Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another Mississippi cruise idea is floated, but will it stay afloat?

Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines says it will be offering week-long cruises on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Cumberland rivers, starting in August 2012. Six itineraries on the schedule would have Memphis as an end point. Prices for a seven-night trip range from $3,595 (single) to $6,285.

A schedule announcement and a web page doesn't guarantee that the cruises will actually happen. Earlier this year, Seattle-based Cruise West had said they would offer Mississippi cruises starting next spring, but that company has since suspended operations and shut down.

In a press release [PDF] the company says they are building a new five-deck stern-wheeler to accommodate these cruises. A sharp-eyed reader noticed this statement about the boat:
As on all true riverboats, a stage and bow ramp will give the ship access to the many interesting ports without docking facilities.

Real Mississippi riverboats are designed to load/unload passengers and cargo at sloped landings along the river's edge -- like our historic cobblestones, and the landing right across the harbor on Mud Island. The slope of these landings could easily accommodate the great fluctuations in the river's level. So, contrary to what the RDC has implied in their marketing, Beale Street Landing wasn't really needed. We have a perfectly good, authentic riverboat landing for the large boats, and the historic cobblestone landing for smaller ones.

Instead of budgeting over $37 million for a new dock, we could have spent a fraction of that upgrading the Mud Island facility, already used by the large boats, and rehabilitating the historic cobblestones for all other boating uses as was originally promised by the RDC.

For more, see this Commercial Appeal story.

Friday, September 10, 2010

CA: Overnight cruises on Mississippi River put on hold

By Wayne Risher, The Commmercial Appeal [link]
September 10, 2010
A cruise company's troubles have cast doubt on plans to bring overnight cruises on the Mississippi River back to Memphis next year.

The small-ship cruise line Cruise West announced it had suspended new bookings while the company is restructured.

Cruise West posted a statement on its website that said it would continue to operate its U.S. flagships through October, but it gave no information about future offerings.

It said company executives would not respond to questions from the media.

The shutdown came less than three months after the Seattle-based company said it would launch cruises on the Mississippi stopping in Memphis starting next March.

In June the company began accepting advance bookings for two seven-day itineraries for the 102-passenger Spirit of America: New Orleans to Memphis and Memphis to Nashville.

The New Orleans-Memphis cruise was touted as spotlighting plantations, mansions and Civil War sites of the iconic South. The Memphis-Nashville cruise was to focus on the music heritage of destination cities. Prices started at $3,499 a person.

Memphis hasn't had overnight cruises since the Delta Queen stopped running in October 2008.

The Memphis Riverfront Development Corp. has a new docking facility under construction at the foot of Beale Street, but it won't be completed until late next year.

Cruise West said the first step in its restructuring was terminating its "Voyages of the Great Explorers" cruise when the Spirit of Oceanus docked in St. John's, Newfoundland, on Wednesday.

"Additional assets may be sold and other steps are being pursued toward a restructure," the statement added.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My remarks before City Council

Below is the full text of my own remarks before the City Council last night.

City Council action

On Tuesday night the City Council voted to appropriate the $10.5 million to build a restaurant and gift shop at Beale Street Landing.

There were three NO votes (Shea Flinn, Reid Hedgepeth, Kemp Conrad) and one abstention (Wanda Halbert).

Opposition observers saw Conrad's vote as surprising and courageous, since he has been an RDC board member and supporter.

Though they ended up voting YES, several other council members seemed to be troubled and struggling with their decisions. Two of them, Jim Strickland and William C. Boyd, grilled Benny Lendermon at length on his claim that if the City didn't proceed with the project, it would forfeit $8.9 million of Federal money and possibly some State money, too.

Lendermon admitted that the Federal Transportation Department grants were for building the boat dock (the current Phase 3), but City money is being fronted and the Federal reimbursement needs to be applied for. The boat dock is mainly steel work and is being built off site.

But Lendermon seemed to be saying that if the City didn't proceed with Phase 4a (the restaurant), then it would be ineligible to receive the Federal payments on the boat dock. He didn't explain why the Department of Transportation considers a restaurant to be a necessary and essential part of a boat dock. Perhaps it was because no one asked him precisely that question -- and maybe that was his good fortune.

Myron Lowery, a YES vote, made a showy point of telling everyone that he was always in the loop on RDC's budget woes, even though Benny Lendermon had just told the CIP Budget Committee the opposite.

Further reading:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tuesday's City Council Agenda (part 2)

(Continued from part 1.) Tomorrow, the City Council is being asked to spend $11.5 million of taxpayer money to build a restaurant (and gift shop) business. When you strip away the hype and the bullying (and a boat dock we didn't need but are now stuck with) -- that's the essence of it.

