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It should be noted that NHL status can be withdrawn, and that Beale Street Historic District (designated in 1966) is currently in jeopardy.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.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dead Cobblestones Week

It's Elvis week, when thousands of his fans come to Memphis each year to celebrate his memory.

Put yourself in their shoes and imagine this scenario: Suppose you arrive at Graceland only to find it locked up. You are unable to gain entrance, but you can walk around it on a sidewalk and view it from the perimeter. Signage tells you that the Mansion has been closed in order to better preserve it.

Instead going inside the mansion, you are redirected to a brand-new museum next door, where you will supposedly find replicas of Graceland's interiors.

Only they aren't actually replicas. They are interpretations of what Elvis's home might have looked like if it had been built today, using red steelwork and five, bustier-like "islands".

Even though it doesn't really look like Graceland Mansion, you are assured by your guides that it is a "world class" design. After all, it was conceived by some Argentinians, and selected by a jury* from among from many entries.

* The jury of seven included only three Memphians: Willie Herenton (a mayor), Diane Dixon (an architect), and Kristi Jernigan (a developer, who has since moved away).

The Scorpion and the Frog

This is one of my favorite children's fables, but I did not learn it as a child. I first heard the story in the movie The Crying Game.

I believe there are very few people in the world who are truly the essence of evil and might deserve our hatred. There are many people who do things that hurt us, and if it seems intentional (not an accident or mistake), perhaps our natural reaction would be to hate them for it and call them "evil." But that so rarely accomplishes anything.

When someone hurts me and I don't know why, I try to think of the following story and consider whether it might apply to the situation.

The Scorpion and the Frog

One day, a scorpion looked around at the mountain where he lived and decided that he wanted a change. So he set out on a journey through the forests and hills. He climbed over rocks and under vines and kept going until he reached a river.

The river was wide and swift, and the scorpion stopped to reconsider the situation. He couldn't see any way across. So he ran upriver and then checked downriver, all the while thinking that he might have to turn back.

Suddenly, he saw a frog sitting in the rushes by the bank of the stream on the other side of the river. He decided to ask the frog for help getting across the stream.

"Hellooo Mr. Frog!" called the scorpion across the water, "Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the river?"

"Well now, Mr. Scorpion! How do I know that if I try to help you, you wont try to kill me?" asked the frog hesitantly.

"Because," the scorpion replied, "If I try to kill you, then I would die too, for you see I cannot swim!"

Now this seemed to make sense to the frog. But he asked. "What about when I get close to the bank? You could still try to kill me and get back to the shore!"

"This is true," agreed the scorpion, "But then I wouldn't be able to get to the other side of the river!"

"Alright do I know you wont just wait till we get to the other side and THEN kill me?" said the frog.

"Ahh...," crooned the scorpion, "Because you see, once you've taken me to the other side of this river, I will be so grateful for your help, that it would hardly be fair to reward you with death, now would it?!"

So the frog agreed to take the scorpion across the river. He swam over to the bank and settled himself near the mud to pick up his passenger. The scorpion crawled onto the frog's back, his sharp claws prickling into the frog's soft hide, and the frog slid into the river. The muddy water swirled around them, but the frog stayed near the surface so the scorpion would not drown. He kicked strongly through the first half of the stream, his flippers paddling wildly against the current.

Halfway across the river, the frog suddenly felt a sharp sting in his back and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the scorpion remove his stinger from the frog's back. A deadening numbness began to creep into his limbs.

"You fool!" croaked the frog, "Now we shall both die! Why on earth did you do that?"

The scorpion shrugged, and did a little jig on the drownings frog's back.

"I could not help myself. It is my nature."

Then they both sank into the muddy waters of the swiftly flowing river.

[Source: FROGLAND: All about Frogs]

About me

In case you are interested...

Continues...I am a retired marketing and business development executive.

I moved to Memphis in 2003, after having visited here several times during the 1990s. One thing I was impressed with during those visits: I believed that Memphis had a good sense of, and respect for, its own history. I like that in a town. I am originally from another town with plenty of history: Washington, DC. I've also lived in historic capital cities in Europe, the Far East, and our northern neighbor.

