Take Me to the River 

Take Me to the River

According to John Barry’s The Rising Tide, The Mississippi River is “20 percent larger than China’s Yellow River [and] fifteen times that of Europe’s Rhine.” These numbers make it easy to see that taming such a beast is “a mighty task” Historically, Memphis has had little large-scale success in co-habituating the River and City, settling instead for pockets of interest in projects like Mud Island, The Pyramid, and Tom Lee Park. While few argue with the value of these attractions to the city, no real connection between them exists. The effect is a hodge-podge of attractions which do not encourage pedestrian cross-traffic. That’s something that Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), wants to change. The RDC’s goal is to bring together the various elements of the river in such a way that increases use of downtown facilities and promotes a better image for Memphis. All this is easier said than done. Even if Memphis had an unlimited budget (which it does not), and even if the RDC could please everyone (which it probably will not), this would be a formidable undertaking. As it stands, Lendermon and the RDC are charged with changing the course of history for an entire city in a way that is affordable and popular. Such a task requires planning, says Lendermon, which requires gathering input from Memphians. “If you do the best, you’re doing what Memphis wants. What we don’t want are a number of designers doing only what they want.” Lendermon, the RDC, and the consultant groups Cooper-Robertson & Partners, Civitas, Hamilton Rabinovitz & Alschuler, and PDR Engineers have been listening to citizens via Internet message boards and town meetings. The result so far is the formulation of ten design principles, as set forth in a memo by Cooper-Robertson & Partners. Each principle outlines general goals for the project. For example, the first principle is called, “The Riverfront,” a plan to “create a continuous, publicly accessible Riverfront. The Riverfront design will explore three components: a linked system of parks, a ‘Riverside Drive,’ and connections back to the City.” The latter translates into plans for extending Beale Street, Poplar Avenue, Union Avenue, North Parkway, and Chelsea Street down to the river. The improvements are geared to better connect Memphis with its riverfront and to link the area neighborhoods (i.e. South Pickering, Pinch District, and Manassas) with amenities such as grocery stores and entertainment options. Lendermon says that these streets need to reach the river so that people can better access the waterfront. Says Lendermon, “Poplar Avenue is our ‘Peachtree’ (Atlanta’s main thoroughfare) and it doesn’t get to the river.” In addition, there is an ambitious proposal to link Riverside Drive to Front Street and to a loop around Mud Island, so that Riverside would become a recursive element instead of ending at an on-ramp to the I-40 bridge. By connecting neighborhoods and amenities, Lendermon hopes to encourage more people to live downtown, though he notes the real-estate business is already booming. “Downtown is going to change because of residential and retail growth. It’s incredible.” According to Lendermon, other big changes can happen downtown. “When you redo Mud Island [for example], it’s going to be a significant investment.” The money for these projects is coming from a number of different sources: $8 million from the state, $3 million from the federal government, and the rest from the city. Lendermon believes that Mud Island will eventually become a focal point for downtown activity. He envisions a multi-use park and gathering place at the Island’s southern tip, while the rest of the Island might be converted into retail space, hotels, or a nature preserve with bike and walking trails. Or the final result could be a combination of these things. “You need these types of mixed-use structures,” Lendermon says. Lendermon says that the RDC must be careful to balance the use of space with market need. “Does that mean we’re going to run out of space?” He asks. “No, we have a long way to go. [However] we have to see what the market will bear.” Memphis has long suffered a disconnected riverfront. The city has never fully capitalized on the natural resources and beauty inherent to the area. Bringing together two hundred years of developments into one coherent plan is not something that the city should expect one group to accomplish in a short amount of time. Still, the RDC seems off to a smart beginning, one which could enhance the area for generations to come. (You can write Chris Przybyszewski at chris@memphisflyer.com)

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