Many might question, just on principle, the idea of taxpayer-funding and risk-taking for a restaurant business. But I think there are some serious business plan issues, not the least of which is this: There is no operator attached to this project.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tuesday's City Council Agenda

Here's a summary of what is on the agenda for Tuesday's City Council meeting (May 25). First, look at this drawing:

RDC Chairman John Stokes: It's my way or the highway.

Here are his exact words to the RDC Board [my emphasis]:

STOKES: Because if we don't get the two [million dollars], we're stuck with the way it looks now. And dadgum it, that's going to be on the conscience, in my opinion, of the Council members that vote NO. I'm just telling you that, because it's gonna be there forever till somebody... And we're not gonna do it.

Click here to listen to the 22-seconds of MP3 audio.

Sound like a threat to you? It certainly does to me. But threat or not, it's supremely arrogant.

It's all part of a cynical deceit that the RDC apparently plans to use with the City Council this Tuesday. They want us all to believe that we have only two choices: (1) Build BSL completely, as designed; or (2) suffer with the big hole and scarred landscape -- a mess that the RDC itself created.

This is a falsehood, of course. There has always been a third choice: Spend a more modest amount of money -- $1-2 million -- to fill the hole and re-landscape the undeveloped area. But the RDC officials don't want anyone -- not even their own board -- to seriously consider the third option.

BSL's current design with 3 pods.

For several weeks, the RDC has been quietly spreading this strawman argument, indirectly, via friendly bloggers ("If Beale Street Landing is halted...Tom Lee Park and the Cobblestones will forever be separated by a crater") and their supporters' letters to the editor.

Lately, they've gotten bolder, pushing the false choice out to journalists -- complete with RDC-Photoshopped pictures of their latest design (above) compared to the unfinished mess (below). (See Memphis Flyer and Memphis Business Journal.)

This past Wednesday, the RDC held a board meeting to pre-test and polish their strategy for getting a $10.5 million dollar authorization from the City Council (which a Council committee has already recommended against) this coming Tuesday. It seems that a picture of the unfinished mess at Beale Street Landing will take center stage.

You can click here to listen to the 12.5 minute board discussion regarding Phase 4(b), but here's a summary:

Lendermon has the current 3-pod design on the boardroom video screen, explaining that the $10.5 million will pay for the restaurant building, gift shop and restrooms. Even if that money is approved, he explains, $6.8M has yet to be found for the final phase -- the park area, or what observers often call "the pods".

Presumably to show this, Lendermon flips to a slide (shown below) that's missing the pods and terraces -- with the scarred and ugly dirtscape where the park would be.

The ugly picture with Phase 4(b) missing -- and nothing done to clean up the mess.

At this point, a board member tries to ask a rather obvious question: What happens if they don't get the money to do the park? Do they really intend to leave that area scarred and unfinished, or are they going to clean it up.

Lendermon won't answer her question. He keeps talking as if it's all or nothing choice. John Stokes jumps in and claims that the there's no point in talking about it, because the 6.8 million will be found.

The board member tries again and again to get a straight answer to her question.

It takes close over eight minutes for the board to finally get an off-hand admission out of Benny Lendermon [audio]:
LENDERMON: I mean, you could go in there with maybe, you know, a million [dollars] and and fix everything and make it green and make the connections to Beale Street, and all...

But, as we heard, John Stokes insists the RDC won't do it. It's Beale Street Landing as designed -- or a hole in the ground [audio]:
STOKES: [The point is] what are we going to do now? ...and again, if they vote it down, who's going to fill up that hole that's there now? We're not. I told Benny I'm outa [here]. I'm not going to go back and...and fill that hole up.

And so this Tuesday the RDC will go before City Council, show them that ugly (but unreal) picture, because, as Stokes tells his board [audio]
STOKES: You don't really...want for this part on the left [the pods-Phase 4(b)] to look great right now. You don't want it to. Because then it stops the project.

They plan to scare the Council (as they've already done with the general public) by presenting a stark, binary, and false choice: It's got to be our way...or a hole in the ground.

Further readings:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

RDC knew for over a year and kept Mayor Lowery in the dark.

Memphis City Council committee votes against 2010 Beale Street Landing appropriation

By Amos Maki, Memphis Commercial Appeal

A City Council committee voted this morning against appropriating $10.5 million for the Riverfront Development Corp.’s Beale Street Landing project.

The request for funds in the current Capital Improvement Program budget will now go to the full council in two weeks with a negative recommendation from the CIP committee.

But here's the more interesting part:

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Afghanistan. Beale Street Landing.

