There will be boats docked at Beale Street Landing, but whether there is ever a single one moored there, it needs to be completed.
That some people would rather put winning first – in this case, that means stopping Beale Street Landing in its $17 million tracks – even if it means leaving an incomplete downtown blemish speaks to the obstructionist attitudes that drive some people who profess to be passionate about a revived, reimagined riverfront.
If left uncompleted, Beale Street Landing will indeed become our city’s symbol – one for a dysfunctional city where fighting poses as civic involvement and accusations as civic debate – and it will come at the time when new hope has been bred by the election of a new Memphis mayor.
There’s little doubt that if the Riverfront Development Corporation said up, Friends of our Riverfront would say down, but on this one, we’re baffled that there should be any difference of opinion on whether to finish the project as envisioned since doing otherwise, leaves a scar on our front door.
In the 10-year history of the RDC, it has been a lightning rod for criticism, some which it brought it on itself, as some of its members acknowledge. But the regular misstatements of the facts and the personal innuendoes by opponents of all things RDC-related has fatigued some early supporters and marginalized their influence in places where they needed friends.
Here’s the thing: most Memphians don’t care about the false choices of taking sides with either the RDC or Friends for our Riverfront. They’d just like a riverfront that’s more animated and interesting than the stuck in time persona that grips it now.
We understand the need for something better more than most. Located as we are near the foot of Union Avenue, we have a front row seat for the frustration and incredulity of visitors who stroll to the riverfront in search of the kinds of experiences they find in most any other river city in the world. Here, they can’t even buy a soda or a cone of ice cream.
Back to Beale Street Landing, it is of course tempting to plug the $8.9 million needed to complete Beale Street Landing into the framework of convention center cost overruns, to FedExForum’s misappropriated millions and to The Pyramid’s $39 million price tag that ended up at $62 million (although lost in the retelling is the fact that the increases were caused by changes in the scope, not overruns). It is equally tempting to develop conspiracy theories that suggest that the RDC knew that it low-balled the amount needed from the beginning.
Cause and Effect
It’s disingenuous for opponents to vilify the RDC for the increases when part of it stemmed from the two year stoppage caused by a Section 106 review by State Historic Preservation Office aimed as much about delaying the project as anything. Then there was the $1.3 million in additional costs for architects and project managers for redesign of the project as a result of that review.
Part of the shortfall resulted from the federal government promising one amount and then reducing it without any discussion or warning, creating $1.4 million gap. Then there was the problem of the river’s record high water marks that prevented the foundational work by the contractor.
Despite the reasons, we can appreciate the frustration of Memphis City Council when, in the most difficult budget year in recent memory, it is asked for the almost $9 million needed to wrap up construction. And yet, they need to do it, because there is no reasonable alternative from a place-making standpoint but to do what we set out to do – create a distinctive place where people can experience the river, enjoy some food, explore the unique pod parks and walk to the water’s edge.
The design contract for Beale Street Landing was awarded in 2004 with the schedule calling for construction to begin in late 2006 with a completion in late 2008. Because of the Section 106 review and other delays, completion is now scheduled for 18 months from now.
If things were freeze framed as they are, there would be no connection to the water’s edge and none of the terraces and islands.
We hope that in time, once Beale Street Landing is completed, it will lead to new thinking about Tom Lee Park, built as a festival park for Memphis in May International Festival and a couple of other weekend events. Because its purpose is seen as the location for these special events, it remains largely without landscaping, conveniences or charm.
We still think that the area on the south side of The Pyramid, including the unsightly parking and fencing near the Visitor Center, should be converted into green space where these large-scale events could be relocated, clearing the way for Tom Lee Park to become a real park, one with shade, human scale and food.
At the request of City of Memphis, one of the ubiquitous Younger and Associates economic impact studies was completed for Beale Street Landing, but for us, it’s beside the point. As we’ve mentioned before, we tire of improvements to quality life and arts and culture being evaluated based on dollars and cents when the real impact on aesthetics and livability are immeasurable.
Pride after the Fact
Nothing sparks more divergent opinions than the design of the public realm and public art. We’ve made no secret of our support for the winning design that was chosen from the 171 entries from 20 countries and 27 states. RTN Architects of Buenos Aires envisioned a sense of arrival for the riverfront and a sense of connection between water and city, creating new vistas, a grand civic plaza and a few small businesses, hopefully responding to the desire for food and refreshment by the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the riverfront every year.
That said, we do believe that the project was improved by the addition of the green roof to the Beale Street Landing building that connects the park pods to Tom Lee Park, and questions about the architectural firm were answered when it was chosen to create a more fitting setting for Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Balbao.
Remember all those people who ripped into FedEx Forum and said they would never darken its doors. It’s hard to find any of them today, because once it was built, we finally understood what a first-class arena looked like and that The Pyramid was a poor excuse for one.
In Chicago, the same was said about Millennium Park, a spectacular park just off the lake in Chicago. It’s hard today to find anyone who’s not proud of the park and recognizes what it has done for Chicago’s image and quality of life.
Getting the Symbolism Right
We predict that Beale Street Landing will become our signature project, like Millennium Park, and at a fraction of the cost of the Chicago landmark. For that matter, it’s being built for a fraction of the cost of the riverfront redevelopment in Chattanooga.
When completed, Beale Street Landing will become the symbol for our city, and if the opponents are allowed their wishes, the symbol will be for a moribund, dull riverfront at a time when all river cities are reinventing their front doors and sparking an urban design ethos.