement, the City was forced to bring in archeologists and historians to study the situation, make an assessment, and give recommendations—lest there be any further carnage to our history.

    The result was the Garrow Report. In their 1996 report, those historians said, and I quote:
    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.

    Perceptively, these historians also noted that, from the 1930s on, "the City of Memphis saw the Landing as a nuisance rather than an asset." Those writers had hoped that their study would mark a change in the City's attitude, and a newfound respect for the greatest cultural landmark in this City.

    Unfortunately that would not be the case, and so, here we stand today.

    This is not an issue of preservation, per se. The City knows that it must preserve what remains of the Cobblestones, because they are a protected landmark and part of the Cotton Row Historic District. Nuisance or not, the City must finally live up to promises it has made for decades.

    It is really an issue about preserving an historic, functioning riverboat landing, one which is still in use to this very day. That is what makes our Cobblestones different from similar cobblestones around the world.

    It has been over 150 years since the first Cobblestones were laid. They've seen much wear and tear as thousands of riverboats have come to the Landing to load and unload both people and cargo. The City has done precious little in recent years to protect and preserve them. But in spite of that neglect, the Cobblestone Landing still remains in use by Memphians and visitors as they embark on cruises up and down the Mississippi.

    The City's plan tells us, in essence, that to save the Cobblestones we must de-commission them as a boat landing. (Oh yes, and by the way they're building a new red steel boat dock down the river.)

    To save the Cobblestones, they say we must build a sheetpile bulkhead retaining wall, and fill the lower area with rip-rap. Simple common sense tells you that retaining walls, sidewalks, and rip-rap will destroy its ability to continue as a functioning riverboat landing.

    But it is pointless to argue those points, because they are based on a faulty assumption. What is really wrong with this plan is that it has the wrong objective to begin with.

    This plan aims only to preserve the Cobblestones as if they were a museum relic—"cobbles under glass" if you will—something to be seen but not to be used. So long as that remains the plan's objective, then the City can hire a parade of consultants and experts to tell you all about the benefits of sheetpile bulkheads, retaining walls, and rip-rap.

    The City knows full well what the objective should be. It was clearly stated in the 2002 Riverfront Master Plan:
    Restore the Cobblestones to their historic uniqueness, and establish them as a great commercial boat landing and civic square at the foot of Union Avenue.

    If those words aren't clear enough, I can quote more passages from that same Master Plan. They would leave no doubt in your mind about the importance of preserving the Cobblestone Landing as a boat landing. Importance seen, that is, by all but the City and their contractors, the RDC.

    Some of us warned TDOT and SHPO about this two years ago, when the plan for Beale Street Landing was still under review. We said that you cannot properly consider the historical impact of the Beale Street Landing design without also having a Cobblestone Landing plan before you. But TDOT and SHPO chose to consider Beale Street Landing by itself, and to consider the Cobblestone area only at the margins.

    And so here we are today. The City wants to shut the Landing down in favor of their new boat dock at Beale Street. "Who could have predicted?" I ask, sarcastically.

    The solution is simple.

    TDOT and SHPO must insist that the RDC explicitly re-adopt the goals and objectives that were stated in their own 2002 Riverfront Master Plan, and that were approved by the Memphis City Council in 2002. Then they, the RDC, must go back to the drawing boards. They must consult their experts again, giving them the correct objective, not the faulty one.

    With the correct objective in mind, any competent expert will tell them exactly what they need to do. In all probability, much of the plan will remain unchanged. But I can assure you with confidence that that the rip-rap and the sheetpile bulkhead retaining wall will magically disappear from the plan.



    Notice of Public Meeting:
    The Riverfront Development Corporation, on behalf of the City of Memphis, and in coordination with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, will conduct a Public Meeting that will be held on August 11, 2009 from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM at The Balinese Ballroom, 330 N. Main Street, Memphis, TN 38103.

    The City of Memphis is proposing to construct the Cobblestone Landing and improvements project, located in Memphis, Shelby County, TN. The project is being constructed to stabilize the lower edge of the cobblestones, restore the cobblestone field, and provide improved accessibility to the Cobblestone Landing.

    There will be a formal presentation, an opportunity to view various sketches, and a question and answer period. The public is invited to use this opportunity to express their opinions concerning this project as part of the public record or, if they prefer, to make comments directly to the court reporter. Representatives from Riverfront Development Corporation will be present to provide information relative to the general scope of the project, major design features, environmental and historic impacts of the project, tentative schedules for construction, and any other matters of public interest. TDOT representatives will be available to discuss the environmental documentation process. Questions or comments regarding this meeting may be directed to the following offices:

    Continues...Mr. Joe W. Matlock, TDOT
    Transportation Planner, Region IV
    NEPA Documentation Office
    James K Polk Bldg, Suite 900
    505 Deaderick Street
    Nashville, TN 37243
    (615) 741-5365

    Mr. John Conroy, P.E.
    Vice President, Project Development
    Riverfront Development Corporation
    22 North Front Street, Suite 960
    Memphis, TN 38103
    (901) 312-9190

    Persons having a disability that will require assistance to participate at the Public Meeting may contact Ms. Brenda Adair at (901) 312-9190, Fax (901) 312-9189, or by e-mail at, ten (10) days prior to the date of the meeting.

    Comment sheets will be available for attendees to submit written statements. A court reporter will also be available to receive oral statements to be included in the official project transcript. Written statements and other exhibits in place of, or in addition to these, to be included in the project transcript may be submitted within twenty-one (21) days after the meeting date to the address of Mr. John Conroy, P.E. [at Riverfront Development Corporation] stated above.