Similarities? How about:
  • It seemed like a good idea in 2002.
  • The original need has long since gone away.*
  • It drags on and on, with costs mounting.
  • We've invested so much, we can't pull out now.
  • Our stubborn pride.

See more discussion in today's Commercial Appeal.

* OBL's hideout / Those big riverboat cruises.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

CA reports, editorializes...and misses the point

This past Sunday, April 4, a front-page story, "Troubled Memphis riverfront project going under budget knife: Cost concerns may radically alter Beale Street Landing."

Then, today, a followup editorial: "Major delay for Beale Street Landing: Money simply isn't available to complete a project whose cost has soared well beyond the estimate."

I'm glad to see that the Commercial Appeal is finally giving serious attention to this story, which has been burning quietly for months while giving RDC officials some time to try and build backfires, if not neutralize it completely.

But here's my question: Why does neither the Sunday story nor the Tuesday editorial mention perhaps the most salient point about this project? Which is this:

The riverboats aren't coming. This is an unneeded boat dock to nowhere.

The overnight riverboat cruises were the main reason for Beale Street Landing (BSL for short) in the first place...way back in 2002. Since they couldn't dock at the Cobblestone Landing (their thrusters did too much damage), and since the land bridge was going to obliterate the Mud Island Landing, we would eventually need a new place for the big riverboats.

But the land bridge has long since been canceled and the Mud Island landing remains viable. It was used up until 2007 when the last of the big riverboats came to Memphis.

But then the companies that operated those boats started going out of the business. They drydocked the boats and put them up for sale, with no takers. There are no big riverboats running any more.

Just a short economic downturn? I'm afraid not. Their market was dying off. Literally.

The RDC's intransigence I can understand, but it's a mystery to me why the Commercial Appeal and other key influencers seem to steadfastly avoid acknowledging the situation about those riverboats, or claim that it doesn't matter.

Example: A couple of months ago I got into an online argument with a well-known local blogger. He's a man who is respected for his pragmatism and realism, and willingness to buck the opinion tide when the facts are on his side. Unfortunately, not so much in this case. (It might have something to do with his associate, Carol Coletta, who was an RDC consultant and insider from the very beginning.)

Backed into a corner and unable to ignore my point any longer, he wrote (my emphasis):
You keep ignoring the essence. We don’t care if the boats aren’t coming. You’ve got your eye off the ball. We need it regardless."

Stunning. Also, a bit condescending, in that he claims BSL has an "essence" that I and other opponents are presumably just too dumb to understand. Like, it's a piece of (urban) art?

The CA editorial opines that we should just build the boat dock and snack bar, and wait a little longer for the money to build "some of the more inviting details, such as the terraced pods providing access to the river's edge."

Excuse me. Let me suggest another, more sensible, and pragmatic approach: Omit that unneeded boat dock! (And spare this city the embarrassment of hosting an empty red docking facility as a monument to our 10-year riverfront folly.)

The RDC will say that we took the about $7.5 million of Federal money with the promise of providing "transportation improvements." We'd have to pay it back.

No, we wouldn't. There's a simple answer to that problem, which the RDC won't tell you about: Put that Federal money into the beefing up the historic Cobblestone Landing -- which is where it should have gone in the first place.

Friday, March 5, 2010

WREG-TV: Memphis Riverfront Project Hits A Snag

WREG Channel 3 has a report on the stalled Beale Street Landing project, with its hole and "mountain of dirt".


Memphis Riverfront Project Hits A Snag
Part Of The Beale Street Landing Project Is Temporarily Put On Hold

Alex Coleman, WREG-TV
March 5, 2010

Fast Facts
* -Beale Street Landing Project Creates An Eyesore
* -Riverfront Project Runs Into Financial Problems
* -Developers Say Funds Will Be Found & Delays Won't Impact Memphis In May

No, it's not as as large or certainly not majestic like Mount Everest, but it's so big that it caught Cathy Norman's attention when she walks through downtown Memphis.

Norman said, "Yeah, it's not very attractive, so I'd like to see it finished or something done with it."

For some people who jog and walk along Tom Lee Park, a massive mound of dirt isn't the welcome mat they want to greet them.

Tracy Thompson works downtown and jogs in the area. Thompson said, "Actually it does bother me. It's been here for a year or so. So maybe they can level it and put grass or something on it for now."

Jamie Douglas also comes to Tom Lee Park for exercise. Douglas said, "I feel whatever it is they're doing they need to hurry up and get it over with."

It is the Beale Street Landing Project. It's designed to connect Memphis to the Mississippi River with boat access, improved park features, and even a restaurant, but it hit a snag.

Benny Lendermon is the president of the Riverfront Development Corporation.

