A couple weeks ago, I criticized a local blogger for perpetuating some
The "spin" was that the RDC's glorious mission in life was to remake the Riverfront as a public space, and that what it now proposes to do is the result of a serious and open "public input process". Those two spin points are demonstrably false.
Until 1999, the Riverfront question was mostly seen this way (in my own words): "What can we do to make the Riverfront more compelling and enjoyable as a destination, hopefully attracting Memphians and visitors alike back to the river?"
Decades (centuries, actually) have been spent thinking about how to do the Memphis Riverfront justice. But the framing of the question has always acknowledged the Riverfront to already be a public space, albeit abused and underutilized. The question is how we can make it a better one. And by the way: Few dispute that part of the solution probably involves some degree of commercialization and development in the area. It's a question of purpose. Was the private development intended to enhance a public space? Or would the driver be something else?
Herenton pushed that Riverfront destination idea himself, at least for the first few years of his Mayoroyalty. Not to say that his ideas were all that good, or terribly original, but at least give him credit for trying -- for a while. His evolving proposals are summarized on this page.
Note: I disagree with the title of that page, "1990s: Development Becomes the Focus". Though much of what Herenton proposed could be characterized as development (vesus "natural"), I think development really became the focus in 1999. But the factual details on the page are essentially correct.
Note that none of his proposals really involved the Public Promenade. Which is not to say that the Promenade didn't need something, perhaps desperately. But the Center City Commission, with the help of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, had already done quite a bit thinking about the Promenade area, and presumably their suggestions were still able to be realized. But in 2000 the CCC lost jurisdiction over the Riverfront and the Promenade, and those plans must be considered null and void.
By 1998, Herenton's initiative had reached an impasse. Perhaps it was that Memphians weren't all that interested (maybe because most of them had
So Herenton turned to the private sector. He decided to create what is generally termed a "public-private partnership". (Some day, remind me to tell you why that is actually a contradiction in terms.) As we told you in this post, he called in some of the Downtown
They got to work, meeting quietly for about 10 months. All we knew about it was what the Daily Fishwrap chose to tell us in (maybe) three articles the whole time. Then, in May, 2000 they came roaring out of their undisclosed location with a program of action and they started executing it.
The steering committee must have done a lot of thinking in that period. Presumably facts were gathered, plans were hatched, key decisions were made. Although none of it is documented for the public to see, we can safely assume all this because of the things that happened within days or weeks of their coming-out party.
I will call out two key things, suggesting that major decisions had already been made without any pretense of public input.
First, the ink had hardly dried on the RDC's incorporation papers when they negotiating in earnest with the folks at Cooper Robertson & Partners (CR&P). By November, CR&P were hard at work (with a tight deadline) on the Master plan, which would cost the city over $1 million. By the next summer, it was substantially done, though for various reasons it took a another year before the RDC went to City Council for endorsement.
As any businessperson should know, if you're going to pay $1 million to have consultants design something, to start with you give them a list of requirements -- preferably in writing. Otherwise, who knows what you might get. No consultant would even dream of starting the task without a requirements document. One must have existed.
The "public" had no input on those requirements -- only the RDC and others they allowed to speak for them. The public cannot even know for certain what requirements were given to CR&P - that would be confidential information and the RDC claims it is not subject to the sunshine laws. We can only guess what the requirements might have been by looking at the result.
The plan laid out the development of over 10 million square feet of development on the Riverfront, and promised even more footage when the Public Promenade portion could be designed in a later stage. Incidentally, the plan had an even even bigger
Start guessing those requirements. Private development as part of enhancing a public space? Or private development for its own sake? (More to come in a later post.)
Secondly: Within days of the RDC's incorporation, the Commercial Appeal published a major, heavily-researched article about history of the Public Promenade. RDC principals were liberally quoted. Coincidence? Hardly. It was clear that the RDC already had its sights beyond what the Mayor had been calling the Riverfront. The article hinted that the RDC principals wanted the Promenade and were already taking steps to eventually get control.
