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

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