Imagine my shock and consternation when, only two months after arriving, I attended that infamous riverfront meeting at the ballpark. The Bluff City was planning to replace what remained of its historic bluffs with sidewalks and skyscrapers. When I took a closer look at the rest of the riverfront plans, my concerns were only magnified.

I have since spent many, many hours following the situation and looking under the surface. I've attended more RDC Board meetings than some Memphis celebrities that have actually served on the board. I've spent days in RDC offices looking at documents the public has never seen. I helped a local grassroots organization, Friends for Our Riverfront, establish their Web presence and use technology to further their mission. I can also draw on my years of business experience, including some years as a CPA with clients in commercial real estate.

Last year, when I realized that Memphis was about to throw away its greatest cultural landmark, I decided to step forward and speak in my voice. I started this blog.

Sadly, after over ten years, the City's riverfront strategy is an epic failure. The trouble is, most Memphians don't even realize it. For reasons that seem to be structural, cultural, and political, Memphians want to and continue to believe in two myths: that developers are always their saviors, and that their riverfront is in capable hands.

I hope you will continue reading this blog and learn more of the truth. In future articles, I will explore more deeply some of the myths and realities that have made the Memphis riverfront almost the perfect archetype for what ails Memphis.

Michael Cromer

Parsing the public's requirements

Gates of Memphis notices the fifth bullet on the RDC's Web page, which says, "Continuation of and improvements to the docking of boats." He still wants a straight answers to his question about RDC's intentions:
I want to land my boat on the Cobblestones. Will I be able to do this after the improvements?

Let's take a closer look and see if he might already have an answer.

Continues...First of all, from my point of view (and that of FfOR and others), he may be asking the wrong question. Here's what I mean.

As a boater, he may be concerned only about being able to "land" his own boat. That's a legitimate question, but as a Memphian, my own question is broader: Will the Memphis Queen Lines or other daily excursion cruises be able to land and board passengers for the larger riverboats--the way it has been done for over 150 years?

The answer is no, as was made clear in testimony before a City Council committees last year. The Memphis Queen Lines may be permitted park ("tie up") one or two of their riverboats in the harbor, in vicinity of the Cobblestones--because they have nowhere else to park--but they will no longer be boarding or deboarding passengers at the Cobblestones:
BOYD: Alright, the cobblestone use. I’ve received a lot of calls, a lot of correspondence I should say, will the excursion boats [portion inaudible]. Will they have an opportunity to tie up at the cobblestones?

LENDERMON: Yes. In fact they’d probably have to tie up there. They’ll probably have to tie their boats up there.

BOYD: And the Landing…

LENDERMON: They will pick up and drop off passengers at Beale Street Landing, in a safe environment that people can get to. They will quote “stage” their boats if you would at the Cobble…or at least SOME of their boats at the Cobblestones. So they’ll have a presence at the Cobblestones, but they’ll do picking up and dropping off of passengers from Beale Street Landing, in a safe manner in an ADA-acceptable manner.

There was another committee meeting last year dealing exclusively with the Cobblestones, and it's worth a read.

The disappearing boat dock

The RDC's objectives are also pretty clear if you take the trouble to review their Powerpoint presentation from last year. It has never been distributed to the general public (only "stakeholders"), but you can review it at this link, which is also in the sidebar. They've been unwilling to mail out the current version of their plan, but they've told me and others that little has changed..."maybe one or two pictures."

Go through those 30 pages from top to bottom. You'll find no mention of any objective to restore and preserve the Cobblestones as a functioning riverboat landing. That's because it wasn't their objective.

There was a mention of a boat dock on page 26 (of 30), tied in with the ADA ramp going down slope in Jefferson Davis Park:

The floating boat dock. (Click to enlarge in a separate window.)

The "floating dock" is at the right in this 2008 overview. (Click to enlarge in a separate window.)

I listened to the RDC president give this presentation to his board of directors early last year. I listened to him hesitate, hem and haw over this boat dock. It was something "under consideration" but he made it clear that it was in no way certain to be in the final plan. In any event, it would be small and suitable only for canoes and rowboats.

Here is the overview of the current design, as floated to City Council during the budget hearings a few weeks back.:

Current plan. (Click to enlarge.)

Look closely. Do you see a floating boat dock? Nope. Disappeared.

Evidently, this is why the RDC says "maybe one or two pictures" are different from the original draft 18 months ago.

