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:

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