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

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