Lendermon said, "It's no secret the landing has long term funding issues and there's a shortage of funds and we're working with the (mayor)Wharton Administration and try to look at how we deal with it in the future and allow our project to continue on and be constructed."

The project ran out of federal funding with about 8 million dollars worth of construction still needed.

Lendermon said, "There needs to be two million dollars additional funding that doesn't exist now to allow the contractors to keep working and not shutdown the construction project. If you shutdown the construction project costs go up."

But will the delay and the sight of the mountain of dirt impact Memphis in May this year? Festival organizers declined to be interviewed for this story Friday, but Lendermon says he's talked with them.

Lendermon said, "We met with Jim Holt and some of his board members this morning. There is nothing this year that affects the park any more than the park was affected last year. Yes, part of the park was taken away on the North end just like it was last year."

Lindermon says he's confident the project will get the necessary funding and will meet its 2011 completion target and the show will go on for Memphis In May.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Our CIP credit card

John Branston has posted a column on the City's budget woes, "A Primer on Budgeting," in which he says "a government budget has a lot in common with a personal budget or a household budget." So true.

But I think he missed an important part of that analogy.

Just like you or I, the City has a revolving credit card. You might quip that it has been issued by the "CIP Bank." (CIP stands for "Capital Improvements Program.")

Whenever anything is charged to the CIP budget, the City has to go out and sell bonds to get the money. The bonds eventually have to be paid off, but the blow is softened because we're not paying cash.

You and I have figured out that credit cards can be dangerous. They make it all too easy for us to go out and buy things we think might give us an emotional gratification, but, truth be told, we don't really need.

In the current economy, many households are trying to get control over their credit card debt. We're charging less, not more. Many of us paying down our credit cards. Some of us are tearing them up.

But not the City of Memphis, it seems. With our handy CIP credit card, we're buying a new boat dock to nowhere, for riverboats that aren't even running any more. For tens of millions of dollars.

How silly is that?

Please email your City Council members.

Further reading

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Action News 5: Beale Street blunder?

The video of Jason Miles' story on Action News 5 Wednesday night about Beale Street Landing's funding problems:

(If the above player doesn't work, here's a link to try. And here's the link to the text version.)

Note: At one point in the video, Lendermon said:
"Two million dollars, frankly, is what we're looking for to keep this project going and not slow down any construction."

While technically true, it may give you the mistaken impression that the shortfall is only $2 million. The whole truth is that RDC plans to come back at budget time in May and ask for an additional $7 million.

Worse, if this $2 million allows them to restart the project, they can proceed with Phase III and possibly Phase IV, plowing tens of millions of dollars more into the project and making it far more difficult for Mayor Wharton to reconsider.

Therefore, this $2 million might not seem like very much, but it's probably the last chance for Memphians to retake control over their own riverfront. Click here to read ten good reasons to vote against the funding -- putting a hold on the project until Mayor Wharton can give due consideration to all reasonable alternatives.

I've written about one alternative at this link.

Please email your City Council members.

Further reading

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Let's be strategic on our riverfront

An open letter to Mayor Wharton and members of the Memphis City Council:

Mayor Wharton’s transition report recently concluded that "the City of Memphis has long suffered from not having an overarching sense of strategy in its planning and goal-setting."

That is perfectly evident on our riverfront, where the strategy now seems to be: "Keep on keepin' on."

And, "We have to use that 'free' Federal dollar, even if it costs us another $3.68 -- to build a boat dock to nowhere."

Good urban planning is usually represented by a strategic master plan, coupled with an ongoing process for adapting to changing realities.

It's time to be honest with ourselves: We don't have a master plan for the riverfront.

The $270 million, 2002 Riverfront Master Plan was gutted over four years ago, by removing 60% of it (the unworkable land bridge and lake). Without the guts, the rest made little sense. It was never redrawn. And the only project to come out of that plan? Beale Street Landing doesn't follow the plan at all. It merely keeps the name and location.

But that's also the good news: Other cities that started grand waterfront projects now have mountains of debt, and are struggling to figure out how to finish their projects. We spared ourselves from having to learn the hard way.

Let's take advantage of our good fortune. Let's learn some lessons from our experience. Let's be strategic again.

But before we can do so, we have to stop digging ourselves deeper into the hole at the bottom of Beale Street.

I ask that you freeze this project and gather the information necessary to make a long-term decision about its funding, maintenance, operation, and cost-effectiveness.

Further reading

Friday, February 5, 2010

The phantom Master Plan

A few days ago, a City Council member told me about their concern that, whatever we do, we should be guided by a master planning process. The member pointed out that other cities have created their riverfronts within the frameworks of multi-decade master plans.

