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.

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