Saturday, June 27, 2009

Facebook page for Memphis Cobblestones

I've established new Facebook page as a companion to this site. If you are on Facebook, please become a fan.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BSL Phase II/III update

The winning bid of $9.6 million for the Beale Street Landing steelwork was submitted by a local company, LCI Inc. The contract will be awareded in July or August. Work on Phase II should resume shortly as the Mississippi waters recede.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beale Street Landing to be named after Willie Herenton?

It was December 10, 2007. Benny Lendermon was giving the RDC's Executive Committee an update on the status of Beale Street Landing (BSL). Attendees included Chairman Greg Duckett, Pete Aviotti, John Pontius, Rick Masson, John Stokes, Angus McEachran, and Terry Lynch.

"A lot has happened since our last EC meeting," he told the assembled movers and shakers.

Continues... There had been meetings with Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO). Lendermon and others had followed up by meeting with the Shelby County Historical Commission, the Memphis Landmarks Commission, and Memphis Heritage.

Based on the feedback, the RDC had agreed to three key alterations to BSL's design:
  • The steelwork (helical ramp and docking barges) would be a toned-down rust red instead of bright red.
  • There would be more historical interpretation (signs).
  • The largest "Pod A" at the foot of Beale Street would be moved 42 feet closer to Riverside Drive.
As to the southern-most portion of the Cobblestone Landing—an area that Lendermon termed an "unkempt wasteland"—he said there was agreement that BSL should cover over it.

The next steps: Wait for the letter approval from TDOT/SHPO, and obtain the pro forma approval of Landmarks. Benny predicted that they could ask for bids on Phase I of the project shortly after the the first of the new year.

John Stokes chimed in, pointing out that there had been the "rare direct involvement" of the Mayor and Pete Aviotti in lobbying Governor Bredeson. "Lots of behind-the-scenes activity," he said. "Senator Kyle pitched in and got involved, too."

Pete Aviotti, the Mayor's personal assistant and an ex officio member of the RDC Board, was present at this EC meeting. He now spoke up.

"I don't know, this may be a little early. If so, then take it as just a suggestion," he said to the group. "I think we should rename it the Willie Herenton Beale Street Landing."

Apparently it was indeed a little early, because Chairman mumbled a few nice words and then he punted on Aviotti's idea.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Big Switch: How the riverfront strategy quietly changed

The City Council authorizing resolution for Beale Street Landing and every annual budget proposal the RDC has placed before the City Council has included some variation of the the following language:

This project provides funding for the first major project in the implementation of the Riverfront Master Plan approved by the City Council in May of 2002. [1][Emphasis added]

What few people in and out of government yet realize is this: The project plan for Beale Street Landing (not to mention the draft plan for the historic Cobblestone Landing), actually deviates from the 2002 Master Plan in strategic ways.

Continues... The Master Plan's vision would have restored the Cobblestone Landing to what it has been for more than 150 years — an active, vibrant commercial boat landing and great civic space — with Beale Street Landing serving as an adjunct. The changed strategy makes BSL the center of all riverboat activity, and only plans to repair and preserve the Cobblestones as a museum relic. Current designs for the historic area would make it difficult if not impossible to ever again use it as a boat landing.

This change in strategy was never explicitly authorized by City Council, for the simple reason that the fact of the change was never pointed out to them. Council members were presented with a plan (footnoted as above), and they simply assumed that it followed the vision of the Riverfront Master Plan.

The Bait

In May, 2002, the City Council unanimously approved the Memphis Riverfront Master Plan. The seventh of Master Plan's ten design principles set this goal:

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.[2][Emphasis added]

Lest there be any doubt about its meaning, the Master Plan went on to say:

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.[3]

The Master Plan said that a new boat dock would need to be built at south end, the foot of Beale Street, "to accommodate the largest commercial riverboats, and facilities for passengers with baggage and local transportation needs".

If you looked at the Master Plan's drawings, you could easily understand why a Beale Street Landing was deemed necessary in 2002: The land bridge component would have bulldozed the existing Mud Island landing used by the largest riverboats.

Nevertheless, the Master Plan assured us that the "[Cobblestone Landing at the] main body of the Harbor accommodates local, commercial, recreational, and private boat needs."[4] Beale Street Landing was necessary, but it was not intended to be a replacement for the historic Cobblestone Landing, which should be restored to its former glory and then some.

The land bridge has since long since been taken out of the Master Plan, and the Mud Island Landing is still in operable condition, though empty. Why is it empty? Because the large commercial riverboat operators have since gone out of the business.