I am sympathetic to that point of view. We do not need to have that debate.

Instead, what we all need to realize is very simple: Memphis does not have a Riverfront Master Plan.

It died and was officially declared dead by the previous City Council, in January, 2006. That was when the City Council ratified the decision to remove the infamous land bridge and lake from the Master Plan.

The land bridge itself accounted for about 60% of the development in the design. It wasn't just a feature and "signature" element — it was the guts of the plan. Without the land bridge, the rest of the RDC's development plan made little if any sense, save possibly for a privately-owned tract north of I-40.

For example, the Master Plan would have bulldozed Mud Island River Park (leaving only the river model). As you undoubtedly know, however, MIRP still exists. For months the RDC has been holding a public process to guide the future improvement of that park.

For all the projects RDC claims to have developed or started over the past ten years, only one was even suggested by the 2002 Master Plan: Beale Street Landing (BSL). And if you have been following this blog, I've made the case over and over that the BSL you know about today isn't the one in the Master Plan of 2002. It's radically different in its goals and design. Its remaining connection to the old plan is that it keeps the name and location.

The Master Plan has been an embarrassment for the RDC. When they were asked to come before the City Council Parks Committee and present it, RDC officials brought only three copies along. They didn't show pictures of it in their PowerPoint. They spent the hour convincing City Council members that the (unseen) plan was only a "vision."

Every time RDC's official business comes before City Council, the budget or resolution references the Master Plan. For example:
This [BSL] project provides funding for the first major project in the implementation of the Riverfront Master Plan approved by the City Council in May of 2002.

Why do they keep this pretense going, and why do others allow it to continue?

Very simple. The bulk of RDC's authority is based on their development contract (PDF, 5.68MB). That contract references the Riverfront Master Plan of 2002, binding the RDC to follow it. If we were to acknowledge that the Master Plan is no longer valid, the RDC would lose its authority and the contract would be meaningless. (Which raises the question: Has any RDC-related action since January 2006 been entirely legal?)

Thank goodness the land bridge is gone. But the previous City Council should have in 2006 directed the RDC to lead a new process to come up with its replacement.

Indeed, I believe that the current Mud Island planning process is no more than RDC's belated attempt to solve their contract problem. Soon, armed with pretty pictures, the RDC will claim that the MIRP plan is the new Master Plan for the riverfront. (Their contract is up for a renewal decision in 2012.)

Instead of redoing the Master Plan back in 2006, we took the cheap and easy route. By a one-sentence resolution, we "removed" the land bridge, and have since kept up the pretense that there still is a Master Plan.

Master planning is great. A master plan is like the tracks that the big train needs to run on. But the fact of the matter is that this riverfront train went off its tracks years ago — and it is now running over all of us.

Further reading

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's it going to cost? An update.

A few days ago I obtained a copy of the PowerPoint the RDC has been using to brief members of the City Council and other politicos. The key page is below (click to enlarge):

What we learn from this page, taking RDC's statements at face value:

Estimated cost of the project: $36,316,000 [Note 1]
Federal funding (after decreases): $7,932,215
Federal percentage: 21.8 %
Non-federal percentage: 78.2%
Non-federal ratio: 3.68 to 1

Total sunk costs through Phase II: $8,040,000 [Note 2]
...with remaining costs-to-completion of: $28,286,000

Phase III cost: $10,379,000
Total costs through Phase III: $18,419,000 [Note 3]
..with remaining costs-to-completion of: $17,907,000

My notes follow below. Continues...

Note 1: $36.3M is the sum of the construction estimate ($35M, which was reported in the media) and the cost of design ($1.3M). Frankly, I don't know of any project that doesn't get designed before it's built, but the RDC prefers to show them separately. And when the newspapers pick up the $35M and miss the other $1.3M, I'm sure that the RDC is happy to leave well enough alone. $35M sounds smaller. But I prefer to have the whole truth: $36.3M.

It's interesting, however, that the RDC calls all of this design cost "unanticipated." If that's the case, then can we assume that there are some more design costs that were anticipated, and these need to be added on top of $36.3M? As I said, any project I've ever heard of "anticipates" hiring some architects and engineers and getting a design. Or did the RDC think they would get a shovel-ready design from Argentina (on the cheap) and not have to do any more work to complete it?

So I strongly suspect that either there are more design costs not included on this page. Otherwise, I'd have to conclude that the folks at the RDC are rather foolish.

Speaking of Argentina: On another page of their PowerPoint, the RDC reports spending $126 thousand on an International Design Competition. Maybe I should include this too, but it's not very significant.

Note 2: To get total sunk costs through Phase II, I had to add in those pesky "unanticipated" design costs again. With Phases I and II, it comes to $8M, or about 22% of the total project cost.

