MEMPHIS, TENN. — For decades, this city on the banks of the Mississippi, like an estranged child, grew apart from Old Man River.
Even in prosperous times, smokestack industries and their effluent made the riverfront and the waterway itself unattractive places to visit. Then, in the 1950s and '60s, factories started fading, further dispiriting riverfront neighborhoods. A highway completed the segregation of land and water.
But at the dawn of a new century, this nearly 200-year-old city is trying to reconnect to its riverfront, abetted by a public-private partnership that will evolve a sweeping plan of grand civic spaces and commercial development grounded in aesthetics and environmentalism.
"The interest in this is huge," says Benny Lendermon, who heads an independent agency overseeing riverfront redevelopment. "We've done a lot of meetings on this - and I've done public meetings all my life - and we have yet to have a room with enough seats. People show up because they truly love the river."
From California to New England, cities are re-engaging with their rivers. Last month, Pittsburgh's Riverlife Task Force unveiled a sweeping plan for Three Rivers Park, a makeover of 10 miles of riverfront along the banks of the city's three intersecting waterways. Cincinnati's $1 billion riverfront redevelopment effort is starting to gather steam: A second municipal stadium is being completed, and work may soon begin on a National Underground Railroad museum, a 52-acre park, and highway and parking reconfiguration.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are also transforming their riverfronts. So is Sacramento. Hartford and Louisville are beginning Phase 2 of their efforts. And the phenomenon is not limited to large cities. Omaha and Peoria are redeveloping their riverfronts. Augusta, Maine, tore down a dam several years ago and is redeveloping along the banks of its rediscovered river.
"It's a booming trend," says Betsy Otto, director of the Community Rivers Program at American Rivers in Washington. "In many of these cities, the reason for their founding is their location on the river. By reconnecting to what makes them unique, they are reviving themselves and their identity."
The riverfront redevelopment has been driven by a number of intersecting trends. The final demise of industry along riverfronts has freed up land, the Clean Water Act has helped revive polluted rivers and made them once again attractive to recreation, and a booming economy throughout the '90s fed civic dreams of reinvention.
Now, however, the nation's economy is reeling, and cities are trying to trim budgets. The new economic realities may slow redevelopment efforts, though it's unlikely that those already under way would be scuttled midstream. But cities still in the planning stages, such as Kansas City, may find themselves taking a hard look at new expenditures.
Here in Memphis, the "final" riverfront redevelopment plan is expected to go public after the New Year. The project will include a wide land bridge out to nearby Mud Island, new residential units, commercial space, marinas, acres of parks, and a landing for tourist paddle-wheel boats.
While design specifics of riverfront rebirth vary by city, several guiding principles of the Memphis plan come close to being universal. One is that water's edge belongs to the public. In Memphis, the goal is to have all five miles of river's edge in the redevelopment area under public control.
Having streets flow down to meet the river is another popular consideration. In Memphis, not a single downtown boulevard currently extends to the water; they dead-end either into a building or parking garage.
In general, riverfront redevelopment plans nationwide benefit from - and perhaps would not exist without - a transformation in thinking about aesthetics over the past two decades, according to experts. Once viewed as an expensive luxury, aesthetics are now seen as a critical design component that drives economic development.
"There was a time when people thought you had to pack every square inch with concrete and steel to get the most gross leasable square footage," says Jack Rouse, who owns a design firm in Cincinnati and also chairs that city's redevelopment advisory agency. "That turned out not to be a very good model. It's the parks and amenities and fountains and walkways that really do drive economic development and underlying real-estate values."
The same holds true for environmental considerations, some experts say. "People want to get down and see the river and see natural habitat - in addition to having walkways and festivals and restaurants and everything else," says Ms. Otto.
Riverfront redevelopment is also seen as a partial antidote to suburban sprawl. Memphis now enjoys one of the highest rates of urban repopulation in the US - with new residents snatching up renovated apartments and loft space as soon as it comes on the market. Riverfront redevelopment is expected to fuel continued demand and further anchor the downtown area.
One of the keys to riverfront rebirth is often the establishment of a quasi-private nonprofit agency that's shielded from politics and bureaucratic entanglement. That is the model in Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Memphis.
In Memphis, it is hoped that $300 million in public spending over a decade or more will be matched by $600 million in funding from developers. "At the end of the day, it's all about getting development into the hands of an organization that runs in a true public-private partnership mode, as opposed to development being at the whim of politicians and elections," says Mr. Rouse.
Despite current financial woes, and a lack of success in certain cities that had attempted redevelopment, such as Toledo, optimism runs deep in many river cities.
"My level of confidence could not possibly be higher than it is," says John Stokes, chairman of the Memphis redevelopment agency. "The right people are involved in this thing, the design is a good one, and the people of Memphis are behind it. Now is the time."