What happens when an unstoppable boat dock meets an irresistible force?

Brandon Dill

The Memphis riverfront is a bleak place in winter when the temperature dips below freezing. The parks and sidewalks are all but empty, the wind blows in from Arkansas over the dark, foreboding river, and skim ice forms at the edge of the harbor.

There's a new piece in the picture this year. A barge crane stands like a giant sentinel at the mouth of the harbor just off the north end of Tom Lee Park. A partially completed iron dam and two red columns jut out of the water. The tip of the park is gouged and cluttered with supplies and equipment. This is the construction site of Beale Street Landing, a boat dock, restaurant, and public space scheduled to open in the summer of 2011.

In early January, with temperatures falling to single digits, Beale Street Landing was frozen, in more ways than one.

The price of the controversial project has steadily increased since its inception from $27 million to $30 million to $33 million to at least $35 million. The completion date has been pushed back a year. Some of the federal funds that the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) was counting on to pay for it have not come through, leaving Memphis taxpayers on the hook for a shortfall of $8.9 million or more.

The RDC and its nemesis, the nonprofit group Friends for Our Riverfront, are locked in a One Hundred Years War of words and numbers that shows no signs of ending.

There are fears of Beale Street Landing becoming another Mud Island, the 28-year-old, $60 million park and monorail that is closed half the year. Or a flop like The Great American Pyramid, sold to a skeptical public as a $39.5 million landmark, partially completed for $62 million, and now empty. Or an eyesore like the Cobblestones Landing, targeted for improvements for more than 30 years yet still blighted. Or a tourist bauble like the little-used riverfront trolley.

Even in the best of times, building anything in or next to a river that fluctuates 50 feet from flood to low water is challenging.

"That little intersection is a nasty-ass piece of waterway," Gene Carlisle says of the tip of Tom Lee Park where whirlpools capture river debris, mud and sand, and brownish foam at the entrance to the harbor. He ought to know. Carlisle came downtown in 1971 and developed a group of stores and restaurants called the Beale Street Emporium at the corner of Beale Street and Riverside Drive in the early 1980s. Most of it lasted only a few years before closing. In 2003, the buildings were damaged by "Hurricane Elvis" and later demolished to make way for a high-rise hotel and condo called One Beale that has not broken ground.

He likes the concept of Beale Street Landing but wonders about the details.

"There is a need for something, but is it designed right? I have been to several presentations and I have to say I don't quite get it," Carlisle says. "Have they got that right? I'm not sure. I would not want to be spending that much of my money."

City Councilman Kemp Conrad, a former RDC board member and a commercial real estate broker, says he is troubled by the higher price tag for the "signature project." The $8.9 million shortfall, he notes, is roughly 11 percent of the city's annual capital improvements budget. Asked if he was satisfied with the RDC's explanations, he says, "No."

"I have a lot of questions," he says. "Why is the number so much higher than we expected? Where will the shortfall come from? How do we know this is it? Is there value engineering that can be done to bring down the price?"

What Is the RDC?

To answer those questions, it helps to understand what the RDC is and how it came to be.

As a nonprofit corporation, the RDC is supposed to combine the best practices and talents of city government and private business, bringing focus and private dollars to Front Street and the riverfront parks it manages and maintains. Its guiding light was Kristi Jernigan, who was also one of the driving forces, along with her husband Dean Jernigan, of AutoZone Park, the celebrated $72 million baseball stadium that opened in 2000.

The RDC was Act Two. Benny Lendermon, a career city employee who was director of public works, was hired as executive director at roughly twice his old salary. Also hired were city engineer John Conroy, Danny Lemmons from the Department of Sanitation, and Dorchelle Spence, wife of former city attorney Robert Spence. City Council wits renamed the RDC the "Retired Directors Club." The RDC board was stocked with highly capable businessmen who also happened to be Lendermon's fishing buddies, pliable City Council members, celebrities like John Calipari and Cybill Shepherd and Jerry West, and cronies of former Mayor Willie Herenton.

There was a place on the board for the bellicose president of the Downtown Neighborhood Assocation, Tommy Volinchak, (since replaced), but not for anyone from Friends for Our Riverfront or the Sierra Club. This contributed to the adversarial and often poisonous relationship between riverfront insiders, who sat at the table, and outsiders, who sat on the fringes, took notes, and asked the hard questions the board should have asked.

