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."

1 comment:

JMB said...

"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?"

You mite have a larger point Michael, than just the Memphis City Council lack of possible over-site of The RDC officials Master Plan, if so, How many "Big Switch" and development plans by development corporations are out there in the US.