Some might justifiably argue that Beale Street Landing is no longer necessary.

Drawing from the Master Plan, featuring the Cobblestone Landing. A pedestrian bridge is centrally located at Union avenue. Beale Street Landing (as then envisioned) on the lower right. The land bridge (upper left) fills in the upper harbor, and Mud Island River Park is mostly replaced (except for the river walk).

The Switch

The RDC released the Preliminary Design Competition Program for Beale Street Landing (BSL), a document that would tell the competitors what they needed to accomplish with their submitted designs, in January, 2003. This was only eight months after the City Council had approved the Master Plan, yet it could already be seen that RDC officials had veered sharply from the Master Plan in their thinking.

The stated goals for Beale Street Landing were the same as Master Plan's for the Cobblestone Landing, but it would be located at Beale Street instead of at Union Avenue. They were, to quote:

To create a unique public space and destination at the end of Beale Street linking the grid of the city to the riverfront and Tom Lee Park, Memphis' major event and festival venue.

To function as a world-class docking facility capable of accommodating large river cruise vessels, excursion boats, and pleasure craft.[5][Emphasis added].

In the Master Plan's vision, BSL would only be servicing the largest commercial riverboats, yet this document enumerated four types of boats that would need to be accommodated. They ranged from the largest, 700-foot river vessels (e.g. the now dry-docked Delta Queen), down to "pleasure craft" of under 50 feet.[6]

Between those extremes, BSL was also to be "a point of arrival and departure for local excursion boats such as those in the Memphis Queen Lines fleet" — which have long docked at the Cobblestones.

Borrowing from Cobblestone Landing ideas and language of the Master Plan, Beale Street Land was to be:

a civic plaza, forming an appropriate terminus for Beale Street, connecting Tom Lee Park and the Cobblestone Landing, creating a dramatic overlook for riverfront activities for walkers, joggers, cyclists, and casual river watchers; and to accommodate public gatherings and performances.[7][Emphasis added]

The land area made available to the project had more than doubled from what the Master Plan's drawings showed, and the winning design used every inch. It now included a portion of the Cobblestones area, as well as a significant piece of Tom Lee Park. The budget for the project had grown from $10.4 million to "$15-20 million." (The latest report from the RDC puts it at just over $30 million.)

If Beale Street Landing was to be all of the above-stated things, then what would become of the historic Cobblestone Landing? The Competition Program said this:

The [BSL] project site is adjacent to an expanse of cobblestones that was formed and used during the heyday of the cotton industry in Memphis. That cobblestone area is on the National Historic Register and the RDC has plans to commission a rehabilitation project for the cobblestones (which are in need of repair) in the near future.[8][Emphasis added]

Instead of being restored as "a great commercial boat landing and civic square," the Cobblestones would merely need to be "rehabilitated." And what of that "near future"? It would be five years before anyone outside of the RDC and its consultants would see an early draft of the Cobblestones project plan.

Outside exposure of this February, 2008 draft was limited to identified "stakeholders" -- organizations with a special interest, such as Memphis Heritage and Friends for Our Riverfront -- and other groups that would eventually have to approve the plan, such as the State Historic Preservation Organization (a part of TDOT).

Today, almost 18 months later, the general public still hasn't seen a draft of that plan.

Updated August 5, 2009: The RDC has recently posted a single page, with a single drawing from the latest version of the plan, apparently in anticipation of a public information meeting to be held August 11.

Further reading

1. 2010-2014 Capital Improvements Program, Riverfront Development, May 6, 2009. [PDF, 29 KB]
2. Cooper, Robertson & Partners, Memphis Riverfront Master Plan, March 2002, p.24 (as printed).
3. Master Plan, p.32.
4. Master Plan, p.32-33.
5. Tetra Tech, Inc., Beale Street Landing: Preliminary Design Competition Program, January 2003, p.3. [Download complete document as PDF, 3.83 MB]
6. Competition Program, p.7.
7. Competition Program, p.7.
8. Competition Program, p.7.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Halbert asks Lendermon about the Cobblestones

At the full City Council Meeting on June 16, 2009, with respect to the final approval of the 2010 City budget, Councilperson Wanda Halbert had some questions for Benny Lendermon of the Riverfront Development Corporation regarding the Master Plan, the Cobblestones, and the use of Federal money.

Halbert's questions centered around two concerns: (1) Have there been changes between the original Master Plan, approved by City Council in 2002, and the current plan for the Cobblestones project? And, (2) Are there Federal monies involved and how might any such changes affect, or be affected by, such funding?

