Sunday, September 08, 1996

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

Commercial Appeal
Editorial

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

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