Thursday, January 04, 2001

"Big" Ideas Move Riverside Dr., Put Houses in Tom Lee

Commercial Appeal
By Deborah M. Clubb

Tom Lee Park could sprout houses, Riverside Drive could move to the river's edge, Wolf River Harbor could become a lake and bluff-top "Overton blocks" could become Memphis's Central Park in development options offered Wednesday by riverfront consultants.

These and other "big moves" were laid out during two public hearings hosted by the nonprofit Riverfront Development Corp. A third public hearing on development alternatives begins at 8 a.m. today in the Plaza Club on the second floor of the Toyota Center beside AutoZone Park.

The Riverfront Development Corp. hired a team led by Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York to analyze and plan redevelopment of 12 miles of waterfront, from the Wolf River to the Harahan, Frisco and Memphis & Arkansas bridges.

Reaction and comment from the public meetings and other sessions will let planners refine the options, said team leader Brian Shea of Cooper, Robertson. The proposals also must be filtered through finance, marketing, engineering and historic considerations.

A Wolf River Harbor lake concept, proposed in 1996 by Mayor Willie Herenton and shot down by citizens in riverfront workshops in February 1999, reappeared in three versions.

Shea drew a small lake north from a dam near the Auction Avenue bridge, north from Poplar with a "land bridge" between Poplar and Court connecting Mud Island to downtown or with infill connecting Mud Island to the city near Beale Street, making the whole harbor into a lake.

He suggested a new museum dedicated to river history and culture could occupy the land bridge, or such a facility could sit at the foot of Beale Street to pull the historic district's entertainment zone to the river's edge.

The promenade property, dedicated to the city for public use by founders in 1828 and referred to by planners as the Overton blocks, could be developed with public and private uses, be a mixture of green space and development or be purely parkland from Union to Auction.

Tom Lee Park could remain a park or could become residential development with Riverside Drive moved nearer the water and a public promenade constructed along the river's edge.

Likewise, Mud Island River Park could be all park with new access from Poplar Avenue, or it could be a mixture of uses or entirely developed with only a linear park on the Mississippi River side, Shea said.

The cobblestone landing could be preserved as is, be reduced to the section from Union to Beale or be more radically reduced to a portion near the "land bridge" river museum and lake.

Memphis in May International Festival could move from Tom Lee Park to Mud Island or into a new park in the Overton blocks.

Kristi Jernigan, RDC vice chairman, was a sole supporter of the "big lake" in one of three discussion groups that followed the first public presentation Wednesday.

Its controlled water level would permit restaurant and other retail development on both banks, she said.

But most of the two dozen other participants in Jernigan's group spoke in favor of a partial lake, to preserve a protected harbor and the natural rise and fall of the river level.

"The real river is more compelling than an artificial lake," said landscape architect Lissa Thompson.

Expert users of the river also warned that the "big lake" plan was flawed because it would push large riverboats into a dock on the Mississippi with its powerful current.

And, they said, any lake plan that ended commercial river traffic in the Wolf also would put about $250,000 in dredging costs on city taxpayers.

Tom Lee Park was beloved, participants said, for the excellent river vista it provides.

It's not working as a park, said Candace Damon, the planning team's finance and marketing expert, but would be "very, very desirable" for residential and neighborhood retail uses.

Memphis in May executive director Jim Holt told the group the success of MIM's music and barbecue festivals is linked to the location on the river.

But Jernigan suggested that if the festival events were in a new park on the Overton property, nearer to downtown restaurants and businesses, its economic impact would increase.

Past legal interpretations have said that control of the promenade area, now about 80 acres west of Front Street from Union to Jackson, could revert to the founders' heirs if other development is attempted without their concurrence.

At an RDC board meeting earlier Wednesday, Jernigan said lawyers with Baker Donelson had researched issues related to the promenade land and the Overton heirs.

"They're ready to give us options and ready to deal with whatever comes out of that (master plan)."

While continuing to shape the master plan, Shea and his team also have been brought into two long-planned projects that the RDC took over from city officials earlier this year.

At their insistence, designers are taking a new look at plans for the Ron Terry Plaza and cobblestone walkway, even though the project is under construction to link Jefferson Davis and Tom Lee parks. The planned 8-foot wide walkway is too small, consultants have said.

A construction contract for improvements to Riverside Drive also has been delayed until spring.

Copyright 2001 The Commercial Appeal

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