Continues... Below is a transcript of their exchange.

WANDA HALBERT: There's a Master Plan. And I've asked questions about that and at some point we're going to have to talk about that Master Plan, but there have been some changes that have occurred. With those changes, with that Master Plan have we collected federal monies for some of the projects that have been involved?

BENNY LENDERMON: The Master Plan includes a list of a number of possible projects that the City can opt to pursue or not pursue. And this Council has chosen to pursue some of those projects that have included Federal funds.

HALBERT: When we secure those Federal funds for the projects, if there is a change, are there any requirements?

LENDERMON: The Council totally dictates what we do or don't do. The Master Plan was approved by City Council, but the projects come individually to you and you choose to do the project or not. And to be perfectly honest, it doesn't make any difference. If you want to do a project in Master Plan or do a project not in Master Plan, you have the ability to do that.

HALBERT: The reason I asked the question: Normally when you receive funding from government, historically it's usually specified what you are going to use that funding for. The question came up to me and I didn't know how to answer it -- I think it was particularly the cobblestone project -- that we received some federal funding along with our local funding and some changes were made from the initial Master Plan, so the question then was asked of me, can you change a project that you have submitted to the Federal government to secure funding?

LENDERMON: I understand the question better. The Federal funds we receive are for...are targeted to specific projects, have nothing to do with what's in the Master Plan. Which you request. And you've received funds for specifically Beale Street Landing, you received funds for Cobblestones, we've recieved funds for a couple of other projects. The federal funds have certain stipulations tied to them. I don't think there's [unintelligible] within our original request from the fed. government, which dictates what those funds can be used for. Specifically on the cobblestones, understanding where the question is probably coming from now, there's some disagreement where...what is to be done on the cobblestones.

There will be, there's been a lot of discussion already. We were in Nashville 2-3 weeks ago meeting with the State Historic Preservation Office, Federal Highway, TN Department of Transportation. There will be at least one public meeting in this city, which we will talk about that again. There are some preliminary plans, which we [would] like to do, talking about how we deal with the cobblestones. Some people have issues with that. There will be a public forum for discussing that. The City Council will probably get a chance to review that at least twice before we move forward and give your input to make sure you are satisfied with what we are doing. And bottom line is whatever we do has to be in accordance with what the federal government gave us the money to do.

HALBERT: Correct. And just as a final caveat: I'm going to support this budget. But when there are changes in that Master Plan or any designs that the City Council has previously approved, we need to have in committee the specifics of those changes as a request to the Council, not necessarily tied up in the funding amount, because, being here relatively...a year and half, I'm not exactly sure what the history is all about, but there seems to be some external concerns and some decisions have been changing from the initial concept.

LENDERMON: That will all come back to...I guess it will be to Councilman Strickland's committee. At the point in time when this project goes forward and those changes will be there which some of you may want to embrace or not embrace or change or whatever, but we do nothing without Council approval.

Summary: As to the first question, Mr. Lendermon suggested that any differences between the Master Plan and the project plan(s) shouldn't matter, since the City Council has the opportunity to specifically approve each project plan.

As to the second question, Mr. Lendermon said that several projects have received Federal funding. He made it clear that Federal funding and any stipulations therein, would be tied to the project itself, not to the Master Plan. Therefore, changes if any from the Master Plan would have no bearing. It only matters whether the project plan itself meets the stipulations and requirements of such funding.

Ms. Halbert then made the point that City Council needs to be specifically informed about changes in plans, whether between the Master Plan and the project plan, or in subsequent versions of a previously-approved project plan. Mr. Lendermon assured her that City Council would have the opportunity to "embrace or not embrace change or whatever."

What is not clear from Mr. Lendermon's answer is whether there have been previous instances of projects that incorporated substantive changes vis-a-vis the 2002 Master Plan, and if so, whether City Council was specifically informed about the changes before approving them.

In this writer's opinion, Beale Street Landing is one such an instance. I do not believe it was ever pointed out to City Council that Beale Street Landing deviates in key respects from the Master Plan of 2002. Rather, the City Council was repeatedly told that the project carried out the vision of the Master Plan they had already approved.

Had these changes from the Master Plan been pointed out to the Council members, would they still have approved Beale Street Landing?

Furthermore, the "draft" plan for the Cobblestone area incorporates the same changes from the vision of the Master Plan, and gives finality to them. If City Council approves the plans substantially as they are now, the deviations from the Master Plan will be "cast in concrete" (pun intended).