The marketing checkoff

Now their Web page goes up announcing the public information meeting, and lo and behold a bullet appears (fifth on the list): "Continuation of and improvements to the docking of boats."

Did they decide add this bullet (which appears nowhere in their original plan) because they're getting heat from the stakeholder groups? Yes, I believe so. Are they bringing back the little floating boat dock? Very possibly.

As a former product marketing executive and a systems engineer, one who has helped bid on many government procurements for computer systems, I understand exactly what this bullet is. We used to call it a "check-off." It's a feature we added (usually with custom software or a third-party gadget) so that we could check off one of the government's requirements so as not to be disqualified.

A "check-off" isn't necessarily a useful, or even a usable, feature. It just needs to meet the carefully-parsed government requirement. If the government didn't state their requirement carefully enough, they got what they asked for. No more.

Which is why you need to attend the public information meeting Tuesday afternoon and ask for what you really want. Be very careful about your choice of words, e.g. "dock" versus "landing", and "boat" versus "riverboat." You can be certain that the RDC will be careful with their word choices. [Click here for TDOT notice (PDF)]

Updated, August 12, 2009: What I said above was re-confirmed at the meeting. Continued boat docking merely means that the Memphis Queen II will be allowed to "park" at the Cobblestones area, with utility hookups, when not in use.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Before you take off for the weekend, mark your calendars so that you'll be sure to remember to attend the public information meeting to held by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m
330 North Main Street (The Balinese Ballroom)
Memphis 38103

My understanding is that the RDC will give a presentation of the plan, and then you will have an opportunity to ask questions and make your comments. [Click here for TDOT notice (PDF)]

My main question would be something like this:

When the RDC's own Memphis Riverfront Master Plan said 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[,]

why are you [RDC] are saying this:
The purpose of the Historic Cobblestone Landing Restoration and Walkway Project is to stabilize and restore the Memphis Cobblestone Landing and provide limited usability, connectivity and accessibility improvements.

and presenting a plan that so clearly intends to shut the Cobblestone Landing down after 150 years of continuous use?

It will be interesting to see if they are honest about the real reasons, and if they mention this.

To put it more bluntly: The City administration has abdicated responsibility for our precious riverfront resource, leaving public policy in the hands of a private corporation whose middle name is "Development", and whose central purpose in life is to build things, whether needed or not. They've long ago gone rogue, and the City Council has so far failed to reign them in. You, the public, are Memphis' last hope.

You must reign them in.

To learn more about the issues with the Cobblestone Landing, Beale Street Landing, and our riverfront, just click some of the important questions in the sidebar at the right.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Big Switch, Part 2: A land bridge too far

In the earlier article, "The Big Switch: How the riverfront strategy quietly changed," we saw that with the Beale Street Landing (BSL) Project, RDC officials didn't wait very long to veer sharply from the vision and principles stated in the 2002 Riverfront Master Plan.

The first clear evidence of the shift appeared in the BSL design competition documents released January 2003--only eight months after the City Council had unanimously approved the Master Plan. In this article, we'll follow the events from that point until January, 2006, when the RDC found itself in an existential predicament. Read on.


Exuberance unbounded

Clearly, their vision for Beale Street Landing was becoming far grander in scope than the Master Plan had envisioned. The competition guide asked for a boat dock that serviced all manner of boats, large and small, not just the big overnight cruisers as the Master Plan had recommended. The guide talked of Beale Street as the center of focus for the riverfront, whereas the Master Plan wanted the focus to be at Union Avenue. The design area allowed in the guide was much larger, and even encroached upon both Tom Lee Park and the historic Cobblestones.

Was all of this just the natural result result of RDC's exuberance? Just the symptom of their enthusiasm, now able to tackle their first big project? (After all, the much-bigger "land bridge" (and lake) project, later canceled, was going to be at least five to ten years away.)

Or was it an attempt to keep all options open, just in case the City might change its mind later about the Master Plan? Or was it part of a calculated strategy to re-write the principles of the Master Plan only months after it had been officially adopted?

We may never know.

One of the reasons we don't know is because there was no contemporaneous plan for the Cobblestone Landing--and there wouldn't be such a plan until at least five years later. Without seeing a written Cobblestone Landing plan, side-by-side with the BSL design, one couldn't know for certain if the value being added at Beale Street was newly-created--or value taken away from the Cobblestone Landing at Union Avenue.