But here's the odd part: In May, the RDC told the City Council it had already sunk $11M into the project, and that was before the RDC had even received all the bids for Phase III. What's going on? Are there some costs they were including then, but are neglecting to include on this page now?

Once again, I suspect we don't have the whole story. There may be some more costs out there, perhaps as much as $2 million. Possibly these would be design costs that the RDC conveniently omitted mention of because they don't help explain the point of the PowerPoint presentation: Why they are $8.9 million short and 3 years late with the project.

Note 3: I've simply added the bid price for Phase III ($10.4M) to the previous Phase II sunk costs total ($8M) to get $18.4M.

Phase III is the steelwork - the floating docks and the helical ramp. The public won't get to see this work-in-progress; the steel dock will be built somewhere else and then barged in.

At the conclusion of Phase III, the City would have sunk $18.4M into the project, and we'd then be over 50% invested. Thinking out loud: If I were trying to save my project, I'd want to get this Phase III done, pronto, in hopes that nobody would have the stomach to stop the project once it's half done!

This makes it important to figure out where the City actually stands on this Phase III. If we haven't started on Phase III, we're at 22% sunk cost, and to many people it would be reasonable to consider other alternatives. But if the RDC has gone ahead and built and paid for that steel boat dock...well, that's another matter. (We could save money by not building those pods, but we'd still be stuck with a "boat dock to nowhere.")

A couple of weeks ago, someone requested a search of the City records. There is an entry for the winning bidder on Phase III -- but no contract could be found.

This is why I am calling for a project freeze and an independent audit.

A bone picked

Perpetuating the pretense about the Public Promenade

I said previously that Memphis Magazine (February issue) has blockbuster article about the riverfront that should be read by everyone, but that I do have a couple bones to pick.

Here's the main one. Branston opines:
4. Friends for Our Riverfront must compromise on the Promenade."

It's based on a mistaken premise that is, unfortunately, widely believed: That the Overton descendants actually have the legal standing to negotiate a compromise.

They only have the standing to block an illegal misuse of the Public Promenade easement, which they did 50 years ago, and were sustained by a Tennessee Supreme Court decision. They don't have the power to rewrite the easement, whether they want to or not.

Nevertheless, it is very useful (for the City's purposes) to allow the misunderstanding to continue, and even to encourage it. I explained why in a letter to the Commercial Appeal published a year ago. Continues...

At the Rotary Club luncheon Jan. 13, Mayor Willie Herenton was asked about the status of the riverfront. In response, he fibbed:
"The matter of ... the Overton heirs ... I don't know when that will ever be resolved satisfactorily, in terms of some of the real estate that the Riverfront Development is looking forward to for public purposes. That still remains an issue which we're still no closer to."

The truth is that the city hasn't held any meaningful negotiations with the descendants of the Proprietors (Memphis founders) in at least six years -- if ever.

Why? First, the city's lawyers have long known that the descendants don't have the power to agree to a modification of the terms of the Public Promenade easement.

Second, the city doesn't even want a modified easement. It wants to own the land outright, so it can lease or sell it to developers.

The city paid thousands of dollars to a powerful Washington law firm to research how to accomplish this goal. By May 2003, city lawyers had concluded that the way to do it was by eminent domain. In other words: They want to condemn the Public Promenade and eliminate the easement.

Why does Herenton (helped by this newspaper -- see "Time to move on the Promenade," Aug. 17, 2008) continue to perpetuate the myth that "Overton heirs" are obstacles to progress? Because taking property by eminent domain could inspire a public backlash.

The myth is part of a deliberate public relations strategy to demonize the "Overton heirs" -- the Promenade's supposed owners -- so that when the city goes to court to condemn the Promenade, the public has little or no sympathy for the heirs' loss. The city will claim, of course, that when the heirs wouldn't cooperate, officials had no choice but to take it by eminent domain.

But the descendants' "ownership" is the biggest fib. It's a legal technicality. As long as the property is subject to the easement, the descendants own nothing of any real value. The value is in the right to use the Promenade, which already belongs to the general public.

What Herenton hopes citizens never realize is that the city would be taking their property by eminent domain so it can sell, lease or even give the land to private commercial interests.

This above is as succinct an explanation of a very dense and complicated subject as it possible to write. In the interest of brevity, I simplify some wrinkles, but I promise you that they don't change the conclusion:

There is no practical way to modify the easement to allow the City to only partially misuse the Promenade -- just as there is no way to be just "partly pregnant" or "a little bit dead." The city's attorneys want to blow away the easement entirely, through eminent domain.

