Comparisons of Memphis and Nashville are usually a fool's errand, but when the shoe fits . . .
Here's an interesting contrarian comment from a Nashville website about Nashville's proposed $7 million riverfront improvements approved this week by the city council: "As crappy as Memphis is, Tom Lee Park is awesome and Memphis in May is great. We cannot have anything like that in Nashville with our little strip of grass and floating barge on July 4th."
The Cumberland River is no Mississippi. In width and placid nature, it's more like the Wolf River harbor. It's spanned by a pedestrian bridge between downtown Nashville and fast-growing East Nashville. The opportunities for riverfront development are obviously different.
What can be compared, I think, is the general approach that Memphis and Nashville have taken to riverfront development. The Nashville project is designed to be relatively inexpensive, built quickly, keyed to everyday use by locals and tourists 365 days a year, and free to the public. It includes playgrounds and basketball courts — hardly a tourism magnet — as well as some grander components. The mayor and Nashville metro city council are the main drivers.
Memphis has always taken a big-project approach to the riverfront — outside experts, Mud Island River Park, The Pyramid, Memphis in May, the trolley loop, Beale Street Landing. It often seems that out-of-towners, not locals, come first. The white-elephant potential of Mud Island, now closed half the year, was obvious shortly after the $62 million park opened 27 years ago. For many Memphians, it was a one-and-done experience, even after the Auction Street bridge made it more accessible.
MusicFest and Memphis in May take an incredibly hard toll on Tom Lee Park. By the time the park is back in any kind of shape, the 90-degree temperatures and humidity have set in. But the festivals, as the Nashville commenter points out, are the envy of many cities. Should they move to another site? It's a close call that might come to a head next year when Beale Street Landing is open.
Several years ago, Memphis turned over riverfront management and development to the Riverfront Development Corporation. Specially created authorities are usually justified on the theory that they can raise private funds and get things done faster and more efficiently than standard government divisions. But there's an undercurrent of cynicism about government competence and the rough and tumble of vetting projects in the light of day.
Ideally, the RDC board should be an open, inclusive forum for robust debate. Instead it's a buddy-board sprinkled with former city government insiders and sympathetic city council members who rubber stamp big tax-sucking projects like Beale Street Landing. Unlike Chattanooga's celebrated riverfront, there is no private money in that $33 million deal. It's all city, state, and federal government funding. The fact that RDC Director Benny Lendermon is paid much more than either the city or county mayor is one for Ripley's.
Still, Memphis and the RDC get it right sometimes. Riverside Drive and the Bluffwalk are gorgeous, Martyr's Park is a hidden gem, Greenbelt Park is open for everyday use, and in some ways Mud Island River Park is nicer than it was when it opened because the trees are bigger. The problem there is access, which is a liability for public use and an asset for private use. I wish the skate park advocates well, although I think that, like my racquetball and tennis friends years ago, they overstate the popularity of their game. But their energy, enthusiasm, civility, and emphasis on participation sports is welcome any day.