The centerpiece, literally, of the new riverfront plan is the land bridge to Mud Island, a $75 million investment that would create 50 to 70 new acres of prime downtown real estate.
Bold as it is, the land bridge is not new. Since 1924, at least half a dozen ideas including pontoon bridges, dams, pedestrian bridges, and land bridges similar to the one in the current plan have been floated by architects, planners, and engineers. Two of them, of course, were actually built: the Mud Island monorail and the Auction Street Bridge.
Like The Pyramid (which is similar to a golden bluff-top structure proposed in 1975 by designer Mark Hartz), major-league sports, and a music museum, the land bridge is one of those Memphis ideas too powerful to die.
Its earliest ancestor appears to be the 1924 Harland Bartholomew & Associates riverfront plan. It featured a classic promenade consisting of a series of arches on Front Street and a low, arched bridge wide enough to carry cars to future parks on Mud Island.
"No immediate steps are necessary," planners wrote. "As private improvements are made and as public funds become available, the various improvements can be made."
The plan was updated in 1955 with an interstate-style Riverside Drive connecting Tom Lee Park to Mud Island, an east-west interstate crossing the Wolf River at Auction Street, and a cloverleaf intersection in the middle of the island.
"It is proposed to divert the channel at a point near Poplar, and to fill the old channel, thus creating a very large area to be used for the purposes shown on the plan."
The Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River (and Mud Island) was built in the late Sixties. The Corps of Engineers raised the island's elevation at the same time, but development of the island was still several years away.
In 1972, Mud Island landowner Bill Gerber and Percy Galbreath, Inc., commissioned a plan for Mud Island. This one also had a land bridge closing the Wolf River harbor at Beale Street and a new channel at the north end of the island.
"We had just seen 400 acres filled by the Corps, and the idea of filling in a 30- to 40-acre connection didn't seem like any real major feat," says Gerber. "The value of the land you would gain would be more than the cost of producing it."
Harry Rike, an engineer who worked on the plan, jokes that "we were not engineers, we were prophets." The land bridge came in small, medium, and large sizes, and the preferred option, the middle one, was almost exactly the size of the one in the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) plan.
But Gerber and Rike couldn't interest then-Mayor Henry Loeb, who was worried about crime on South Main Street.
"They didn't want to connect Mud Island to a high-crime area," Rike says. "Now, of course, all of that has changed and it's an entertainment district."
Instead, the next city administration and architect Roy Harrover moved ahead with Mud Island river park. Harrover considered two options similar to the RDC proposal. One was making the bridge that now supports the monorail a building with a museum instead.
"The second thing was quite pertinent," says Harrover. "We started at Union and filled in the Wolf River up to where the I-40 bridge ties in, creating a complete public park from Riverside Drive to the Mississippi. That scheme was cancelled by the Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers. And the entire Yacht Club was opposed to it."
Then-Mayor Wyeth Chandler and the City Council instead chose the concept of a monorail and a park dedicated to the river. It cost $60 million and now has few fans.
"The harbor is considered a public waterway commercially used," says Harrover. "The Coast Guard told us we had to build the monorail bridge the same height as the Hernando DeSoto Bridge at that point. Then they came back a few years later and allowed them to build the Auction Street Bridge lower than that."
The Auction Street Bridge opened Mud Island to residential developments like HarborTown, but the lure of direct access from the heart of downtown remained. Architect Tony Bologna and developer Henry Turley played around with the idea of a low-cost pontoon bridge at the southern tip that could open or close for boats and barges. A former Bologna associate, Tom Turri, joined the Hnedak-Bobo architectural firm, and he sketched out drawings of a 28-acre lake formed by closing the harbor with a dam at Beale Street and another at Jefferson. "The lake" went public in 1996, its estimated cost $30 million.
"It didn't do anything to bring the city to the river," says Turri, now with Bottletree Design Group. "There was some public discussion, then the RDC idea came along."
The RDC's charge is to recoup the cost of any public investment with roughly three times as much private development. Total package price: $292 million.
Benny Lendermon, head of the RDC, says RDC planners were staunchly opposed to a land connection at Beale Street, which was favored by the RDC board at one point. The planners insisted it should be north of that. Minds were made up.
"They might have walked away from it," Lendermon says.
So north it was. And north it is. For now, at least.