Monday, May 24, 2004

They've Still Got It

It's good to know that the Commercial Appeal still has the ability -- in the mushy, feel-good, people-centric Chris Peck era -- to be infuriatingly dishonest with their readers. It's almost reassuring.

Friday's editorial has the Chris Lords at the Death Star patting everyone on the head for doing the wise thing in pillaging a public good for private profit. Shall we take a look?
MANY MORE hurdles remain to be crossed, but the Memphis City Council has established the most viable course for eventual transformation of the promenade on Front Street into an attractive downtown amenity.

The council's approval of a redevelopment concept for the four-block blufftop tract from Union to Adams - using private funds for public improvements - came after four hours of debate.
No, not so much. From the Commercial Appeal's own reporter Blake Fontenay comes this earlier story:
After Brown allowed 20 minutes for the RDC to introduce the plan he gave 20 minutes to opponents, then another 20 minutes to supporters.
My math says that adds up to one hour, not four. The other three hours was the time spent by the audience waiting to get to that short travesty of "discussion." But, the "four hours" meme is out there now and will become the story, just like "rock throwing horn honkers" did in the Income Tax Wars. Repetition will trump honesty once again.

That first paragraph irks me. It's the kind of talk you hear from people eager to pretend that their foot in the door is a welcomed opportunity, not a false pretense. Who says "most viable?" Note, too, the "attractive community amenity" propaganda that falsely portrays what is proposed. Also note that they skew the reality of giving public lands to private developers to convert to personal profits along with various tax abatements as "using private funds for public improvements." It still hasn't been clearly explained how that's going to work. We just have to trust our wise and fair leaders, I guess.
The vote was a recognition of the reality that private investment is probably the only practical way to revitalize that stretch of the waterfront.
Says who? Did I miss that Commission? There are several very good plans, with very low costs involved and no private investment needed, that are languishing because the choice has already been made. The RDC seems to have always had the private developer plan as the default. Others have proposed a variety of low-impact alternatives that get some media notice, but somehow never seem to get discussed by the RDC or the City Council. Only the RDC plan is getting play.
Now cluttered with buildings that block access to river views, the 12-acre promenade, if the Riverfront Development Corp. plan continues to advance, could be cleared for the most part to make way for broad sidewalks, walkways to the river and new buildings with the kinds of ground-floor businesses that would draw people to the riverfront for shopping, dining and socializing.
A complex deception going on here. That "clutter" is the result of decades of malfeasance by previous Mayors and City Councils who have abrogated their duty to protect this plot in the names of necessity and expediency. And the RDC plan will turn over forty percent of the ground to building, leaving a single small park plot and some north-south corridors. You can see it here, at the Friends For Our Riverfront site, a must-read for folks who wish to be truly informed in this discussion.

A few wide walks will connect Front Street to the Riverwalk in the RDC plan, but the rest will be in shopping mall pass-throughs inside the buildings to be hunkered down on the site. Private property, privately controlled. Do not be deceived. The only good thing in this plan is the amount of commercial space and its placement in regards to the River. Move this idea a few blocks North or South, off the Promenade, and I'd be there. But the Promenade itself should be sacred space and inviolate.
The council's decision is hardly the last word on the fate of the promenade. City government has an easement to use the property for the public's benefit, but the situation is complicated: It is owned by heirs of the city's founders, a large and diverse group with widely varied opinions on the matter.
Once again, the paper finesses ugly realities with elisions and omissions. They completely fail to mention the very clear wishes of Memphis' Founders:
The undersigned properties of the land on which the town of Memphis has been laid off, having been informed that doubts have arisen in relation to their original intention concerning the same, for the purpose of removing such doubts, do hereby make known and declare the following as their original and unequivocal designs and intentions in relation thereto:


Second. In relation to the ground laid off in said town as public squares, viz: Court, Exchange, Market and Auction Squares, it was the intention of the proprietors that they should forever remain as public grounds, not subject to private appropriation, but public uses only, according to the import of the above expressions, Court, Exchange, Market and Auction Squares.

Third. In relation to the piece of ground laid off and caled the "Promenade," said proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the same should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc., and it is hereby expressly declared, in conformity with such intention, that we, for ourselves, heirs and assigns, forever relinquish all claims to the same piece of ground caled the "Promenade," for the purpose above mentioned. But nothing herein contained as to the Promenade shall bar the town from authorising one or more ferries to be kept by the proprietors, their heirs or assigns, opposite said Promenade and the mouth of any of the cross-streets on Mississippi Row.
Seems pretty clear to me: The Founders recognised that some folks wanted to develop the Promenade, to put it to private use. Even then, there was pressure to abuse the land. They clearly said, "No." and set the land aside permanently for public use only. They passed the land to multiple heirs specifically to make it difficult for future generations to reach agreement and sell out their original vision. What's unclear about this?

