Sunday, September 08, 1996

Editorial: From the mud? Grand Downtown Plan Needs a Lot of Study

Commercial Appeal

IF THERE were some way to move Graceland to Mud Island, the grand new plan for downtown might be a guaranteed success.

Otherwise, city officials should proceed with caution.

The Graceland possibility is suggested by San Antonio's famed riverwalk, which winds through the center of the city and past, among other tourist attractions, the Alamo.

What would exert the same kind of pull to bring people to the new Mud Island? A 28-acre "lake" squeezed between the island and the riverfront? A handful of stores with lodging and entertainment - the proposed "village" - built on the filled-in southern end of the island? A dam and land bridge from the island to Riverside Drive? A channel cut through the island to let boats and yachts get into the harbor? Another land bridge to and from the state Welcome Center?

The plan, Downtown Neighborhood Association president Bill Denson said, is "very unconventional and innovative." But he stopped short of endorsing it.

That's a sensible approach.

Mayor W.W. Herenton was careful to say that he was "considering and still investigating" the proposed changes, as laid out by Hnedak Bobo Group architects and PDR Engineering. He said the city would arrange for a feasibility study and invite comments "from diverse community groups."

There is always the option of delaying a new $30 million project until some of the other downtown plans, many already approved, are actually finished and paid for.

Those plans include the $17.8 million renovation of Central Station, the $60 million replacement of Ellis Auditorium, the $37.3 million Downtown Core Redevelopment Plan, a $3.8 million fire museum, the $5.4 million North End Parking and Transfer Facility for the Memphis Area Transit Authority, the $8.3 million renovation of the Orpheum, $11 million of improvements to The Pyramid, the $8.7 million completion of the Riverfront Trolley Loop and the $1.5 million riverbluff walkway.

The idea of connecting Mud Island to Riverside Drive caught a lot of attention. But it needs a lot of discussion, too.

Some City Council members were enthusiastic. Council chairman Janet Hooks said it "may be the shot in the arm that might help revitalize Mud Island." True. Especially since she hedged: "may be" and "might help."

Benny Lendermon, city public works director, said a study would cover technical and navigational concerns, permit requirements and potential sources of public and private funding.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers would have to be involved, too. Donald Dunn, chief of planning for the corps office in Memphis, said that the office was eager to learn more about the project but could not take a position until it knew more of the details.

There's no denying, however, that the Hnedak Bobo-PDR plan is worth talking about. Once the caveats are in place, it's intriguing to imagine what downtown would be like with easy access between the island and the riverfront, with riverboat restaurants moored along a land bridge instead of at the foot of the tricky cobblestones, with a clear lake surrounded by amenities instead of a muddy inlet from the river and with people wandering, jogging and milling around in a park that, so far, has been a serious drain on the city's budget.

The plan is bolder than the original, $11 million riverfront development project, which includes the riverwalk, floating shops and restaurants, new docking facilities for passenger riverboats and the privately funded Ron Terry Plaza at the foot of Union. All those ideas would be retained, with some changes.

Can it really be done? Is it affordable? Will the state provide more funds? And would the attractions be strong enough to make the investment a good bet?

To city officials' credit, they haven't formed a bandwagon yet. Extensive discussions will precede any parade. But Graceland - or something dramatic and proven - would be a big help.

Copyright (c) 1996 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

Thursday, September 05, 1996

City floats downtown lake plan; Dam would link Mud Island to Beale

Commercial Appeal
by Cornell Christion

City officials are considering converting part of the Memphis Harbor into a 28-acre lake enclosed by dams or "land bridges" linking Mud Island to Beale Street and the Interstate 40 Welcome Center.

The plan also calls for filling in the southern end of the island for development and connecting a two-story, floating riverboat mooring facility to one of the two dams.

A boat channel would be built north of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge to provide Mississippi River access to the section of the harbor that would not be part of the new lake.

The proposal, estimated to cost $25 million to $30 million, is aimed partly at making Mud Island an integral component of the city's riverfront development efforts.

The plan would replace an earlier proposal that did not call for improvements designed to help the struggling river park. Unveiled last summer, the original proposal was expected to carry an $11 million price tag. It did not include creating a recreational lake or further developing Mud Island.

''This project is a proposal which I am considering and still investigating as a concept,'' said Mayor W.W. Herenton. ''In the very near future, we will conduct a feasibility study to determine whether this concept can become reality. We will be seeking input from diverse community groups to determine their views on this project.''

