Sunday, April 25, 2004

Fair and Impartial, That's Us

Sunday's Commercial Appeal editorial is the paper's stance on the RDC Promenade plan. Naturally, they like it. Let's see how they fairly and impartially approach the subject.
Development of the Memphis riverfront in a way that enhances its accessibility and esthetics is a long-time dream of generations of Memphians.

While we've dreamed, waterfront areas in other old river towns have sprung to life, in many cases through the efforts of public-private partnerships that leverage scarce public funds with private dollars.
This is true, but we have to take the CA's word for it. They haven't written about any yet, that I know of.

Also, note how the very first word is "development." Think maybe that's a sign of their own bias? How about some other word not loaded with presuppositions?
The approach attracts critics because it uses a valuable public asset - the public's property - to generate profits for private developers. That is a legitimate concern.
And that's the last time they mention it!
But at the same time it accomplishes important public goals such as making the riverfront more attractive, accessible and exciting, creating jobs, luring tourists and helping to revitalize an area that needs a shot in the arm. In some cases, greenspace is increased.
Boy does that last phrase feel tacked on! Note, too, that the RDC plan is not the only way to do this, nor the best, they just can't imagine some other one. That "revitalize an area that needs a shot in the arm" bit is also a nastily offhand slap to countless neighborhoods in this City that aren't downtown. And after such unarguable analysis, they propose --
It's a compromise that Memphis should make in an important phase of the overall plan for redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront - the promenade between Front Street and the river.
It's all about the compromise, but I can't recall too many high-profile compromises made by developers and profiteers, while I can list for you a whole lot of Memphians who have been made to compromise for them. Don't often see the CA arguing for the little guys do you? Labelling the daily apologists wouldn't be too far from the mark.
As Viewpoint guest columnist Randy Morton, a partner in the urban design consulting firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, points out in today's editions, the Riverfront Development Corp. plan "balances the need for a lasting, accessible and vibrant riverfront destination with the immediate reality of funding constraints. It seeks private development as a tool to realize the city's goal, and the site's historic intent, of creating a first-rate promenade for Memphians."
Or, "Recogising their own financial exposure is a danger and that the City is already overexposed itself after a spree of spending the past decade, developers seek to leverage downtown assets into private profit, to create new opportunities without the slow cumbersome process of condemnation and demolition of existing properties, are using government power to force action against recalcitrant obstructionists?"
The historic intent for the site, a strip of land from Union to Adams overlooking the Wolf River harbor and Mud Island, was established by city founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson in 1819 when they set aside choice parcels from their newly purchased Fourth Chickasaw Bluff to be reserved in perpetuity as a public promenade.
Yeah, "historic intent." Things change, gotta compromise....

As others have pointed out, our Founders were developers themselves and so knew exactly what would happen without their setting up a barrier to it! The space was always meant to be as park-like and open as possible, and to be kept from private development. Read their own words (which you'll notice the CA carefully edits) for yourself. If the CA can be bothered to print the whole.
That intent has not been carried out. Instead, the area has become covered primarily with buildings and parking garages that form a wall blocking access to the river, and severely limiting waterfront views, from Front Street.
That development happened because of spineless and cronyistic City governments that couldn't do their jobs. So, since the covenant has been disgracefully dishonored we should feel free to ignore it too? Let me apply that thinking to laws against theft and burglary and see how far it takes me. The paper should be arguing for stricter and more diligent observance of our heritage. And yet, they don't!
The RDC's plan to devote some of that space to new, strictly regulated commercial development that guarantees public access would, finally, fulfill the wishes of the city's founders, create new reasons to visit the river and enhance pride in the community.
Having just shown how past covenants, clear and unmistakeable, with the most restrictive bonds against violation legally possible have been trampled, they now want us to believe that mere "regulation" is going to protect us? Truly laughable, that one. Will such regulation be written into the City Charter, or merely left in the hands of the Riverfront Development Corporation? You'll forgive me if I don't trust the same looters who have saddled us with the Pyramid, the FedExForum, etc., to look after my future.

