Behind the Headlines — October 16, 2015

Behind the Headlines — October 16, 2015


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Production funding
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A2H: Engineers, architects
and planners creating an enhanced quality of life for
their clients and our community. More about A2H’s services
and markets is at A2H.com. – The impact of the proposed
I-55 roundabout tonight on Behind the Headlines. [theme music] I’m Eric Barnes, publisher of
the Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight
by Lauren Crews, a developer in the
French Fort area. Thanks for being here. – Thanks for having me. (Eric)
Paul Morris, the outgoing head of the Downtown
Memphis Commission. Thanks for being here. – Sure. (Eric)
Keith Ingram, state senator in Arkansas,
thanks for being here. – Glad to be here. (Eric)
And Bill Dries, senior reporter with the Memphis Daily News. And I’d like to take a second. We talked about.. I started the show with the I-55
roundabout and we’ll talk about that project and the big impact. But also, sort of the
neighborhood and the connections between West Memphis,
the French Fort area, Downtown and so on. So, Bill, just
help me through this. Where we are now, there
have been many years of people talking about how to
re-do this connection. People think of coming up
I-55 and maybe they go down to Riverside Drive and to Downtown
or they take the very strange turn that is actually a highway
and get on what’s called the old bridge. Variety of different
plans that came up. Sixty-thousand cars is what
T-DOT says goes through that intersection, that
interchange right now. And sometime in the summer,
T-DOT came forward with a plan that involved a big roundabout
and moving the highway. And we may have a map of that. But part of it was it was
going to close the old bridge for nine months. Did I hit the
high points on this? – Yeah, the original estimate
wound up being something like two years. Then it changed to nine months. Where we are now is that the
state has taken all of this back and they’re looking at it again
to see if there is a better way that they can possibly do it
because this is a major corridor for this region actually. There’s a lot of traffic that
goes both ways on that bridge and a shutdown of nine
months would have some major implications. – And Keith Ingram, you
were very much opposed to them shutting the bridge
down for nine months, I believe. – No question about it. By T-DOT’s own study, they had
a study that was done in 2006, the impact to this region if
both bridges went down was about 4.1 billion or 4.3
billion dollars a year. So, even dividing that in
half, that is a major impact. And it’s just not West
Memphis that’s being affected. It’s this entire West Tennessee
– East Arkansas region that’s being affected. – But you would agree that
something needs to happen there, right? I mean, that there’s a problem
with that interchange and so on or maybe you’re not as concerned
about that because most of the problems were on
the Tennessee side. – I think we all
agree there’s a solution. Unfortunately, the region
was not included in the design phase. So, we don’t know what T-DOT
rejected as alternatives or not. – And I should say we
tried to have T-DOT on. But right now, as they do
go through their reviews, they did not want to really
talk about whats going on. Lauren, you are trying to do
developments in the French Fort neighborhood, this very
historic neighborhood. A lot of people
don’t know it’s there. I mean, they maybe drive by. Maybe a lot of people know that
the Metal Museum is down there, the old marine hospital,
which I believe you own, and a series of other projects
that you have put forward a plan kind of on the style of maybe
Harbor Town or other parts of Downtown. – That’s kind of
a gem of an area. It sits on the river bluff
under a canopy of trees with, like you said, the National
Ornamental Metal Museum next door. It has the arts and it’s
soon to be connected by the new roundabout that’s been proposed
for the new road systems. It’s within a stone’s
throw of Downtown Memphis. Yet, it has a lot of
underutilized properties that can be developed and create some
badly needed cash flow for the city and the county. – What was your take on
them closing the bridge? I mean, I think you want
this roundabout to happen, right, in the sense
that it would connect. – One of the only places in the
nation where you have to slow down to about 25 miles an
hour on the interstate, okay? And I know that
something has to be done there. I’m not so sure that you have to
close the bridge down to do it. I think there may be some other
ways to do it other than closing the bridge down. The thing that disturbs me
the most is that they have been working on the
project for 15 years. When you announce — an entity
or a government announces it, they’re going to do something
and it takes them 15 years to do it, what you do is you actually
shut down progress in that area to nothing. That causes further decay of
buildings and blight in the area and, you know, the
property values depreciate. But I think that there’s
potentially a way that they can do it without