If that article alone wasn't clear enough for the reader, the CA's editor (himself an ex-officio RDC board member and in a position to know) left no doubt just a few days later. That Sunday's editorial talked up the RDC's new-found vision and closed with this bit of unabashed cheer leading:
Public budgets being as tight as they are, the kind of development that would draw people to the riverfront and put it on a par with St. Louis or New Orleans would most likely require a sizable private investment smack dab in the historic Promenade. This is where the so-called Overton heirs, reportedly divided into five distinct family-oriented factions from coast to coast, would have to be brought in on the deal.Coy writing, that: "Smack dab" and "grab your partner and promenade." I could blog for days about the framing, spin, and misdirection in that one editorial, but it would be a digression. My point is simply this:
The project is fraught with legal complications, and there are numerous parties that will have to be brought together with the common goal in mind of fulfilling the founders' long-delayed dream.
But some of the city's brightest, most ambitious and civic-minded people, including Benny Lendermon, Kristi Jernigan and John Stokes, are on the case. Everybody grab your partner and promenade.
It was abundantly clear -- if you were paying attention -- that major strategic decisions about the Riverfront had already been made by the time the architects set to work -- and they were made without any public input. (In fact, the public input about land bridges and lakes was ignored.) If Memphians were paying attention (most weren't) it should have been no surprise that a new strategy was afoot, even before CR&P's Master Plan came gradually into public view. Only when the early sketches were ready was public input sought -- which was mainly to polish (and sell) a plan that had already been cooked.
It was going to be a wholly different way of thinking about the Riverfront problem.
The old way of thinking: How can we make the Riverfront a more attractive destination, and encourage Memphians to use and enjoy it as a public space?
The new way of thinking: To hell with that. Let's just move the whole City right down to the Riverfront! Better still, let's fill in the harbor and move the City all the way out to Mud Island. And while we're at it, why don't we build out that grubby old Public Promenade...
So then it became a mere tactical question: "How much of that public space must we leave open to the public -- so that they don't notice that they've been robbed?"
Am I distorting? Once again, I point you to this quote from the RDC's internal minutes:
Ms. [whatshername] who will coordinate the public meetings for the project outlined the plans for the process. In anticipation of condemnation proceedings, the first step will be to meet with the lawyers to understand what the final product must look like in order to demonstrate that the Promenade property will be used for public purpose. On receipt of the Urban Land Institute report, which highlights the importance of the Promenade to riverfront development, three public meetings will be held...If you're still not getting the picture, let me unpack it for you. They are saying,
- We assume we'll have to condemn the Promenade in order to get our hands on it.
- The lawyers will tell us how "public" the plan needs to appear, at a minimum, to pass muster for eminent domain.
- The ULI, to whom we've already fed our requirements (and a hefty fee), will obligingly come back and endorse the whole scheme.
- Whatshername will then take the preliminary sketches of the scheme and the ULI's endorsement to the public and start selling it to them.
That was the so-called "public input process."
More to come, but this post is already too long. Before I take a break, let me point out one classic example of framing and misdirection in that CA editorial. It said:
[The Promenade] is where the so-called Overton heirs, reportedly divided into five distinct family-oriented factions from coast to coast, would have to be brought in on the deal.Dick Cheney couldn't have framed it better.
The fact of the matter is that the Overton heirs do not own the Promenade -- not in any practical sense. Nor, in fact, does the city own it. They are merely trustees. The citizens of Memphis own the right to use and enjoy the Promenade, in perpetuity -- and it's that birthright that stands in the way of the RDC's ambitious plans. (It begs the question: When was the public going to be "brought in on the deal"?)
The editorial's framing was obviously intended to paint those "fractious," "out-of-town" Overton heirs as the bad guys, i.e., money-grubbing obstructionists standing in the way of Memphians' best interests. It positioned the RDC as the good guys, who are only trying their darnedest to save the day.
What a useful narrative. They could even re-use that same narrative to dismiss the Friends for Our Riverfront when they came along in 2004 to upset the applecart. Sounds like the kind of narrative that might be dreamed up by a really good, $115/hour PR person.
Coming soon: Why you shouldn't blame the RDC. Like the scorpion in this story, they just could not help themselves.
Updated at 8:33: Edited slightly for clarification and spelling.