And besides, who reads design competition documents, anyway? (Unless one plans to compete, of course.)

Two drawings from the original design submission. (Source: RDC)

The winning design from Argentina was chosen before the year 2003 ended. Whether you liked the design or not, it certainly measured up to the RDC's exuberance, using every inch of the allowed area, and then some.

But it was like a full-busted woman in a too-small bustier: It would require a bit of re-working and refining to tuck it into a manageable package.

Meanwhile, in 2004 the RDC went for City Council approval on its new Memphis Promenade Public Realm Plan. Unlike the Master Plan, however, the "Promenade Plan" (as the RDC likes to inaccurately call it) ran into some stiff resistance from grass-roots citizens groups and others.

For one thing, it claimed to remove a "barrier between the city and its river" [Introduction, p.2] by erecting even bigger barriers: skyscrapers. The plan finally passed, with an amendment limiting building heights to 150 feet, but it did not pass unanimously. The RDC may have then begun to sense that, despite all their exuberance, their riverfront strategy would not be a slam dunk.

Perhaps also by then the RDC's legal advisers had warned them of another disturbing problem: The Public Promenade land was protected by a conservation easement that had withstood challenge all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The only possible means to take over the public realm and develop it privately would have to be through eminent domain (condemnation). The political will to take such a drastic step might be difficult to come by, especially in the wake of the national backlash to Kelo decision the following year.

2005: The year of reckoning

By 2005, there still wasn't a Cobblestone Landing Plan while the Beale Street Landing design continued to be tucked and tweaked.

But even if the RDC didn't yet understand shift in the winds, 2005 would be the year of their reckoning. By then, Citizens groups had studied the Master Plan and had figured out the environmental and economic flaws in that land bridge and lake idea--problems that the RDC's own consultants should have already been telling them privately about.

Indeed, the much-touted Urban Land Institute report (see page 28 in the downloadable PDF) offered some ominous warnings about the economic risks:
The creation of the Land Bridge will bring with it many challenges. It will:
  • Redirect investment and growth away from downtown, in an economy that already is experiencing a modest velocity of land/building absorption;
  • Leave “unfinished business” in the downtown revitalization process;
  • Be an expensive way to create a new development opportunity;
  • Fracture the city's connection to the “Mighty Mississippi” and turn the Wolf River into an "urban lake."
  • Create yet another center of activity that will compete with those already in place and struggling.
One would hope that the Army Corps of Engineers was also doing its job. In its own in-depth study of the land bridge (never released to the public), had the Corps finally told RDC that creating the "urban lake" would probably turn the already-dicey Wolf River into a pollution stew?

(Oh, but who reads consultants' reports anyway?)

After a series of public information meetings, culminating in a well-attended, contentious showdown, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the RDC had to rethink its strategy, In the fall they decided to remove the land bridge (and lake) from the Master Plan. Presumably it would be permanently, but at least it was "out of sight, out of mind." The City Council ratified that decision in January, 2006.

Now put yourself in the RDC's shoes, after seven years* of operations:
  • The Master Plan has been virtually gutted by the removal of its centerpiece land bridge (and lake) proposal;
  • The rest of the Master Plan's design no longer makes complete sense--but you can't just rip it up because you've claimed it as the authority for everything else you do;
  • The Promenade Plan is on indefinite hold until someone grows the guts to condemn historic public land to give it private developers.
  • "Development" is your middle name--but all you've built so far is a staircase and a roundabout.
What do you do?

Go for broke

It's my pretty safe guess that your decision is now set in concrete: With your jobs and reputations at stake, Beale Street Landing must rise from an overly-exuberant sideshow to being the center-ring attraction. Whether needed or not, the red steel boat dock becomes your do-or-die, bet-the-company project--Cobblestone Landing be "dammed" (or put under glass), as it were.

To keep this show going on for much longer, you're going to have to very carefully stage-manage the rest of the program. You're going to have to project your own fears upon the Memphis public, with dire scare-talk like this:
These federal funds are specifically earmarked for this project and cannot be reprogrammed. More than half these dollars will be lost by even delaying the project another year.

