The RDC Plan: Paving Paradise

When the RDC was established, several obstacles to private commercial development of the riverfront were removed, and the RDC plan took form.

In 2000 the Memphis Park Commission, which was established in 1900 and which for nearly 100 years oversaw the development and maintenance of a city-wide system of parks, was dissolved. The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) was established, and the Mayor and City Council shifted control of the Memphis riverfront parks to the new quasi-governmental body. $250,000 was approved by the Council to pay the RDC’s operating costs, and the historic Public Promenade first became a subject of discussion in development plans.

The Memphis Riverfront Master Plan

The RDC hired lawyers, public relations specialists, and New York planning consultants Cooper, Robertson & Partners (CRP) to come up with a plan. Starting with development ideas from the 1997 plan, they worked fast on the plan and scheduled public hearings to present it.

The Master Plan incorporated many aspects of earlier plans, but it made some eye-popping additions. At public hearings in 2001, first mention was made that:
  • The two dams had become one massive 50-70 acre dam -- a "land bridge" for commercial development -- that would fill the harbor stretching between Court and Poplar;
  • The channel to the Mississippi River had disappeared, harbor industries would be removed, and the harbor would become Wolf Lake.
  • Private development was proposed on the Public Promenade as well as in Mud Island River Park (most of which would be replaced).

Click for wider view
Figure: Architect's model of the land bridge connecting Downtown to Mud Island, supplying 50 acres of land for new development, and forming Wolf Lake to the north (upper left). White buildings represent the envisioned new development; existing buildings are gray. This rendering pre-dates the Promenade Plan; those skyscrapers are not shown. Click the picture for a wider angle view including Beale Street and Harbortown. Source: Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

The RDC's estimated capital cost for this plan was $292 million. It would be the most expensive project in our City's history.

As details became known, a lot of concerns were raised about the plan, especially about the land bridge. But the City Council unanimously approved the Riverfront Master Plan on May 22, 2002.

The Master Plan contemplated several implementation phases, stretching out over 10 years or more. It also left out many details that would be filled in with individual sub-plans.

One detail they addressed almost immediately was what exactly to do for the Beale Street Landing. The RDC held a well-publicized contest inviting designers world-wide to submit proposals. They received 171 entries from 20 countries and 27 states. The winner was announced on October 31, 2003.

The Promenade Land Use Phase

One of the more pressing issues remaining to be resolved was what to do with the area the City's founders had reserved as a "Public Promenade" in 1819. The Master plan showed a high rise and some other development totaling about 600,000 square feet, but provided few further details.

A Tennessee Supreme Court ruling was long thought to have settled the issue of private development on the Public Promenade, but apparently the City had ideas that were contrary to that decision.

In late 2002 and early 2003, three parallel initiatives were begun:
  • The RDC hired the Urban Land Institute to reaffirm the Master Plan, and in particular to endorse the need for developing four blocks of the Public Promenade.
  • The City hired Washington, DC attorneys Shaw Pittman to figure out how they could overturn the founders' covenant and develop the Public Promenade
  • The RDC's communications consultant developed a campaign to guide the public process, capped by a series of three "public meetings."
The RDC once again hired Cooper Robertson & Partners (CRP) to design the Promenade. Underscoring their pressing need, the RDC gave CRP only three months and $125,000 to come up with a design. (In the end, it took a little longer and an extra $17,000.)

In the final design, Confederate Park remained a park. The post office was left standing. But the rest of the four blocks were to be turned over to private developers for
  • two highrises of up to 300 and 400 feet
  • other buildings at 150 feet
  • leasable space doubling to 1.2 million square feet
  • a minimum of 1,040 public parking spaces
  • the remaining Bluff parkland replaced by a two-level concrete promenade with eating and shopping.

Figure: The Promenade Land Use Plan. Click for an enlargement of the plastic model pictured on the cover. Source: RDC.

The RDC estimated the cost of the Promenade phase to be $50 million.

With only a week to review the actual document, the RDC's Board voted to approve the plan. On May 18, 2004, with a height restriction modification, the Memphis Public Promenade Land Use Plan was approved by the City Council. The vote was 10 to 3.

Earlier that year, and largely unnoticed, Mayor Herenton had signed an additional contract with the RDC -- this one a Master Development Agreement, making the RDC the City's agent for all riverfront development.

NEXT: Design: Memphis deserves better