But here's the problem. The bulk of the Promenade's value already belongs to the citizens of Memphis, for public use. The City would be using eminent domain to take that use and value away from the public and hand it over to commercial developers.

After the national outcry over the Supreme Court's Kelo decision in 2006 (involving some private property owners), no city would want to invite the outrage that might result if the general public realized that the property was been taken from them.

This is why there has been a calculated, multi-year strategy of:

1. avoiding the mention of eminent domain until the time comes,
2. perpetuating a myth that the land belongs to some "Overton heirs,"
3. painting those "heirs," sotto voce as uncompromising obstructionists,
4. so that the general public has no sympathy left when the City pulls the trigger.

With all due respect, Branston's opinion innocently plays right into the City's hands, and helps shorten the time until the City pulls the trigger -- which they have long had the paperwork ready to do.

If you do not believe I know what I'm talking about when I ascribe these nefarious motives to the City, then please read the minutes of the RDC's executive committee from back in 2003, obtained through Open Records request.

Do you remember those three supposed "public-input" meetings on the Promenade? They had a different purpose entirely: To help lay the groundwork (and seduce the public) in preparation for an eminent domain lawsuit. Here's what the RDC minutes say [my emphasis]:
Ms. Colleta who will coordinate the public meetings for the project outlined the plans for the process. In anticipation of condemnation proceedings, the first step will be to meet with the lawyers to understand what the final product must look like in order to demonstrate that the Promenade property will be used for public purpose. On receipt of the Urban Land Institute report, which highlights the importance of the Promenade to riverfront development, three public meetings will be held:

1. A walk around the site laying out challenge and inviting questions and discussion.
2. A workshop where participants will help design the answers
3. A presentation to the public of a final product

Remarkable candor. It seems that the lawyers had far more input into the design than the public.

But that was then and this is now. The RDC now claims it doesn't have an executive committee, so they don't have to expose their decision-making to the public and bloggers.

Has the Promenade situation changed since 2003? No. When I wrote that letter to the CA just a year ago, Herenton was still avoiding the words eminent domain, and pretending that the "Overton heirs" were the obstacle to using the land for some "public purposes".

The truth: He knew exactly how the problem could be solved and how commercial developers would get their hands on the Public Promenade for condos and hotels. As he spoke, the papers for the eminent domain lawsuit were sitting on City Attorney Jefferson's desk.

I can assure you that the RDC hasn't forgotten the Promenade. Benny Lendermon has said so. Local developers have already drawn up pictures of what they'd like to develop on it. It's likely to be the next project after Beale Street Landing.

I also urge you to read a letter to City Council written by famed downtown developer Jack Belz, who was the one developer in Memphis to speak out against the RDC's Promenade Plan. His conclusion? Unwise, both financially and economically. (So much for those "economic development" claims.)

He further said:
Our community has only one front door and that is downtown. Our downtown has only one riverfront. The public promenade set aside by our founding fathers is the only publicly owned property on our city's high bluff that will ever exist. We must not let short term pressures override the long term best interest of our community.

Meanwhile, the Public Promenade continues to be held hostage by the City, the RDC, and its Promenade Land Use Plan, so we can't do anything with it -- even if our ideas would be fully compatible with what the founding founders really wanted.

Memphis Magazine

I've been meaning to mention this: The February issue of Memphis Magazine has a blockbuster article, "Frozen" by John Branston, reviewing the history and the current situation with Memphis riverfront. If you don't subscribe, pick up a copy anywhere magazines are sold (Kroger, Walgreens to name two).

It's loaded with scoop, insight and perspective. I could pick a bone with a couple of his suggestions (and will address them in future posts), but I'd recommend it everyone without reservation.

Most cities have to wait until afterwards to read a good post-mortem of their big failures. We're luckier than most. We have John Branston and his publisher.

Update: Incorrect Memphis Magazine link fixed.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Still the "B.S." Landing

As of this writing, the RDC's web page still says the following:
Because the Beale Street Landing project is under design, the former Delta Steamship Company has increased its dockings in Memphis by 40%. They are trying to build their market here in anticipation of the new docking facility, adding a strong economic development aspect to the project that benefits the City for years to come.

The truth? Those big riverboat companies have gone out of the business and have drydocked their boats. We are spending $36 million to build a boat dock to nowhere!

Learn some more truths about B.S. Landing. Tell your City Council how you feel.

Write your City Council representative

If you want to make your feelings about "B.S." Landing known to city officials, here are their emails. Just click a name to send a message.,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Monday, January 11, 2010

The real truth about B.S. Landing

An open letter to members of the Memphis City Council:

The RDC will be asking for a $2 million to $9 million increase in its CIP (Capital Improvements) budget, to account for a loss of Federal funds and increases in steel costs for Beale Street Landing.