Additionally, the Beale Street Landing project is very high profile for our legislators. If it does not move forward, the City of Memphis looses (sic) face and will have a much more difficult time attracting funds for other future projects – even those not related to the riverfront. [emphasis added]


We must build Beale Street Landing. [emphasis in original]

And then a year later, as if your predicament isn't already bad enough: Those overnight riverboat companies start going out of business. You will soon have no customers for this red steel boat dock--unless you move the Memphis Queen Lines off the Cobblestone Landing.

Coming soon: The Big Switch, Part 3: The public is hornswoggled. Again.

* Including 1999, when RDC was organized as a "steering committee."

How stupid are we?

Question: Why was Memphis put on the map? Why does Memphis even exist?

Some of you might believe that the City's founders were thinking, "Hey, wouldn't this be a great place to start a music revolution? Let's put a city here, and in a hundred years or so some blues and rockabilly singers will surely find us and make their homes here, and then produce some music, and then we'll be a famous city! We'll be the Home of the Blues, Rock & Roll, Soul, or all three. Maybe one of them singers will even be named Elvis."

Good try, but I'm afraid not. That's not the real reason Memphis was born. I'll give you a little hint.

I order electronics parts and gadgets over the Internet. I've finally learned that when I order something, I needn't ask and pay for next-day or two-day delivery, even if I want it in a hurry. I should simply choose ground. Why? Because the part will more than likely arrive in one or two days anyway.

Why is that? Because Memphis is a major hub and distribution center. So major, in fact, that a lot of companies put their inventories in warehouses right here, even if the rest of their operation is in California or India. It saves half the trip. And that means, for Memphians like me, the order will never even get on one of those blue airplanes. It will go straight onto a truck from South Memphis to my house.

But you know, Memphis didn't get to be a major distribution center just because FedEx came to town. It goes back a long way. Not just back to railroads, but all the way to the beginning of the City. The City's founders realized that here was a perfect spot, sitting high on a bluff and relatively safe from flooding, but still right next to the Mighty Mississippi, to be a great transportation hub and gateway to the west. Commercially, that's was a great thing to be. And so Memphis was born.

Where am I going with this? Hang in there.

If Memphis' raison d'ĂȘtre was to become a major distribution center, then what is the oldest and most important symbol of that fact? You guessed it: The Great Memphis Landing, all that is left of which today is the stretch that we now call the Cobblestone Landing.

But here's the coolest part: It's not just a museum relic. 150 years old (the Cobblestone part) and it's still in use to this very day. Riverboats still land and embark from there--carrying more tourists than cotton of course, but does that really matter? Does that make it less cool?

In spite of all its alleged hazards and disrepair, we have probably the best-preserved example of a still-in-service, still-active, still-enjoyed Cobblestone Riverboat Landing in the United States.

But not much longer. Some people think it's just a nuisance. Some people think it's ugly, and about only reason to keep it around is that it's on a historic register someplace, so we have to. Some people think we'd all be better off shutting it down and building a shiny new red boat dock to replace it.

And some people think that if we really have to be stuck with such a nuisance, we'd best put a sidewalk around the perimeter (with appropriate interpretive signage) so people can stand around it and look at those Cobblestones--if they really want to.

And maybe these same people are hoping that after twenty years or so, we'll be so bored with just looking at it, we'll finally move the signs and a few of the Cobbles into an air conditioned museum somewhere--and get rid of the rest of the darn thing altogether.

I say, how stupid is that? How stupid that we Memphians, who owe the very existence of our City to that Cobblestone Landing and what it represents, would ever even consider such a thing. For shame!

If you agree with me, then right now before you forget put August 11th, 5:30 to 7:30, 330 North Main Street, on your calendar. It may be your last chance to speak up and do your part to help stop some of us from doing something utterly, profoundly stupid.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Scare talk: Lawsuits

The RDC's Web page tells us, "Sadly, the historic cobblestones have fallen into disrepair as they settled and sloughed at the toe."

Sadly, too, I'd have to agree with that. But then they drop the big scare-bomb:
The result is extremely unsafe walking conditions resulting in injuries, lawsuits and even one death from a fall. [my emphasis]

My initial reaction would be: "Okay, guys. Do what you gotta do. It's your job, anyway. Fix the darn things already. It should have been done decades ago."

But I'd still have to wonder: Why are they making such a big deal out of it? Is it really that big a deal?

