Tale of Two Plans 

Art Park developer excluded from new plan for Downtown promenade.

Earlier this month, city officials unveiled a massive plan to revitalize downtown's promenade with a music venue, an outdoor cafe, art installations, pop-up retail, and more. The city's plan for Memphis Fourth Bluff looks incredibly similar to John Kirkscey's Memphis Art Park plan, which he began developing nine years ago.

Kirkscey, the "idea guy" and developer behind Memphis Art Park, said he feels like he's been "completely excluded" from the city's discussions on redeveloping and activating the promenade space, which includes Memphis Park, the Cossitt Library, and Mississippi River Park. Kirkscey said he's pitched his plan to city officials over the years, both to former Mayor A C Wharton's administration and to current chief operating officer Doug McGowan.

"I've been pitching to these people, and I haven't been considered in this process. I'm sure my business plan was considered, but as an individual, I haven't been," Kirkscey said. "Their plan is saying the same thing I'm saying — that arts and culture should be at the heart of the promenade, and we could have art galleries and performance spaces. Their plan isn't as developed as mine, but it's all about arts and culture."

click to enlarge Rendering of Kirkscey’s Art Park
  • Rendering of Kirkscey’s Art Park

The city was awarded a $5 million grant from the JPB Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and that will be matched by public and private donations. The Fourth Bluff project will activate the promenade spaces — Cossitt Library, Memphis Park, and Mississippi River Park —over the next three years.

Similarly, Kirkscey's plan proposes new uses for the Cossitt Library and Memphis Park, as well as the Front Street fire station.

"The founders of the city bequeathed the promenade land over to the city, and it was put aside for public use. While the city may have been honoring the letter of it, it certainly hasn't been honoring the spirit of it," Kirkscey said.

Under Kirkscey's plan, which was designed by Mario Walker of Self+Tucker Architects, the Cossitt Library would house a music/dance/performing arts center and a cinema and black-box theater. It would remain a library as well, but Kirkscey envisions it as a digital library. Under the city's Fourth Bluff plan, the Cossitt would remain a library but would have more arts and culture programming, a music library, an indoor bar, and an outdoor café.

Kirkscey envisions Memphis Park would feature an outdoor café, an outdoor performance space, and an artist market. The city's plan also features a plan for live music, as well as a beer garden, revolving food trucks, and LED light installations.

The city plan doesn't include the Front Street fire station, but Kirkscey's plan would convert the station into an art resource center and gallery.

Kirkscey said his plan would cost about $25 million, but he says he has a fund-raising plan in place.

"We wouldn't be looking for city money, but we envision a public-private partnership," he said. "The Riverfront Development Corp. could continue to maintain the grounds and pay utilities, and they could lease the buildings to a nonprofit for $1 a year."

Kirkscey said he hasn't given up hope yet and will meet with McGowan, who did not respond to requests for comment on why Kirkscey was left out of the process.

"I want to know if there will be a public process. Will there be a request for proposals? Can I submit my plan to be considered?" Kirkscey said. "This has been nine years in the making by a local creative. The city has this whole mantra about supporting the creative class."

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