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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