The new proposal was designed by Hnedak Bobo Group architects and PDR Engineers. It grew out of concerns that the original plan was lacking because it ignored Mud Island.

The original plan called for restoring and stabilizing the historic cobblestones along the riverfront and building a walkway connecting the I-40 welcome center to Tom Lee Park. The plan also envisioned floating shops and restaurants atop barges permanently moored to the riverbank near the base of the cobblestones, along with docking facilities for big passenger riverboats.

The new plan would move the docking facility and most of the proposed commercial establishments. The docking or mooring facility would be on a barge platform on the south side of the dam connecting Mud Island to Beale Street.

The dam would accommodate pedestrian and vehicular access, allowing shuttle vehicles to pick up and drop off riverboat passengers.

The floating shops and restaurants would be replaced with land-based establishments in a ''village'' on Mud Island under the new proposal. Roughly 10 acres would be filled immediately south of the river park. Private developers would be sought for using the land for restaurants, shops, lodging or other commercial purposes.

Greg Hnedak, principal in the Hnedak Bobo firm, said the initial proposal raised doubts about whether floating shops and restaurants would work at the base of the cobblestones.
His firm designed the original cobblestone restoration project for the city.

"Knowing that (it would be) behind Mud Island, that you'll never see a sunset, that there's a considerable amount of mud left on the cobblestones every time the water fluctuates, we had a hard time really visualizing how a developer is going to say, 'Sure, I'll put $5 (million) to $10 million into this looking at those kinds of issues,' " Hnedak said.

"So that began to make us want to rethink it a little bit and then look at the potential of maybe doing something for Mud Island that might help it become more economically feasible."

Mud Island, a 52-acre city-owned river park that cost $63 million, has been a consistent money-loser since it opened in 1982. Officials think the new riverfront development plan would help turn that around.

"In order for the citizens of Memphis to get an adequate return on their investment in Mud Island," Herenton said, "we have to be creative and connect Mud Island with any existing or expanding amenities that will enhance its economic returns and promote tourism."

Funding could be a major hurdle for the new proposal. The state appropriated $7 million this year to help complete the city's initial riverfront development proposal.

Herenton said the city may turn to the state for more help if it decides to pursue the new plan.

"Let's put it this way, we're going to investigate all funding opportunities, which includes federal, state, local and private financing as well," Herenton said.

An analysis of the "costs and sources of revenue" for financing the new proposal, Herenton said, will be part of the planned feasibility study.

Other possible hurdles for the proposal include finding a developer for the land to be filled on Mud Island and satisfying permits, navigation and other concerns of federal agencies such as the Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard.

Donald Dunn, chief of planning for the Corps of Engineers' Memphis office, said local corps officials are scheduled to meet with city administrators late this week or early next week to discuss the proposal. He said he was not familiar with details of the plan.

Formal proposals or informal letters of interest will soon be sought from major developers across the country who might be interested in the project, Herenton said, including Gaylord Entertainment of Nashville, which owns Opryland, and Memphis-based Belz Enterprises.

Benny Lendermon, city public works director, said the city is still exploring the technical feasibility of the proposal.

Lendermon said the proposal will be presented to riverboat excursion lines, tugboat captains, a historic preservation group interested in the cobblestones and others who would be affected.

Among other advantages, the new proposal would reduce the amount of work needed for restoring the cobblestones and close a harbor opening thought to be too narrow to handle heavy traffic during low water.

A pumping system would be installed to maintain a steady water level in the new lake, which would be relatively clear.

"Once you slow down that water and the silt settles out of it, it would get as clear as any lake. . . . The only reason that water stays muddy in the Mississippi is because it's moving," Lendermon said.

That took much explaining to convince a skeptical Herenton during discussions about the new proposal.

"I could just hear the cynics saying, 'There goes Herenton, talking about making the muddy Mississippi blue,' " the mayor said and laughed.

Caption: Staff Riverfront Concept Dams would be built to link Mud Island to Beale Street and the Interstate 40 Welcome Center under a proposal being considered by Mayor W.W. Herenton. The plan calls for developing the southern tip of Mud Island and turning part of the Memphis Harbor into a 28-acre recreational lake.

Figure: Proposed Riverfront Development. Rendering by Hnedak Bobo Group. (Click to enlarge.)

Click to enlarge

Copyright (c) 1996 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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