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VOL. 7 | NO. 29 | Saturday, July 12, 2014

Riverfront Cornerstone

Beale Street Landing opens with complex history, high hopes

By Bill Dries

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Beale Street Landing seems an unlikely choice as a cornerstone, considering its troubled path to completion.

At this point, it’s almost a motto – not on time and over budget, and by a lot on both counts.

Yet, cornerstone is the word Terry Lynch, the incoming chairman of the Riverfront Development Corp., uses to describe the $43 million landing that it took the nonprofit that manages the riverfront for the city a decade to design and build.

“It’s the cornerstone of the whole riverfront,” Lynch said after the formal opening of the facility in late June. “Heretofore, you haven’t been able to do anything down here. You could walk and observe the majestic view of the river, but you really couldn’t do anything. You couldn’t find shade or a place to get a drink of water.”

Lynch and others at the RDC see Beale Street Landing as a catalyst for a riverfront that is a proper front entrance for the city – an animated front entrance with more people.

Critics see it as a too-expensive grasp in a long line of supposed catalysts from The Pyramid to the riverfront trolley loop. They even objected to the bright colors on the elevator tower that is exposed on the hilltop created over the restaurant and other space in the landing building.

The criticism has been so pervasive for so long that everyone who spoke at the landing’s formal opening June 28 acknowledged it as well as their belief that now that the landing is fully open, the criticism will give way to acceptance.

Whether the landing is a catalyst or not, there are other developments on the city’s riverfront.

They include the reworked One Beale project, a 27-story luxury high-rise condominium/hotel on the southeastern corner of Beale Street and Riverside Drive, directly across from the landing.

Gene Carlisle, the developer of the Beale Street Landing of the early 1980s that was a multi-story retail complex that included the old Captain Bilbo’s restaurant, had to walk away from his original plans in 2008 when the recession settled in for a long stay, making financing of such ambitious projects – and even those less ambitious – impossible.

Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid is scheduled to open in December.

The Harahan Bridge pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk across the river has been rebranded as Big River Crossing by its most vocal proponent, Charles McVean, as he and other private backers of the idea work to raise more private funding for the link that will tie Main Street Memphis to Broadway Street, the Main Street of West Memphis.

Cost estimates for the boardwalk came in too high and the project has been rebid, with bids scheduled to be opened later this summer.

Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Morris has said the boardwalk project won’t begin until all of the funding is secured, and that he is confident it will be secured.

Billy Joe Huels from Seattle takes in a sunset at  the recently completed, though way over budget Beale Street Landing.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Downtown Memphis Commission is managing the Main Street to Main Street Multimodal Connector Project, which includes the Harahan crossing, for the city of Memphis.

Riverfront Development Corp. President Benny Lendermon points to a simpler next step on the riverfront: water taxis or ferries to and from Beale Street Landing, Mud Island, The Pyramid and Uptown West.

The organization has federal money for the planning of the stops.

As he pointed toward future ferry stops in the Memphis harbor, another next step was just a few yards away – the cobblestones, the city’s original Mississippi River landing.

Lynch says work on that phase of the riverfront could start this year.

“The state decided since this was a mostly federally funded project that we were going to have to enhance the pedestrian crossings,” he said of three streets that end at Riverside Drive directly above the cobblestones.

“They are working through the approval process to get those crossing upgrades done,” Lynch said of the city. “But the project itself has been approved in its design phase, and funding is available for it.”

There have been other bureaucratic dictates. In gaps where the original cobblestones no longer exist, federal preservation standards require that the replacements must be distinguishable from the originals. They cannot be look-alikes that a visitor might mistake for the real thing.

The cobblestones at the river’s edge, wherever that happens to be at any given time in a year, will segue with the landing’s own river’s edge features.

“This is not a little thing,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said of Beale Street Landing. “We don’t do anything fast in Memphis. We are a river town, slow and easy. It doesn’t trouble me when things take a long time like Bass Pro up there,” Wharton said, pointing to The Pyramid. “We stop. We get it done. We never abandon anything. … It’s who we are. This is our identity.”

