Tom Lee Park, a newly transformed, 31-acre riverfront park running alongside the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis, reopened Saturday, September 2, 2023, in time for the Labor Day Weekend.
After five years of design and construction, the new park takes its place as the centerpiece of the city’s riverfront and a national model for inclusive and ecologically restorative urban parks.
Its master planner and architect is Studio Gang. The landscape architect and park designer is SCAPE.
Providing spectacular views of the river and the Arkansas wetlands beyond, the park is also just steps away from Memphis’s historic downtown—including its Cobblestone Landing, Cotton Row, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.
“We’ve created a place for park life that could only be in Memphis, one that will delight people of all ages by the variety of spaces and activities on offer, while contributing to the resiliency of the river corridor,” says Carol Coletta, President and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership.
“Insights and input from the Memphis community were essential to this project from the very beginning, to make sure the park’s programming reflects how Memphians from across the city want to enjoy their riverfront,” says Jeanne Gang, Founding Principal and Partner of Studio Gang. “With their help, we’ve created a destination that is down-to-earth, but also beautiful and ecologically healthy, where we hope everyone feels welcome to relax, exercise, play, and come together along the Mississippi.”
“Tom Lee Park’s design was inspired by the dynamic flow patterns of the Mississippi and the desire to revive the river corridor. We have rehabilitated the soils to nurture native plantings and planted over a thousand trees where there were less than fifty, providing essential shade, more biodiversity, and habitat for pollinators and birds,” says Kate Orff, Founding Principal, SCAPE.
The park area has long been named for Tom Lee, a Black river worker who became a Memphis hero in 1925 after singlehandedly saving 32 people on a capsized steamship from drowning in the river.
Memphis was founded as a river town, but like many American cities, it turned its back on the waterfront as it grew during the 20th century. Today, Tom Lee Park is adjacent to a crescent of disinvested neighborhoods, including the lowest-income zip code in Tennessee. A core aspect of the Memphis River Parks Partnership’s mission is to provide more and better amenities to the families that live in these neighborhoods.
The park will be completed with overall spending of 43.9% at Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprises (M/WBE), including the two women-owned firms leading the design team, Studio Gang and SCAPE, and local minority-owned firms Innovative Engineering Services (IES) and Allworld Project Management.
The design of Tom Lee Park strengthens the connection between downtown Memphis and the river. It provides the first Americans with Disabilities (ADA)-compliant access to the river with the Carlisle Cutbank Bluff, and safer pedestrian crossings of Riverside Drive at Vance, Huling, and Butler Streets.
The park’s three new sheltering pavilions are made of timber and inspired by the industrial structures that once operated on the riverfront. Along with new landscape features and a river-themed playground designed by Monstrum, they create exciting destinations for recreation, outdoor education, dining, performances, and other activities—elevating them with the living backdrop of the Mississippi.
Transforming the former flat expanse of lawn, the park’s new undulating hills with native plants and trees sculpt spaces that are inspired by the dynamism of the Mississippi River. Organized into four zones that each have a distinct character—from civic and recreational to contemplative—these spaces host a range of activities and provide habitat for native birds and pollinator insects that migrate along the Mississippi Flyway Corridor.
The architectural centerpiece of the park is the Sunset Canopy, a 16,000-sq ft timber structure supported by six “bundled” steel columns, whose louvered roof protects park users from sun and rain. Dedicated to the memory of Tyre Nichols, the Canopy is designed to host community activities and events year-round—including basketball, pickleball, fitness classes, dance lessons, and concerts. Its ground surface is a multi-colored, geometrically patterned court designed by the New York City-based artist James Little, who was born and raised in Memphis. Little’s court has been produced by Project Backboard and funded by Five-Star Basketball.
Just northwest of the Canopy, two smaller curving pavilions made from whole logs house concessions, event space, and restrooms.
South of this active area is a permanent art installation by the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, entitled “A Monument to Listening.” Set among meditative walking paths and a grove of birch trees, the installation’s 33 basalt stone sculptures are inspired by the story of Tom Lee and support related social programming.
Planning and building Tom Lee Park has cost $61 million. In a public-private partnership, City, County, State and Federal government sources contributed $33 million. Private fundraising has included gifts from local and national philanthropy, corporations, and individuals.
One such donor is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the federally owned electric utility corporation that serves all of Tennessee. Says Mark Yates, Regional Vice President, “We are proud to support Memphis River Parks Partnership and their tremendous effort to transform Tom Lee Park. At TVA we strongly believe in environmental stewardship and this project brings educational and ecotourism benefits to the heart of Memphis that will benefit our community for generations to come.” As well as a major donor to the park, TVA is a sponsor of the Day One celebration.
MEMPHIS RIVER PARKS PARTNERSHIP
Memphis River Parks Partnership is a nonprofit (501c3) organization that stewards the riverfront on behalf of the people of Memphis. The Partnership manages, maintains, operates and activates five connected riverfront park districts of 250 acres of parkland as well as multiple rental and performance facilities.