Photograph by Phillip Van Zandt Photography

If the Riverfront Development Corporation is ever going to have its chance to say, “I told you so,” this is it.

After 15 years of blistering criticism and dogged resistance, its track record appears to be on an upswing.

Its predictions for Beale Street Landing are coming to pass with multiple riverboats docking there; RiverFIT, the Grizzlies Riverfront Fitness Trail and Pop-Up Park; and now, it has a meritorious idea for water taxis plying the waterways as the realization of a 30-year-old dream.

The RDC has been a magnet for a barrage of complaints about its planning, design decisions, and implementation, which were intensified by its past image as a closed shop.  Then again, some baffling design and architectural decisions at Beale Street Landing also fueled complaints (including our own).

That said, it seems to finally have some bragging rights and its new Chairman, Terry Lynch, has brought a more optimistic, open, and strategic attitude to the nonprofit organization’s work, particular in its goals for the future and its strategic plan.  As a result, he seems to have bought the organization some breathing room for awhile.

Sense of Arrival

We have made no secret of our support for Beale Street Landing, and despite our complaints about design and connectivity miscues, the Memphis riverfront is much better with it than without it.  Finally, there is a sense of arrival, not to mention a place to buy food and drink right on the riverfront and soak in excellent views of our singular most important natural resource, the Mississippi River.

While the news media were largely positioning the project as extravagant at $42 million, other cities across the United States were spending as much on their waterfronts as we spent on FedExForum (or about six times more than Beale Street Landing cost).  It seemed to us that it was a false economy if we are content to let our riverfront languish with a lack the vitality that drives so many successful cities and to look for a bargain project when it comes to the most-visited attraction in our region – the riverfront in downtown Memphis – that more than anything else has become the symbol of Memphis branding.

Some time back, a news outlet stated that “the RDC proposed Beale Street Landing as a riverboat docking service where passengers can grab a bite to eat and hang out…a destination for riverboats on the Mississippi.”  That was far from the truth.

Beale Street Landing was conceived first and foremost as a place for Memphians and for the people on the shore, a place where they could experience the river and where downtown would connect with the water that fundamentally defined its history and its character.


More Than Lagniappe

The opportunity to provide a better dock than tying up riverboats to trees in waterfront parks was a benefit, but it was lagniappe.  Beale Street Landing was more than anything a place-making project to enhance and celebrate Memphis’s relationship to the river.

That said, the lagniappe is paying big dividends.  It attracted the headquarters of American Queen and despite prognostications that the river cruise business was dead, it’s thriving and Beale Street Landing is becoming a required stop on their trips.

It’s a really special day when the American Queen docks at Beale Street Landing.  But the best news of all is that the American Queen Steamboat Company, which was loaned $9 million by City of Memphis to locate its headquarters in Memphis, is filling up its cruises up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

That points to the best news of all.  City of Memphis negotiated a deal in which it gets money even if the riverboats are docking somewhere else.  The company is paying back the loan over 10 years with an $89 docking fee for each passenger whether it comes to Memphis at all (it will become $15 after the loan is paid off).

Trump Cards

So, in the debate about whether the loan was a good idea or not, the City of Memphis and the RDC are winning that argument, and as a result, the American Queen Steamboat is the first bragging point for Beale Street Landing, the RDC’s signature riverfront project derided as a “boat dock” by its most vociferous critics.

That said, it added a trump card recently with the announcement that Viking Cruises – famous for its highly regarded European cruises – will dock some of its six, new 336-passenger boats now under construction at Beale Street Landing.  But that’s not all.  Beginning this spring, American Cruise Line’s 150-passenger American Eagle will begin docking at Beale Street Landing, joining the Queen of the Mississippi of the same cruise line.

In other words, it was only a few years ago that critics were contending that RDC predictions of Beale Street Landing becoming a dock for riverboats was merely political justification and there would never be a riverboat docking there.   Actually, they were right.  There won’t be one riverboat docking there.  There will be four riverboats in two years.

And for those who champion a historical perspective for all things connected to the riverfront, it would seem that the return of the riverboats would be reason enough to celebrate, but so far, that’s not been the case.

New Activity on the Riverfront

If that were not enough, in recent weeks, the RDC announced that water taxis could be operational on the waterfront within 18 months (six of the months will be used for a feasibility study by Tennessee Department of Transportation).  A federal grant of $800,000 covers most of the cost of buying the taxis and preparing facilities for their docking (the city’s match is $200,000).

The concept is for the taxis to connect three places – Beale Street Landing, Mud Island River Park, and Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid.  Eventually, plans are for it to include Uptown West and Wolf River Greenway, and if we’re lucky, perhaps, it will even find a way to connect with the Harahan Bridge on the Arkansas side, giving passengers the opportunity to walk, job, or bike back, or find a way to event connect with the National Ornamental Metal Museum and its own distinctive views of the river (if Homeland Security will cooperate).

Although some of the RDC’s most reliable critics are already attacking the idea, the RDC deserves praise for thinking about place more than projects.  For that reason, we find it exciting and timely.  With a riverfront whose vibrancy is limited today by legal questions about the promenade’s public use provisions, it seems like a worthy idea to animate the riverfront by bringing life to the water itself.

It’s often said that the only way to understand a waterfront city is to experience it from the water, and the taxis would do that without the considerable investment in time and money required to experience the riverfront from the deck of one of the local riverboats that run daily.

Activating Memphis’s First Amenity

The first idea for a water taxi on the riverfront was made about 30 years ago by Memphis conservationist and preservationist Susan Jones as part of the Partners for Livable Places’ Economics of Amenity initiative undertaken by Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris.  Mrs. Jones envisioned a riverfront where taxis brought new life to it as it shuttle visitors and residents.

Her idea was even more ambitious, calling for water taxis to connect the downtown riverfront with Meeman-Shelby Forest in North Shelby County.  Perhaps, if the taxis are as successful as we expect, particularly with the millions of visitors attracted to Bass Pro Shops (whose average stores attract 1.8 people a year and The Pyramid is far from an average store), someday they will venture as far north as Shelby Forest.

City officials and quasi-government agencies like the RDC are subject to withering criticisms and we see it here whenever a new project or program is launched, but when city projections are met and the RDC’s promises are delivered, there aren’t enough of us willing to say we were wrong.

We admit our bias – that we always supported Beale Street Landing – but it seems to us that this is one time when all the critics should be willing to say they were wrong.  While Beale Street Landing is still not what it can be, it is on the right track and with a little more attention to details and aesthetics, which we believe will come in time, we think it can achieve even more.