shutting the bridge down. But if they absolutely
have to shut the bridge down, I see it as one step
back, two steps forward. I think it has to be done. But if it took them 12
years to get to three plans.. The original three plans, y’all
may remember that they got down to A, B, and C. It took them 12
years to get there. And then once
they got there, we, with the help of the
Downtown Memphis Commission, that was Andy Kitsinger and I
and some others were talking about the three plans
and what they didn’t do. And so, some of them didn’t
distribute the traffic properly. Some further disconnected. One plan further disconnected
the French Fort area from the Downtown core. We came up with the
idea for the roundabout. And we presented it to them. And this roundabout saves
five acres of green space. It distributes traffic better. It saves seven to ten
homes in the neighborhood, two businesses. And, you know, I couldn’t figure
out why they couldn’t come up with that themselves. So, I guess what I’m saying is
if it takes them 12 years to figure that out, I’m a little
concerned about leaving it up to them to whether we actually got
to close the bridge down or not. – We said we were going to
try to find some residents. Sara Lewis mainly who is a
resident of French Fort. Couldn’t work that out. But there was a plan
that was nine homes, like you just said, that
was going to be torn out. They went back. They came forward
with this plan. So, Paul, all
these plans, I mean, talk about the importance
of connecting to this area. Because if people
haven’t seen it, it’s a beautiful neighborhood. It’s a very stable neighborhood. A lot of history about it. And it does seem like, I mean,
you would think it would be impossible to have the vision
that Lauren has unless you look at other things
Downtown that have happened. I mean, these real incredible
re-developments have happened. The Harahan Bridge runs by near
there that you’re in charge of. But talk about connecting
to that neighborhood and the importance of kind of continuing
to expand the Downtown in a connected way. – Well, the French Fort
neighborhood is a very stable, long time neighborhood
with beautiful homes and beautiful yards. And it’s sort of quiet. And some of the neighbors that
own homes there I think want it to continue to be quiet. So, there’s some opposition
frankly among some of the neighbors of
connecting it more to the city. But those of us who care about
the larger city and really want to develop Downtown do see a lot
of value in the French Fort and the kind of development that
Lauren’s been talking about to revitalize some of these old
structures and bring more people to that neighborhood and
connect it to Downtown. It is a great
opportunity to connect, especially with the Main to
Main project with the Big River Crossing next to the Harahan. That’ll help tie in
that neighborhood as well. But I was telling somebody I
heard about this project when I started this job about
five-and-a-half years ago. That project had been on
the planning for a decade. I learned to prioritize my
efforts and I realized that making any efforts reliant upon
a road project probably wasn’t the best use of my time. So, we didn’t focus a lot
frankly on relying upon this project to be complete. And I think that turned out
to be wise because I will have ended my term and the
project won’t have started. – Bill? – Keith, in terms of the.. There was some assurances I
guess that were made when this got down to nine months
where T-DOT said okay, we can guarantee that the new
bridge is going to be 100%, that there’s not going to be
any interruptions on there. And that didn’t go over so well
from folks who drive the new bridge every day, the Hernando
Desoto Bridge we should say. So, was it realistic for the
state to say we can set up detours around this and kind of
guarantee that you won’t have any road blocks
on the new bridge? – You know, I don’t think so. I question the traffic
counts that have been used. I think you’d have a parking
lot on 40 quite honestly. I think Downtown Memphis would
be a gridlock with vehicles and trucks trying to
find alternate routes. I think in some ways in
the presentations I saw, it was a little disingenuous. And I’ve said this before that
they said that it was six lanes. T-DOT claimed that
it was six lanes. We all know that as soon as you
get off on the eastern side of the bridge, it
goes to two lanes. And so, I just don’t think that
is realistic to believe that you’re not gonna
impact that traffic and cause traffic floods. Also, the nine months. With construction, we
know how nebulous that is. I mean, it’s
taking a best guess. And I mean,
coming out here today, I think the project
here at 240 and 40, the Nashville exit,
I think that project is well over a year behind. So, with something that is vital
and critical to this nation as both 40 and 55 bridges are,
it’s not something to be taken lightly. And it’s certainly something not
to just take a target guess if we can make it in nine months. – So, is there a scenario that
you see or is this something that is still
forming at this point? – Well, I think there
is a couple of things. One, I think when this