You should vote NAY and deny their request.

You should also ask Mayor Wharton to order a freeze on the RDC's projects, and obtain an independent audit, giving him the time and the facts he needs to re-evaluate our riverfront strategy and consider alternatives.

You will of course need a justification to cite with your NAY vote. Take your pick of any or all of the following:

1. In 2002, this project was supposed to be a feature enhancement to the restored Cobblestone Landing, at a cost of $10.4 million. Now it's a $37.6 million replacement for our historic landing. The City has more important priorities.

2. Its design has grown to more than twice the size envisioned in the Master Plan, extending deeply into and forcing the reconfiguration of Tom Lee Park.

3. When the land bridge was canceled in 2005, Beale Street Landing became unnecessary. We already had, and still have, Mud Island's riverboat landing. It could be spruced up at relatively small cost. (The RDC's website doesn't mention these alternatives.)

4. In any event, those big overnight riverboat cruises have since gone out of the business and dry-docked their boats. (The RDC's website doesn't mention that.)

5. The Memphis Queen Lines (daily cruise) operation doesn't need Beale Street Landing. All they need is for the City to properly restore and maintain the Cobblestone Landing -- something the RDC has deliberately avoided doing during the ten years since it has had responsibility. (The Memphis Queen Lines have had to maintain their small area at their own cost.)

6. The overblown and unneeded BSL project has sucked the funding and support away from our historic Cobblestones. For the latter project, RDC wants to get away with doing only half the job, or "cobbles under glass."

7. The overblown and unneeded BSL project is directly contrary to the recommendations in the Master Plan, which called for a full restoration of the Cobblestone Landing serving as a Union Avenue terminus. (The switch in plans wasn't pointed out to previous City Councils.)

8. When you discount the unneeded "boat dock to nowhere," the snack bar and a playground, what is left is just a huge and expensive example of urban art. (I'm not against art but frankly, that's a lot of money and real estate to expend on a piece of art.)

9. The RDC has never properly accounted for the ongoing operating costs of BSL, which is expected to be open 24/7. It's clearly a security risk. The police coverage alone would cost much more than the $100,000/year RDC officials casually estimated when asked about it at a CCC Design Review Board meeting, March 2008.

10. The RDC has never produced a business plan for Beale Street Landing, much less documented the claim they've been heard to make that it will "pay for itself in a year."

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Letter to the editor: A vibrant riverfront -- for less

The Commercial Appeal published my letter to the editor this morning:

As the mayor reconsiders whether to spend $26.6 million more after the $11 million we've sunk into Beale Street Landing, the question remains: What are the alternatives?

Here are five practical and affordable ideas to rejuvenate our riverfront area, with my estimates of the costs. These ideas aren't radical. Most have been suggested many times by others.

1. Filling the hole, landscaping, sidewalks and signage. At the very least we must clean up the mess down there and restore the area to something comparable to the rest of Tom Lee Park. My guesstimate: $3 million.

2. Add a snack bar, restrooms and visitors center. Riverfront Development Corp. supporters have long complained that you can't buy a Coke and hot dog on the riverfront. Let's fix that problem by adding a snack bar. Don't call it a restaurant; that just jacks up the cost. My guesstimate: $3 million.

3. Add a family playground. Beale Street Landing offered play areas within those strange pods. Maybe that's not such a bad idea, so let's include a playground in our new plan. My guesstimate: $1 million.

4. Provide a landing for the big riverboats, should they ever return to Memphis. We don't need a new dock because there is already a landing at Mud Island. Right nearby is a gift shop and a snack bar. Perhaps it needs a facelift and better facilities for the elderly and disabled. My guesstimate: $2 million.

5. Restore the historic cobblestone area as an active and vibrant riverboat landing. The RDC proposes to do half the job (preserve the cobblestones) for about $6 million, which they've already lined up as a federal grant. Let's double that to $12 million to do the whole job: Restore the Cobblestone Landing so that the Memphis Queen Lines can be proud to stay right where they've always been. Smaller boats can use and enjoy the landing too. Net cost: $6 million (floating restaurants extra).

The total comes to $15 million. For that, we get everything Beale Street Landing would have provided and more.

The RDC could have figured this out 10 years ago. By now the work would be done, at even less cost, and we'd all be enjoying it. But they refused to investigate any strategy but their own hallowed land bridge (now defunct) and later its replacement, the overblown Beale Street Landing.

Incapable of considering anything except grandiose plans involving millions of square feet of new development, the RDC has been a great obstacle to the improvement of our riverfront. We need to take back control over our own great riverfront.

Further reading