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.


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