project was announced, I think that people thought
the bridge was going to be shut down. I don’t think that people
actually realized it was a fly over on the Tennessee side. And, you know, T-DOT sort of
took I think the idea that since the project was on the Tennessee
side that they didn’t engage. Nobody in Arkansas,
certainly in West Memphis, Crittenden County, or Eastern
Arkansas was afforded any of the opportunity that was afforded
on the Tennessee side as to meet with — as the French
Fort residents did. As Lauren is talking about
that his idea of the roundabout, there was no idea solicited on
the Arkansas side other than they were going to shut
this bridge down to do it. So, you take all that together,
it’s sort of a bad witch’s brew in how T-DOT went
about trying to garner support for this. Now I’m sending a letter. I’ve drafted a letter to
send to Commissioner Schroer. We are ten weeks — ten weeks
after the announcement that this had been put off for a year to
restudy and we were gonna have a more transparent,
inclusive group to work with. And I’ve yet to hear a
word from T-DOT about that. So, I still fear that we’re
headed down this same road and at the end of it, it’s just
gonna cause us to take more time, more effort and lead the
things that we would rather be more productive with. Because the
interchange needs to be fixed. – Lauren, time is not your
friend in terms of development. What do these delays mean? – Probably 75 to 80% of what we
are proposing is dependent upon the roundabout and
reconnection to Downtown. But we do have some projects
that we are trying to get up and going. It’s a major hurdle. If you can’t tell the banks or
the investors where the roads going to be, it makes it very
difficult to borrow the money for the projects. And this is the reason that we
have like the old hotel there which is a —
frankly, that I own, it’s a blight on the
entryway of the community. You can’t, until we know exactly
where the roads are gonna be, it’s gonna be difficult to
find the funds to do it. The funds are the actual equity
and the banks are willing to work with us and
investors as well. So, everything is there
and we’re ready to go. We just need to know where
the road systems are gonna be. – And Paul referenced this
but you have heard from some neighbors in French Fort about
the old hotel building which is part of your plan. What do you say to them
about your plans for it and the current state? – Frankly, I
sympathize with them, okay, because it is bringing
down the property values in the area. Okay? The property values in that
particular area drop by about 55% during this eight year
period of the recession when typically across the
city property values, commercials, residentials
fell about 25 to 35%. And I think that additional is
due to this hold up of this new alignment of I-55 and Crump. – So, is the old hotel building
kind of your leading edge there? Do you want to? – Well, it’s in the
entry way of the community. Now we have actually had several
opportunities to develop the business, I mean the building. However they are not conducive
to what we are proposing going forward. I don’t believe it’s something
to be an asset to the community there now. So, I have turned down
many opportunities to develop the building. I mean, we’ve had everything
from a penal institution to truck stops, to gas
stations, convenience stores, low end hotels such as that. I think I wanted
to say something about what he
was mentioning. I think that T-DOT has
played to the politics of the neighborhood. There are several people in the
neighborhood that are very well politically connected and
connected to the media as well. And I think they play
to the politics of that. Without really engaging a lot
of the other major stockholders, I mean, here we’ve got
the Mayor of West Memphis. He didn’t know anything about
the bridge being shut down. You know, 25% of the people that
go across that old bridge are going to the Southland
Greyhound park for example. That’s one of the fastest
growing businesses in the south today since the flows of Tunica. We’re down to 200 employees. They’re back up to almost 700. Troy Keithman, the director of
resident knew nothing about it. 25% of the businesses
that go on Main Street, Memphis come
across those bridges. And I didn’t engage the people
in the Main Street or Downtown area either. – Paul, you’ve done a bunch
of development projects and, you know, the Main to
Main, the redevelopment. I mean, not that.. I don’t know if you claim you’ve
done everything perfectly. But what is your
governmental entity? More of a
quasi-governmental entity. You’ve worked with lots of
different funding sources. How should T-DOT or a group
like T-DOT approach this? Because you do have so
many different factors. Some people are probably
listening saying well, look. It’s T-DOT. It’s Tennessee money. We don’t care about Arkansas. We just care about Tennessee. But is that really? I mean, it just sounds like
there’s kind of a breakdown in communication here. What’s your.. You can’t burn any
bridges or get fired. You’re going out. So, how should they do this? How should they bring people