For $750,000, a consulting firm was hired to come up with a master plan for a "world-class riverfront." Its centerpiece was a land bridge connecting downtown to Mud Island. In theory, private investments, including new office buildings on Front Street and the land bridge, would pay for public improvements. The master plan drew sharp opposition from Friends for Our Riverfront and its leader, Virginia McLean, a descendant of John Overton, one of the three city founders who in 1828 dedicated the Front Street Promenade to public use in perpetuity.

"If they try to take that land by eminent domain that would break the conservation easement for the public's right to the space" she says. "And we would fight that."

The RDC did, however, get the City Council to adopt the master plan in principle, which gave it leverage over future council members whenever public funds were needed. But history shows that big downtown projects in Memphis — The Pyramid, Peabody Place, Harbor Town, AutoZone Park, FedExForum — need someone wealthy, influential, determined, and resourceful who wants them to get built. After the Jernigans left Memphis, the RDC was a group of courtiers with no queen.

The moment of reckoning came in October 2005 when the board voted to remove the wildly unfeasible land bridge from its strategic and implementation plans. With the centerpiece and the funding sources gone, the logical next question was "why are we here?" But the board spent less than five minutes discussing the ramifications of its decision.

By default, Beale Street Landing, designed by an architectural firm in Argentina that was chosen in a design competition, was the new centerpiece. Without it, the RDC was basically a well-paid maintenance and landscaping organization. The boat landing, it was hoped, would attract overnight riverboats and their corporate headquarters as well as everyday visitors.

When the last overnight riverboat company went out of business in 2008 — after moving its headquarters to the West Coast — the RDC needed a new rationale for the landing. It is now supposed to be the home of the Memphis Queen Line tour boats and a place where river visitors can get something to eat and drink, cool off, play a game of checkers or chess, and touch the river from concrete pods in the water.

Access and Arrogance

The current Memphis City Council has nine members serving their first term. During budget hearings in May 2009, Lendermon and the city's finance director, Roland McElrath, told the council that Beale Street Landing would cost $30.5 million. Public documents showed the cost was at least $33 million. Lendermon told his board and the council that the media and Friends for Our Riverfront simply could not "get it right." In fact, a short case could be made that Lendermon was understating the cost to win votes on the council.

In December, the RDC admitted, in an announcement buried in the fourth paragraph of an upbeat report on its website, that the cost had increased to at least $35 million and there was a shortfall of $8.9 million due in part to a "holdback" of federal funds.

With the land bridge gone, the master plan gutted, funding disappearing, and the riverboat companies out of business, the RDC once again had to scramble to find new reasons to justify the fancy boat dock and its own existence. The new pitch: A lack of access keeps tourists and Memphians from enjoying the Mississippi riverfront.

This statement has been trotted out for 30 years every time a new riverfront project is proposed. There's just one problem: From Greenbelt Park on the north end of Mud Island to the National Ornamental Metal Museum south of the Interstate 55 bridge, the riverfront is a nearly unbroken string of public parks, most of which are no harder to access than The Orpheum or FedEx Forum.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into riverfront parks and access years before the RDC existed. Mud Island River Park opened in 1982. Jeff Sanford, a city councilman from 1977 to 1983 and head of the Center City Commission (until July, when he will voluntarily step down), recalls the price soaring from $20 million to $60 million. In its early years, there really was an access problem. The only direct way to the park was via the monorail or the walkway above it, and the high-end River Terrace restaurant and its more modest counterparts could not survive. Since the Auction Street Bridge to Mud Island was built in 1987, residential development has exploded but park attendance has not improved.

While Dick Hackett was mayor from 1982 to 1991, Tom Lee Park was expanded to its present size by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the project was turned down the first time.

"That was done to stabilize Riverside Drive and the South Bluffs," Hackett says. "It was the most heated discussion I ever had in public office."

In the first term of the Herenton administration, the Bluff Walk was completed, linking South Bluffs, Beale Street, and the pedestrian bridge over Riverside Drive that offers one of the best views of downtown. The riverfront trolley opened as a one-way extension of the trolley line on the Main Street Mall.

The no-access argument is true only so far as getting in or on the river, a dangerous proposition best left to boat owners, hunters and fishermen, and experienced canoeists and kayakers. The wake from a barge headed upstream can easily spill a canoe. On the other hand, the river rewards those who know what they're doing. The views from Loosahatchie Bar on the Arkansas side north of downtown and Engineer's Beach south of downtown are spectacular, and it's possible to shoot doves, spot an eagle or a wild hog, catch a 40-pound catfish, or take baseball swings at flying Asian carp within sight of the skyline. There is not another urban riverfront like it anywhere in the world.