Lynch remembered a time when Wharton was not as easygoing or certain about the project.

“There’s been times when I know he wanted to crawl under a rock,” Lynch said.

By Lynch’s count, the Memphis City Council took 37 votes on the project. He contrasts that with no council votes on the parking garage at Memphis International Airport.

The last installment of Beale Street Landing funding that got council approval was $10.7 million.

Bids on that final part of the project came in at $21 million, and Lynch said the Riverfront Development Corp. made the decision not to go back to the council with the increased price tag. Instead, the project plans were redrawn to fit the funding that was available. He said the project is better for the change.

Wharton inherited the project from his predecessor, Willie Herenton, and he initially favored a quick completion short of the full plan.

But the project had drifted past that point following Herenton’s election to a fifth term as mayor in 2007 until his resignation a year and a half later. The city had three mayors in four months in 2009. And the overnight riverboat cruise business the landing was being built to serve had collapsed twice, with no cruise boats running the Mississippi.

Wharton soon concluded the project should be completed.

Lendermon has been the point man for much of the criticism, including that from City Hall.

However, he believes it has made the landing a better project than it was when planning began a decade ago. It’s a familiar position.

That was his experience as the city’s director of public works during the 1990s with the construction of the Bluff Walk, a project so controversial that it prompted some bluff-top residents to camp out in magnolia trees when some were to be cut down.

Lendermon lost friends in the controversy.

“Because of the public controversy over it, the original design that was proposed and ready to go forward … frankly it’s certainly not the design we ended up building,” he said of the Bluff Walk. “Without the public controversy, you’d have never got the money to do it the way you really should have.”

Delays in Beale Street Landing were a constant element up to the formal opening ceremony, which was pushed back a half hour because of Saturday morning storms.

In the delay, the consultants hired by the Riverfront Development Corp. to run the landing’s restaurant, Riverfront Bar and Grill, were readying servers and assigning numbers to the table for the ordering system. Beth Bomarito of Napa Café is the manager of the bar and grill, working for the Riverfront Development Corp.

Lendermon says that wound up being a better arrangement than a lease with a restaurant group.

“We had all of these restaurateurs who started thinking visions of grandeur and ‘I can do this down here and I can do that and have a destination restaurant,’ which was never, ever what we designed the building for, nor what we thought could work,” he said.

“At the end of the day, unless things change dramatically, we think it is becoming what it always was going to be and should be, which is a food amenity for the site to have high-quality food, have alcoholic beverages for a happy hour and be able to accommodate a varied crowd from tourists during the day to maybe young professionals as the sun starts setting.”

That includes hundreds of riverboat passengers at a time from the daily excursion boats of the Memphis Queen line to the four much larger overnight cruise boats, including the American Queen, which calls Memphis home and whose parent company, American Queen Steamboat Co., has its headquarters in Memphis.

The same kind of visions of a landing building that was in itself a monument cropped up during the design competition for the landing.

The lead design firm selected for the project was RTN of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“The intent for us was to celebrate the river. So we made a topographic project. We tried to be very gentle,” said RTN principal Javier Rivarola, of the landing building that is beneath a hill created as both a new river viewpoint and cover for the building.

“We almost hide it. We didn’t want any monuments that interfered with the river. The protagonist is the river.”

And the river can be a volatile protagonist, even when its rise and fall are the normal 50 or so feet of variance a year.

“It was an engineering challenge and it was a construction challenge,” Rivarola said. “But from an architectural point of view, from a design point of view, it was something we used. … With different elevations of the river, you have a different type of park … a different experience for people.”

Meanwhile, what had been the two southbound lanes of Riverside Drive between Beale Street and Georgia Avenue are now closed to automobile traffic and open to pedestrians and bicycles, with a bit of re-engineering to keep the Beale Street Landing parking lot open.

“In a few months, people will be crazy about it,” Wharton said of the controversy the street changes have triggered.

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