together and solicit the kind of input and get
the kind of feedback to have a better solution. – Well, I wouldn’t
presume to give T-DOT necessarily criticism. I would just say that I think
that they know what they need to do now which is to involve
the rest of the community. I have learned that through road
projects and I’m sure this is true in all 50 states,
they tend to take a long, long time. And sometimes they will.. These transportation
planners will communicate with stakeholders years
and years in advance and have public meetings. And I’ve been to some of these
public meetings about projects way off in the distance. And nobody shows up because
there is no sense of urgency. There’s no sense of
meaning to those early meetings. So, a lot of times the
transportation officials will claim on the back end when they
get criticized for not having consulted, they’ll point to the
numerous public meetings they had over the course of
years that no one attended. And so, you kind of sympathize
with these transportation planners about that. Because until they say they’re
about to break ground and close a bridge, the media
doesn’t cover it. The public doesn’t get outrage
and people don’t show up and argue about it. Having said that, I think that
obviously now we’re at a place where everybody does know about
it and people are very concerned about it. And T-DOT does need to
affirmatively reach out to West Memphis and to the Main Street
businesses who are also very concerned about the impact on
their businesses of a shut down and others and work with us. We’ve actually reached out to
T-DOT more recently to offer our services because we are so
closely connected to the Downtown businesses that
expressed a lot of alarm about this. And so, we’d like to
help work with them. And I think that’s one
lesson that T-DOT has learned is working with those local
organizations that have those connections. – Bill? – So, Paul, in terms of your
development vision as head of the Downtown Memphis Commission,
this is a bit of a unique mix because this is a major freight
corridor that’s next to a residential area that’s on
the other side of Crump. And you’ve got a whole lot going
on in that area and some very diverse uses. Do you normally encounter a
balance like that that has to be maintained or is this
area pretty unique? – It is unique. And what Lauren said is true. When government has a plan
that’s not certain what exactly is going to happen or
when it’s going to happen, that does freeze private
development and it goes beyond just the French Fort
neighborhood and other areas around there. There’s a lot of development
maybe waiting to happen for a clear understanding of exactly
what and exactly when it’s going to happen with this
transportation project. I do think the roundabout
solution which makes a lot of sense if we can go forward with
that somehow without shutting the bridge down, I think
everyone including T-DOT would agree with that. What they had told me, insisted
to me before is that they looked at everything and there
was no other way to do it. And now I’m glad they’re going
back to the drawing board to see if, you know, maybe they missed
a stone and maybe they can unturn some other idea. – Is there any irony? You were mayor of West
Memphis for many years back in the ’80s, ’90s. I think that’s what we’ve said. And there’s kind of irony
that a pedestrian bike bridge, that project will get done
before this interchange gets done, you know. And the Harahan Bridge, the Main
to Main connector is getting done, I mean, in the
next, what, year or so, Paul? You’ve been very
involved in that. And that was a real
collaborative kind of situation, right? I mean, you all had a
lot to say about how, you know, in tying in to your
trails and tying in to the eco park in that, you know, everyone
needed to work together for the region, not as
Arkansas versus Tennessee, Memphis versus West Memphis. Right? – Right. I think one of the
reasons working with Paul, one of the reasons that we got
this grant quite honestly is because it was a
collaborative effort. We filled a niche that they
were looking for in Tiger grants because they were encouraging
states to work together. So, I think without the
collaborative effort, we would not have
received that grant. Yes, it’s a
single purpose issue. I would have told you working
with the railroad was probably going to be a lengthy period. But the railroad certainly moved
as swiftly as it’s able to in working out and making
this project happen. But, you know, you mentioned
approximately 60,000 cars a day. Well, I think the actual is 48. But they did a study I think
that’s very interesting in either 2001 with Wilber
Smith and Associates. And level of service is
graded on vehicular traffic from A to F. Right now, it is at a
C level, about 48,000. They predicted in this study
that Wilber Smith done — did in 2001 that it would be 2023 when
the bridge would reach capacity. And that capacity
on 55 is 48,000. That would take it to
a level F, level F. And there is no way to expand
the 55 bridge to accommodate anymore traffic. So, one of the questions that I
think we all have is why are we spending 60 million dollars for
