Friday, January 05, 2001

Riverfront Development holds workshops; Throws around ideas big and small

Memphis Flyer
By John Branston and Chris Przybyszewski

Urged to think big and avoid practical details for now, Memphians sounded off about plans to redevelop the riverfront, Mud Island, Front Street, and Tom Lee Park. Listening were members of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a public-private partnership looking at ways to improve the riverfront.

Key players of the RDC include Kristi and Dean Jernigan, patrons of AutoZone Park, and Benny Lendermon, former director of public works for Memphis and a designer of Tom Lee Park. At this week's series of meetings, commission board members and politicians stayed in the background while consultants presented broad themes and encouraged small groups of Memphians to respond.

"This session was specifically meant to provoke people," said consultant Brian Shea. "It's not that we're personally pushing any of these crazy notions." Shea is director of the lead planning team of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, a consulting firm based in New York City. He went on to say that the goal of these discussions was to determine, “what are the most important battles to fight,” and which aspects of the riverfront should be left until after major renovations are complete.

This could be difficult considering the myriad of special interest groups, whose concerns stretch from the historical to the environmental to the residential. However, Randy Morton, a member of the consultant team, warns that the current plans will not have a specific thematic approach, such as concentratingon on every historical marker on the river. “We can’t make everything on the riverfront special or it would all be normal,” he said.

Ideas tossed around included: developing housing in Tom Lee Park to raise money for other riverfront projects; a museum spanning the Wolf River and connecting downtown to Mud Island; commercial and residential development of Mud Island; turning the Wolf River harbor into a lake blocked by a dam; taking traffic off of Riverside Drive or rerouting it even closer to the Mississippi River; and making Memphis in May a street festival spanning Beale Street to Main Street instead of a Tom Lee Park festival.

Here's some of what they said:

Shea said one of the consultants' starting principles is that "it is difficult to enjoy and access the riverfront because of barriers." These include Riverside Drive, the cobblestones, and the hands-off development policy toward the west side of Front Street.

Planners suggest taking traffic off Riverside Drive and putting it on Second and Third Streets and turning the trolley from a "tourist toy" into a real transit system.

Mud Island has the potential for a "point park" at its southern tip where the Wolf River harbor and Mississippi River converge. Shea cited Pittsburgh as a city with such a point park.

Developer Robert Snowden urged planners to not get carried away with plans that ignore Memphians' disinclination to walk. He also discounted the need for any more public parks. "We don't need another park, we need to enhance what we have," he said. And Snowden warned that current residents and tenants on Front Street "are going to raise holy hell if you block their view of the river."

Candace Damon, an economic feasibility consultant, said "downtown desperately needs new office development." Planners see Front Street as the most likely site for such development if Memphis can overcome restrictions in the Overton promenade agreement with the heirs of the city founders.

Shea said that as a visitor he found the existing museum on Mud Island inadequate because "for one thing, you never see the river." But others defended the museum. "The concept of having that kind of Mississippi River museum must be maintained," said Susan Jones. She also urged planners to consider running tour boats to destinations such as Chucalissa or Shelby Forest.

Options for the Wolf River include leaving it alone, closing it off at the foot of Beale Street, or closing it off closer to Harbor Town to create a smaller lake that would not fluctuate with the rise and fall of the Mississippi River. A show of hands in one group found the most support for the smaller lake.

Such a lake, however, would close off the existing Wolf River marina from access to the Mississippi, potentially alienating boat-owners. One possible solution is to build a lock at the proposed lake’s mouth, which — though costly — would provide a better access road to Mud Island, and a dam for the Wolf River. The opposing argument is to create a land bridge at the site, providing development space that could pay for the cost of construction as well as serving as a dam.

Parking downtown was another major concern of one of the focus groups. Morton said that the problem is not so much in quantity as in organization. “Downtown [Memphis] has 20,000 parking spaces, more than the current developmental need,” he said. However, he noted that people are not able to find parking when they need it. The problem, Morton said, is that most of the parking in Memphis is not shared, but is used for a single purpose. As an example, Morton noted that the Pyramid boasts 6,000 spaces which are not used except during Pyramid events. By opening up such spaces to the public, parking problems could be lessened.

Tom Lee Park shapes up as one of the most controversial elements in the planners' inventory. Damon said developing it residentially could provide money to do other things, but realistically "you can't take a park without giving a park somewhere else." Others suggested such development would detract from the view of the river from the Bluff Walk.

The RDC will continue these discussions with the public for the next three months as part of its year-long study of the riverfront. Memphians can continue to contribute to the discussion via online access at the RDC’s website at

Copyright 2001 The Memphis Flyer

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