Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fixing the Riverfront

Author and urban expert revisits Memphis — and has some ideas.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 9:52 AM

Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, suggests six quick fixes for Memphis' riverfront.

As the title suggests, Speck has a bias toward pedestrian-friendly projects. At the request of Mayor A C Wharton, Speck reviewed some 20 Memphis riverfront plans dating back more than 30 years. That fact alone says a lot about riverfront development, but Speck gave it a good shot.

He gave a 90-minute talk to about 125 people at the Memphis Cook Convention Center Monday, showing familiarity with the past, present, and future of the riverfront. He was here for an extended visit in 2008, when he made "12 suggestions to make Memphis great." City of Memphis development czar Robert Lipscomb and Riverfront Development Corporation head Benny Lendermon were at Speck's presentation, but they did not speak.

"The last thing the city needs is another plan," Speck said.

He was generally positive in his presentation. He likes the Pyramid, predicted that Beale Street Landing "is going to be spectacular," and had nice things to say about the Harahan Bridge Project and Mud Island River Park. He passed on the current controversy over Confederate-themed park names and kept his criticisms gentle and impersonal.

He broke up the riverfront into six areas. Here are his suggestions, followed by my comments.

The Pyramid: Its connection should be to Main Street, not Front Street. The Pinch District should focus on attracting people from conventions, not travelers getting off the interstate. Bass Pro Shops "still has a long way to go" to understand the city. Speck suggests selling off four acres on Bass Pro Boulevard (the southern entryway next to the state visitors center) for private development and turning the boulevard into two or three lanes of car traffic and a lane for bikes and pedestrians.

I watched the Tunica casinos come out of the ground in 1994-1995. There was an incredible sense of urgency. The Bass Pro Pyramid does not have that. After all these years, I wonder if they really want to do this. The boulevard is small change.

Mud Island River Park: Still disconnected from the rest of downtown; needs stairs to the monorail from the visitor center. Speck suggests a water taxi from Beale Street to the tip of the island. He thinks the park should be open year-round.

Visiting experts often overestimate Mud Island River Park. Memphians are bored by it, and it attracts very few tourists. It is closed six months of the year for a reason.

Riverside Drive: Shrink it from four lanes to two or three lanes. Include a buffered bike lane and a lane for parallel parking. Take the parking lots out of Tom Lee Park. Keep Memphis in May in the park. Break the park up into small areas separated by trees.

A $42 million landing/restaurant and no parking lot? Yikes.

The Cobblestones: Speck said it is about impossible to make it usable and historically accurate at the same time, given the demands of accessibility and preservationists. He said the RDC should finish the project and add light structures "draping" it.

The man has done his homework.

The River Walk: By this he meant the sidewalks and Bluff Walk going from the Pyramid to Martyrs Park. It now leaves the riverfront and goes behind the law school and into South Bluffs residential development. Speck suggests making it more linear and extending it between the Church of the River and Channel 3's offices to the French Fort area south of the Harahan Bridge.

I like the dogleg through shady South Bluffs. Those who want to stay in sight of the river can take the 84 steps down from the Bluff Walk to Tom Lee Park at Huling or Butler and follow the sidewalk south to where it ends near the church.

Beale Street to Beale Street Landing: Needs "edging" — development along Beale Street by the parking lots near the river, once envisioned as the site of One Beale, a tall hotel and condo. The Harahan Project needs something on the West Memphis side in the floodplain, maybe just a loop trail and a pavilion, because Main Street West Memphis (the other half of the "Main Street to Main Street" idea) is pretty far away.

The fact that there is basically nothing on the bluff at the corner where Beale Street meets the Mississippi River, a pretty famous American intersection, is sad. Like the Pinch on the north end of downtown, this area actually had more activity 30 years ago when Captain Bilbo's and Number One Beale were around.

To learn more about Speck and his observations and proposals, visit the city of Memphis website.

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