A lawyer friend took the time to scour the District Court records and round up the filings for all those lawsuits.

All two of them.
  • On March 30, 1993, a musician named Michael Harbor fell on the cobblestones and fractured his left leg below his knee. It was 10:30 pm. He had just performed on a riverboat docked on the cobblestones. The case was dismissed after the parties announced that the matter had been settled.

  • On August 15, 1997, 83-year-old Catherine Sullivan took a cab from the Peabody Hotel to the foot of Beale Street where she intended to board the American Queen steamboat. As she walked down the cobblestones to the boat, she slipped and fractured her left ankle. At Baptist Hospital, a plate with screws was attached to her leg. She went through the operation well but suffered a heart attack at 12:25 a.m. on August 16, 1997. She was pronounced dead at 4:20 a.m. that day. The executrix of Sullivan’s estate sued the City of Memphis, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, and others. On October 29, 2001, the court dismissed the case with prejudice after the parties announced that the matter had been settled.

(The public records do not include any mention of the settlement amounts.)

Updated: A reader of this site wrote me with more information. It appears that the first case was settled for 0 (zero) dollars. The second case was settled for $35,000.

Certainly, any City facility should be safe and well-maintained (and well lit if it's open at night). That's a given. Other cities maintain whole neighborhoods of cobblestoned streets without complaint. Perhaps it's surprising to me to find only two lawsuits in at least 16 years. For comparison, I wonder how many incidents might have occurred in other City locations in that period.

I also wonder this: How many lawsuits might the City be asking for when they open the facility pictured below? It's a question worth asking, but amazingly, it hasn't been asked yet.

Photo: Are trial lawyers eagerly waiting for this to be built?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cobbles under glass, Part 3: Another look at the ADA question

Continued from: [Part 1] [Part 2]

Since I posted article Scare talk: ADA, emails have apparently been flying around the town. There seems to be some concern that (and I'll quote from an email):
The writer of insists that the cobblestones are already ADA compliant since "The sidewalk along Riverside Drive provides an incomparable view of the entire length of the Cobblestone Landing -- and that sidewalk isn't going to be under water much of the time, like the one the RDC proposes."

That isn't quite the point I was intending to make, because I hadn't finished addressing the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] subject. But no matter, I will do so now.

The email flurry might have been triggered or encouraged by RDC officials because, as I said, they love to use scare-talk to achieve their purposes. ADA compliance is one of their favorite scare-topics, especially in this instance, as you may soon realize.

Figure: The sidewalk in question (see arrows above) would be ADA accessible, but would deny all of the use of a historic riverboat landing. Not only that, it would be underwater much of the time.

On the other hand, I'd prefer to take the writer's concerns very much at face value, and so I will. The writer raises a legitimate question. ADA is an extremely important subject, a national priority and not merely a requirement in the law.

It's a subject that always deserves concern, but often requires some careful thought and study, not just knee-jerk reactions as might be provoked with scare-talk. This is exactly one of those cases, and I welcome the opportunity to explore the issue with you.

The writer of the email goes on to say this:
I do not personally feel that the Riverside walkway will provide nearly the experience of the river or the cobblestones that the proposed walkway will [my emphasis]

I absolutely, unequivocally, applaud that sentiment!

I am thrilled that someone wants do more than just to "observe" the Cobblestones (with "appropriate interpretive signage"), as the RDC would have us do. The writer sincerely wants to experience them. It is the perfect word and it's right on point with an issue that needs to be thought about by all of us before it's too late.

It's the main issue. In fact, I started this web site precisely because I realized a bit over a year ago that the RDC's plans would deny all Memphians, not just those with disabilities, an authentic experience of the Cobblestone Landing. I and others warned the City about this problem, but to no avail.

How do people experience the cobblestones today?

They go down there by the busloads at around 2:30 pm, descend a ramp, walk across the cobbles, and board a riverboat via a gangplank -- just as it has been done by people and cargo for over 150 years. Since the founding of the City, in fact. Since well before the City got smart and paved the area with quarried cobbles, starting in 1859.

That was my first real experience of the Cobblestone Landing. (I'll bet it was yours, too.) I've been there many times since, for photography and other reasons, but I'll always remember my first riverboat trip on the Mississippi, embarking from the one best-preserved examples of a Cobblestone Landing in the USA.