What the RDC proposes and the Commercial Appeal dishonestly promotes is a plan to turn over large parts of the land to private developers, who will build skyscrapers. Both the RDC and the CA would like you to believe that some language in a contract or some "regulation" will keep the encroachments minimal. But given the past history of the Promanade land, and the present history of the City Council and Mayor, and the present history of the various Zoning Boards and Commissions who have already shown that they will bend and break the very protections they are charged with enforcing, given that the language of the original Covenant, which could not be clearer is already being ignored and turned inside out, why should we believe these lying clowns? The brazenness of their audacity really is stunning. Their opinion of your stupidity couldn't be clearer.
Beyond the legal challenge lies the selling job. Investors must be persuaded to put millions of dollars into building projects that will have to conform to the objectives of the RDC plan, with restrictions on such factors as building heights, appearance and usage.
Again, who are they trying to kid? You know that developers are already waiting in line for their chance to profit handsomely. There's no "persuasion" needed here: this land will be highly profitable from the get-go. As for "conforming" to "objectives" and "restrictions," see above. Once the plan is set into motion, any developers will be given maximum leeway to vary as they wish. The paper will warn us not to jinx the deal with petty quibbling about minor issues. They will cave and all this talk of protection will be shown to be just another lie told to get the cows through the barn door.
As soon as City Council minutes are approved, the RDC will attempt to start talks with the heirs of the Memphis founders who set aside the area for public use, hopefully persuading skeptical members of the group that commercial investment is the most viable option for restoring the promenade to its intended use.
Again, breath-taking dishonesty and abuse of language, nearly Orwellian in its ability to house completely contradictory views. Commercial investment is the exact opposite of what the Founders intended. "Restoration" would involve scraping off all the crap previous governments have allowed.
As difficult as those tasks may be, at least the area now has a chance to recover from decades of neglect. The promenade could become the cornerstone of a world-class riverfront in which future generations of Memphians can take pride.
Not "neglect," but active and conscious abuse. And whenever you hear some civic leader types saying "world class" you should run screaming. It means public funds given to private developers for a pig in a poke the City and County will pick up the tab for later, while the developers profit handsomely and laugh all the way to the bank. Remember Sid Schlenker and the Pyramid?
Unfortunately, City Council's decision to launch the promenade redevelopment plan was marred by Chairman Joe Brown's unnecessary delay of a public hearing on the issue.

More than 200 people showed up for a 3:30 p.m. public hearing, only to be forced to wait for more than three hours while the council ambled through its agenda. And then opponents of the redevelopment plan were given only 20 minutes to make their case.
Free advice from the paper to Joe Brown on how to make this thing sail through with minimal fuss, with no unnecessary spur to the opponents. How nice! Notice, too, how this contradicts what they said above about "four hours" of debate?
The plan had sparked a lively and healthy debate over the proper method of restoring a vision for the promenade that had been established by the city's founders in 1828 when the land was dedicated for public use.
That whole "lively and healthy debate" means the discussion is now over. And again, notice how the "dedicated for public use" directly contradicts what they said just a couple of paragraphs previous "that commercial investment is the most viable option?" Simply breath-taking.
Forcing people to wait for hours to state their positions on controversial issues is an unfortunate tactic used occasionally by City Council chairmen in what the public perceives as an effort to wear down opponents of proposals favored by council majorities.
Note the "what the public perceives" bit. As though it's not a reality, but merely a "perception." The gall of these condescending people. It's used because it works. So does changing meeting dates and agendas at the last minute, which are other tactics the City Council has used. You'll observe that these tactics only seem to be used in situations that benefit a few at the expense of the community or its declared wishes. You never see private developers treated this way, do you? Has this ever been done to stop something that the majority of the community wants stopped?
Instead of discouraging people from participating in the process, the council should use every opportunity to show that the public's views are being taken seriously.
Part of the problem is that the part of the process where the public can have the most influence tends to be at obscure meetings by the various Corporations and Commissions the City has inflicted on Memphis. You have to look for these meetings, show up properly in the correct format to present your ideas which must already be developed enough to get the attention of those who will already have a plan in mind. By the time these things get to the City Council, it's all over but the trigger pull. Everything's already been agreed to and lined up. I guarantee you that the folks who will develop this land and profit from it are already known and have already had preliminary talks with banks to get the money in line. By this point, the public's only option becomes court intervention.
This matter was handled in a way that reinforced the notion that the promenade plan was being shoved down the throats of an unwilling and skeptical public. Not a very good way to win people over to your point of view.
Yeah, we opponents have a "notion." Not a serious and well-considered objection based on several clearly-defined and backed-up arguments. With alternative plans well worthy of serious consideration. Just a "notion."

Once again, the paper is lining up before the money guys, acting as house propaganda organ and protest deflector. The Commercial Appeal really is shoving this down our throats. It's all over but the signatures and we should just listen to our betters, sit down, shut up and let them do their jobs. We'll just muck it up and cost them more money.

Go to the Friends For Our Riverfront site, or read about the previous 1987 Center City Development Plan (PDF Document; page three), which was a low impact design with much to recommend it. Get educated and be ready.

It's looking like we may have another Overton Park / I-40 situation on our hands. Gather your arms and gird yourself.

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