this roundabout and flyover when there might be
a simpler solution and I would give you example. If you take 55 north when
they doubled that ramp, it took away the back
up on the traffic on 55, on the northern loop
where you loop around. It took away. What’s to say that you don’t
double the ramp and let the Riverside drive traffic merge
in to the two that are there. You do that for a
lot less money. In fact, what you’re doing
is you’re spending 60 million dollars in putting a 55 mile
an hour ramp that it would be considered an A connector to a
bridge that’s an F rated level of service. – In terms of the
capacity of the bridge, you’re feeding all
these cars in to it. – That’s right. You can’t expand it. So, why would you spend $60
million for an A capacity to connect to a bridge that is a
F on LOS or level of service. – Let me switch a little bit. We talked about Main to Main
and we were talking a little bit before the show. Of course, I introduce
you as outgoing head. You started what year? – 2010. – Towards the end
of the recession. I mean, just celebrate or
lament your term as head of the Downtown Memphis
Commission for a minute. What have you
been most proud of? What do you wish you had gotten
done that you couldn’t get done? – Well, I had a
lot of fun doing it. And I’ve enjoyed working on
the Main to Main project. As Senator Ingram mentioned,
that is nothing short of miraculous that’s getting
done at the pace it is and the schedule it is. And it is because of the
partnership with West Memphis, the two states, two
cities, two counties, the private sector and all
levels of government getting that done and being given the
opportunity to be the project leader and the person who
coordinates all that has been really fantastic
and a great honor. And I really enjoyed it. And we’re not done yet. We’re going to get it done. – And you’ll stay on that
probably beyond your term as Downtown Memphis head? – Yeah, subject to.. This is a city of
Memphis project. So, the city of Memphis
Mayor selected me to be a project leader. And I will offer up my services
to continue doing that to see it through to completion. – So, let’s go to
the other side. Over the last five years,
what do you wish had gone differently? What do you wish you’d done
differently or what do you wish had happened
differently Downtown? – Well, we’ve had some
bottoming out I would say of the employment Downtown. The employment base,
the office market. That has been our
weakest segment. We bring so many people to
enjoy Downtown to visit. So many people are living there. We can’t build residentially. You know, it’s fast enough. But we need to get more
people to work Downtown. And that’s actually
starting to have some traction. The Downtown businesses
that exist are growing. You’ve had a lot of
growth from Archer-Malmo, St. Jude, the medical center
and other major employers. And we’re starting to see a
lot of start up and smaller businesses want to
relocate to the Downtown area. But that is a lament I would
say is that I wish more people worked Downtown. – Why do Downtowns matter? I mean, I know there’s
somebody out there listening, rolling their eyes saying,
you’re so focused on Downtown. Why are you focused on Downtown? It’s just one neighborhood. – Well, one thing I like
to say is there is no suburb without an urb. There is no city
without a Downtown, a densely populated area
that brings the vibrancy. Even people that don’t live
Downtown or even work Downtown, having a Downtown with a
sports arena and museums, it brings the
culture, it brings the art. It’s the common gathering
place for the whole region. We’re the Downtown
for West Memphis. I’ve been over to West Memphis
and they love Downtown Memphis. I mean, we are the Downtown
for this tri-state region. We are the attraction. We’re the common
gathering ground. We’re what makes this
community and what defines it. It is what when people around
the world think of Memphis, they don’t think
of I-240 Poplar. That’s not the
image in their mind. They give Downtown. That’s the shots. That’s the skyline
shots for the city. – Alright, Bill,
any last questions? We got a minute left. – Just about the development
of the eco park on the Arkansas side of the river. Where is that at, at this point? – Right now we are
having meetings on it. It is certainly on
the ground floor level. But it has tremendous potential. It has come a long way. It is forming. And I think it’s going
to be a great attraction. It’s going to be a great tie in
for what we’re doing with the Main to Main project. I’ve got really great hopes and
great aspirations that we’ll see that happen. – The views of the city from
what are now those farmers’ fields over there are
spectacular like nothing you’ve ever seen. And it’s a very
rich, historical area. – Bill gets the last word. Thank you all for being here. We really appreciate it. And thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. Goodnight. [theme music] (male narrator)
A2H: Engineers, architects and planners creating an
enhanced quality of life for their clients
and our community. More about A2H’s services
and markets is at A2H.com.

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