But that opportunity to experience the Cobblestone Landing will end in a year, under the proposed plan.

So let me say without hesitation: If the problem to be addressed is to enable Americans, both with and without disabilities, the chance to authentically experience the Cobblestone Landing, just as it has been used and experienced continuously for well over 150 years (to this day, even), I welcome that problem with open arms. I want to solve that problem. Let's talk.

Surely there's a way to provide ADA access to the excursions without closing the Landing to riverboats, as the current plan would do.

Are you hearing my point?

You see, the RDC doesn't want to solve that problem. They want to solve the their own problem -- the problem of "those darn boats"*, and they are using you as an excuse and an unwitting ally. They are proposing to give you and I an alternative experience (cobblestone observer) in a way that denies all of us of the authentic experience of boarding a boat at the Cobblestones and taking a trip up and down the Mississippi. You are slyly being used, therefore, as a justification for decommissioning our great, historic, Cobblestone Landing.

I'm sorry, but I have to be brutally honest: Both you and I are being hornswoggled.

That is what concerns me. I hope you can applaud my sentiment. I hope you won't allow yourselves to be tricked into supporting this plan.

*If you want to learn how the RDC really feels about those darn boats, check out this article from last year's budget hearings (starting at the point when Council Member Boyd takes over the questioning). Listen to the audio I posted there. The RDC doesn't even try to suppress the disdainful sniggering. After that, read and listen to this hearing, which is all about the Cobblestones (with still more sniggering).

Further readings

Cobbles under glass, Part 2: The "Connection"

Continued from: [Part 1]

In my previous article, I neglected to make a point about the so-called "connection" that the RDC wants to build.

By the way, as a retired marketing executive, I am well aware that "connection" is one of those fuzzy marketing terms companies like to use when they don't want to (or can't) spell out all the facts. (Look through the RDC's Web site and count how many times the word is used.)

On the RDC's Web page, they call this the "Historic Cobblestone Restoration and Walkway Project." By "walkway," what they really mean is that nonsensical sidewalk along the supposed water's edge that will in reality be under water a third of the time and be looking out over an ugly field of rip-rap another third of the time. They say this feature will "become the critical north-south connection along the River" between Jefferson Davis Park and Beale Street Landing. They claim:
The current walking surface also creates a large barrier to pedestrian movement north and south along the Mississippi Riverfront at Memphis. However, the problems can be solved by restoring the landing, preventing further deterioration, making repairs throughout the cobblestones’ surface, and providing adequate walking surfaces constructed in a manner respectful of historical significance

In yesterday's posting, I pointed out that construction of the sidewalk, the rip-rap, and the possible sheetpile walls and/or terraces are not "in a manner respectful of the historical significance" of a cobblestone boat landing. Worse, it will make it impossible to use it as a riverboat landing any more (the RDC would prefer you to use their new red steel boat dock at Beale Street).

The truth is that the sidewalk destroys their historical significance, turning the Cobblestone Landing into a museum relic: as in, "Cobbles under glass." (But we already know that the RDC doesn't place much stock in history, don't we?)

Furthermore, the reader must surely have figured out by now that if the RDC restored the Cobblestone Landing properly, then there already is a walking surface along the river -- the Cobblestones themselves. After all, other cities proudly let their citizens walk along even older cobblestone-covered streets (and apparently without an inordinate fear of lawsuits).

So, here is the point I neglected to fully make in that article:

"The Connection" already exists, without the Cobblestone Project. There already is an ADA-compliant, smooth walking surface connecting between Beale Street Landing and Jefferson Davis Park, with a glorious view of the Cobblestone Landing: the sidewalk along Riverside Drive.

The ironic part is that the sidewalk was probably built with money the State of Tennessee gave the City in 1997 to (among other things) restore the Cobblestone Landing. The City didn't complete everything they promised the State back then. The RDC needs to finish the job.

Coming up next: Another look at ADA.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cobbles under glass: A closer look

As I said in an earlier article, the problem can be viewed in fairly simple terms: The RDC proposes a plan that was designed to meet the wrong objective. Their objective was to decommission the Cobblestone Landing, moving all riverboats to the Beale Street Boat Dock. They would repair and restore the Cobblestones themselves, but merely as a museum relic, to be seen but not used.