During high water in the spring and summer, the Greenbelt Park on the north end of Mud Island floods to within 100 feet of the sidewalk, and anyone so inclined can dip a toe or a fishing pole in the water. But few people do. For the most part, the only on-the-water experience for even the most adventurous Memphians is the annual canoe and kayak race during Memphis in May.

The cobblestones and the harbor present more realistic everyday opportunities, but the slackwater is dirty, Mud Island River Park obstructs the view of the river, and if touching the river is on your bucket list, well, the harbor is not really the river. With the exception of the day tours on the Memphis Queen Line boats, commercial operations in the harbor — including airboat tours and kayak rentals from the Mud Island ramp and a short-lived cobblestones restaurant called the Sunset Café — have not been successful.

If restoring the cobblestones had ever been a high priority of Memphians (most of whom arguably value parking over preservation), the job would have been completed years ago. Cobblestones restoration by the city and the U.S. Corps of Engineers was on Hackett's agenda when he left office. A more recent plan for a plaza overlooking the cobblestones and named for banker Ron Terry never came to be. The city currently has some $7 million appropriated for the cobblestones apart from Beale Street Landing, and the project is supposed to begin this year.

The inaccessible riverfront, in other words, is a myth. People can get to the river, The Pyramid, Mud Island, Tom Lee Park, or Greenbelt Park when they want to. The question is, do they want to?

What Next?

Where there is a compelling need, a hard job can get done. The University of Memphis law school relocated downtown to the old post office and customs house in time for classes to start in January. The cost of the renovation was $42 million, most of it state funds. Lead architect Bill Nixon says his team worked with the university, donors, the RDC, the state, federal ADA regulators, Friends for Our Riverfront, and local and state preservation groups. Compromises were made, including putting the large cooling towers on top of the building instead of on the west side of the building, where a sidewalk and pedestrian bridge will be built.

"You take all of the pieces of the puzzle and make it work the best you can," Nixon says.

Not a bad lesson for the RDC and Beale Street Landing.


Eleven Ways To Make Beale Street Landing Work

1. If the RDC wants to spend $35 million on Beale Street Landing, ask the private sector for the $8.9 million shortfall. Naming rights, anyone? Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker raised $40 million in private capital for that city's riverfront. If the private side and the foundations don't want to invest any more in this deal, why should the taxpayers?

2. Negotiate with the architects and contractors on the design and the price of materials. Carlisle, whose company builds several new Wendy's restaurants every year, says the price of steel and overall construction has "dropped like a rock."

3. Get fresh horses on the RDC board. No more celebrities. Find regular users of the riverfront with open minds. A board that can find a place for bullies can find a place for canoe race founder Joe Royer, Virginia McLean, and the Sierra Club.

4. Friends for Our Riverfront must compromise on the promenade. There are enough parks on the riverfront. Memphis does not have many high cards, and location is one of them. A covenant drawn in 1828 (and so unpopular that an exasperated Overton called the ungrateful critics "stupid") for pioneers, bear hunters, slave traders, farmers, steamboats, and the antebellum cotton trade does not serve the needs of a twenty-first century city.

5. Merge the RDC and the Center City Commission. A city with two governments doesn't need the RDC, CCC, Chamber of Commerce, Memphis Tomorrow, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau all operating downtown.

6.. If Beale Street Landing is a train that can't be stopped, as it appears to be, then it will need a parking lot. Start making plans to move Musicfest and other Memphis in May events to Mud Island or somewhere else. Tom Lee Park looks like a pig sty after Memphis in May. And nothing says "NO ACCESS" like a cyclone fence covered in blue tarp, security guards, and closing Riverside Drive.

7. Get the riverside restaurant right. Preston Lamm, whose company manages several restaurants on Beale Street, says it can be done with the right operator and incentives. "You have the best view in Memphis at night with the barges and the lights and the mysterious river. That is the ambience people look for."

8. Until then, put the RDC's marketing budget where the public's mouth is. Overpay vendors with push carts and golf carts at riverfront parks to sell $1 hot dogs and 25-cent bottled water and soft drinks under the banner "We Owe You One."

9. Enough of chairmanships held by Hackett-Herenton holdovers – That means former CAOs Greg Duckett and Rick Masson and anyone who wore a T-shirt and sat ringside in Willie Herenton's corner for his preposterous "fight" with Joe Frazier.

10. Get Carlisle to clean up his vacant lot at Riverside and Beale and turn it into a temporary skateboard park or pocket park.

11. Stop trying to do something "world class" and do little things every day that make Memphis better for Memphians. 

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