This would be the same City government -- Literally! Many Councillors and the Mayor have been here for more than a decade -- that has had custody and responsiblility for Mud Island. Look at the quality and "guarantee" they've made there.
The founders' heirs are split over the idea, and opponents of the plan, including some heirs, will make their views known to the Memphis City Council this week as it begins deliberations, as the council's public works committee, on a resolution approving the promenade plan.

City Council approval, which could occur as early as May 18, would set in motion the RDC's efforts to secure clear title to the property - a process that would involve talks with the so-called "Overton heirs."
A Sunday letter writer makes the depressing prediction that the City will simply abandon the easement and return the Promenade to the heirs, whereupon the City will buy out those who want their money now. The rest will be picked off with a combination of arm-twisting, reduction of asset value, eminent domain, fear and "fair market value." It sounds a lot like how the FedEx Forum came to be, so it sounds all too plausible.
Ownership would permit the nonprofit quasi-governmental organization to begin seeking proposals for private development - most likely on a block-by-block basis - to create spacious sidewalks, staircases, underground parking and what the Urban Land Institute's Wayne Ratkovich describes in another Viewpoint guest column as "a great gathering place, a civic 'family room' filled with specialty shops, cafes, coffee houses, bars and restaurants."
Notice what's going on in this paragraph. The RDC is described as a "nonprofit quasi-governmental organization," rather than by name, so as to reassure folks that there is protection against The Bad Things that will inevitably come. The glowing descriptions paint a rosy picture. And they use one of their "guest columnists" to buttress their argument! Wanna bet why he was asked to contribute in the first place?
After partnerships are formed with private entities, the RDC expects to spend some $50 million on demolition and public improvements that would be recovered through private development of part of the property and long-term leases. The U.S. Customs House and possibly a section of the Cossitt Library would be preserved. Confederate Park would be improved. Concrete would be laid for broad sidewalks on two separate levels.
Again with the bland reassuring language: "partnerships are formed with private entities." Those entities are the usual suspects in downtown profiteering -- the Belz, Turley, Hynemann, etc. civic-development complex and the financial institutions that love them. And again with the rosy pictures.
Opponents of the RDC proposal also have developed an attractive alternative for the promenade. The organization Friends for Our Riverfront proposes converting much of the tract into strictly public parkland connected by a pedestrian walk along the bluff.
Here we have the only mention and discussion of the alternatives, the only one that honors the Founders' specific covenant. Nothing to see, keep moving. Notice that the alternatives are pejoratively and oppositionally disparaged as "opponents" Them vs. us.
The RDC proposal offers practical advantages for Memphis taxpayers that seem to give it an overall edge. But a full City Council discussion of both alternatives should prove useful.
The comparison suffers since the "opposition" doesn't get an equal hearing! Let's see. Publicly owned property will be turned over in large part to private developers to profit from. Various tax incentives will be offered to "lure" new development. Tax monies from those properties will in turn be redirected to the various downtown Commissions and Corporations to be spent on the downtown. I haven't seen any breakdowns of the expected tax revenues generated and returned to the City, just airy assurances of "jobs" and "tourists" and big office buildings. You'll forgive my skepticism.
By whatever means possible, ultimately the longtime dream of concerned Memphians - to correct past mistakes that have hidden the wondrous and powerful Mississippi River behind a curtain of concrete - must be turned into reality.
Unless, of course, you're in one of the buildings or street views that's blocked by the new towers to be built in front of you! Too bad for you. Someone ought to go to the buildings on Front Street behind these towers, take some pictures from inside, then superimpose the proposed towers on the views from those offices. Might be illuminating, or maybe shadowy.

Also, note that the towers to be built are shown in some proposal paintings as straight-sided blocks, but in the Sunday graphic they are stepped-back. Is this a guarantee or a hope? Is this locked down or a guideline?

I love the "by whatever means possible" phrase. I'm betting it turns out to be prophetic!

Yes, let's "correct" the mistakes of the past. Host a national contest to find the next Frederick Law Olmsted. Scrape off the buildings and other encrustations on the Promenade. Sculpt the land and fill it with pavillions and benches, maybe a small band shell. Light it.

But don't turn yet another piece of Memphis over to profiteers who will rape it and laugh all the way to the bank.

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