The plan is directly contrary to what was stated in the Riverfront Master Plan.

Until the RDC is forced to follow the principles and objectives of their own Master Plan, it is probably an exercise in futility to argue about the details of the current plan. Those design details are wrong simply because the design objective was wrong. Only a hard reset of the design objective (and of course a redesign to the proper objective) can really address the plan's multitude of problems.

Nevertheless, it is worth taking a closer look at some of the major design elements. In so doing, you might better understand how fundamentally flawed the concept actually is. Let's look at some pictures.


Above is the proposed design, as published on the RDC Web site. The Cobblestone Landing area is gray. Along its lower edge is Riverside Drive. The upper edge, in blue, is the harbor. At the very left (south) is Beale Street. At the right (north) is Jefferson Davis Park.

Look closely and you will see some yellow strips. Those are the proposed sidewalks. When you include the existing walk along Riverside Drive (not in yellow), you see that sidewalks completely wrap the Cobblestone Landing area -- as if they were acting as a guide rope surrounding and protecting a museum exhibit.

Perhaps you can now understand why I call this concept "cobbles under glass". The sense you would have, as a visitor, is that you should walk along the perimeter of the Cobblestone area and observe...but not touch.

Which, of course, is exactly the objective. They even warn you on their Web site that those Cobbles are deadly. (But we know why they want you to stay away, don't we?)

But it's even worse. As you stand at the border and observe the "cobblestone field" (as they call it), you are being misled. Why? Because no authentic cobblestone landing -- not this one nor any other -- ever had to have special sidewalks built around or through it. The cobblestones themselves (properly maintained, of course) are the intended place to walk.

Those sidewalks make sense only if this is intended as an exhibit of "cobbles." It doesn't make sense if it is supposed to portray an actual cobblestone riverboat landing -- much less an active one.

Of course, as I have already said, that was their real objective. If this was still going to be a riverboat landing, you might expect to find people and boats actually using it -- and the RDC doesn't want that. They want to decommission the Cobblestone Landing and move all traffic to the Beale Street Boat Dock next door, leaving only "cobbles under glass."

But it gets even worse. Take a third look and notice the longer sidewalk I've marked with red arrows. That is where this plan goes from being misguided (at best) to downright silliness.

With a casual glance, it would appear that this sidewalk follows the harbor's edge. "Access to the river," the RDC likes to say. That sounds sensible, right?


Remember that the Mississippi River's level varies up to 30 feet in a typical year, and it varies up to 50 feet at the multi-year extremes. Remember, too, that the Cobblestone Landing was designed to accommodate this basic Mississippi fact of life, which is why it is on a gentle slope. No matter what level the river reaches, up or down, the Landing always has the same physical presentation to the riverboats.

How many days during the year do you suppose the water's level will reach, even approximately, to where that sidewalk is?

I don't know, but let's be generous and say one-third of the time. This means that the sidewalk will actually be under water and unusable another third of the time. And the remaining third? The person standing at the sidewalk will be looking out over...not water, but a field of rip-rap!

Which brings us to a still bigger problem. Look at the cross section above, taken from a more complete version the public hasn't seen. The idea here is that they will restore the "sloughed" lower portion of the landing, not with cobblestones but by filling the area with rip-rap. It's cheap and easy -- if you never intended to use it as a boat landing again. (Would you try to land your canoe or motorboat over a field of rip-rap?)

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

That's their intention: History be damned, Beale Street Boat Dock shall be the new Memphis Landing. (And we know why. Not to mention this.)

Have they considered alternatives? Certainly. How about this one, where they try to transform the Cobblestones from an authentic landing into a concrete-and-sheetpile wharf (so much for being "respectful of historical significance"):

Or this treatment, with "terraces" that look suspiciously like an extension of Beale Street Landing:

Between the rip-rap and that nonsensical sidewalk, it is abundantly clear that RDC has no intention of the Cobblestone area being a safe and secure place for pleasure boats or the excursion riverboats that use it now, much less an authentic Landing as it has been for 150-plus years.

If the proposed plan is implemented, the decommissioning of the great Cobblestone Landing will effectively become permanent. That's why you, the public, need to speak now, or forever hold your peace.

Suggested further readings: