The Concept Behind the Riverfront Redevelopment

The Reimagining of Tom Lee Park is just one part of the plan

Since its release to the public a month ago, the proposal for the redevelopment of Tom Lee Park has stirred reactions across a wide spectrum: stunning and captivating vs. busy and well, dumb; critical to the future of the riverfront vs. a plan that will kill Memphis in May.

Chief amongst public concerns has been just that: the plan’s effect on the city’s annual international draw and million-dollar money-maker Memphis in May International Festival that takes over Tom Lee Park and blocks Riverside Drive for much of the month. BBQ Fest (The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest) and Music Fest (Beale Street Music Festival) annually attracts over a hundred thousand people from all over the globe, hundreds of chefs for BBQ and dozens of performing artists for Music, and well over $100 million in revenues to local hotels, restaurants, and tourist destinations.

Through the last couple of weeks of February and as of the beginning of March, numerous groups have weighed in on their opinions of how to address the new park plan and the annual May festivals: the Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) and designer Studio Gang, the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), the board of directors of Memphis in May (MIM), and the public at large via Facebook and other traditional press and media.

On February 26 the top executives of the MRPP and MIM met and had what was described as a product meeting. Valentina Cochran of Arch Inc., an architectural design consultant for MIM, spent the better part of three days finishing the design test fits that show how the new park plans can accommodate the two primary events of the international festival. After the meeting and after reviewing the plans, the board of directors of Memphis in May released this statement:

“We had a very productive meeting. Our teams will continue to work together over the next couple of weeks to address the remaining issues with the goal of producing these two big Memphis in May weekends in a new signature riverfront park. We will meet again the week of March 18 and feel confident we’ll reach a solution together that works for the community.” 

Overall Riverfront Hopes

While leadership of the riverfront redevelopment – the DMC, the board of directors of MIM, the MRPP and Studio Gang – work out the challenges of the current Tom Lee Park proposals into March, we thought it worth a look at the overall hopes of reinvigorating the entire Memphis riverfront, from Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in the south all the way to Greenbelt Park at the northwestern edge of Mud Island, as imagined by Studio Gang.

“…the riverfront can become an amazing place and a transformational civic tool.”

Studio Gang’s published Concept for the revamped riverfront is a description of how, “through a sequence of actionable investments, the riverfront can become an amazing place and a transformational civic tool—a connective network of spaces and opportunities that enrich the human experience, lift the fortunes of Memphis as a whole, and reinforce its future viability and resiliency.”

In developing their vision, the design team researched Memphis history, culture, demographics, and geology, met with community stakeholders, held specialized workshops, conducted public surveys, and referenced goals for Memphis 3.0, the city’s brand new comprehensive plan.

They also studied previous plans for the riverfront to identify key elements to pull into the new one. For instance, Harland Bartholomew’s 1921 plan proposed an elevated grand promenade that would overlook the river, as well as street widening to better accommodate vehicular traffic. In the 1980s, the Venturi Scott Brown plan proposed putting activity kiosks on the historic Cobblestone Landing and connecting it to Mud Island via a pedestrian span bridge. Beale Street Landing was the result of the Cooper Robertson plan of the 2000s, but the proposed large-scale land bridge was never built. Each of these plans brought both good and bad ideas to the table, but the team recognized that “examining the major urban proposals that engaged or shaped Memphis since the city’s beginnings provided the foundation for developing thoughtful urban principles for today’s city.”

The Concept, all images courtesy of Jeanne Gang & Studio Gang Architects, Ltd.

Through this process of engagement, research, and analysis, the team identified three core design principles:

  • Foster positive encounters, civic pride and identity, and new understanding of the Mississippi River;
  • Restore natural conditions, native ecology, and a more dynamic relationship between people and river, and;
  • Connect assets along the river, the riverfront to the city (downtown and the neighborhoods beyond), and people with each other.

The Concept covers six miles of Mississippi riverfront separated into five zones: Greenbelt Park, Mud Island, the Fourth Bluff, Tom Lee Park, and Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Park. With the identified design principles in mind, the plan for each zone is distinct from the next and offers site-specific and dynamic activities, experiences, and relationships with the river no matter the time of day or year. Zones are linked to each other as well as with existing city attractions via improved streetscapes and pathways that can be safely travelled on foot.

The design team analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each zone and carefully crafted a new vision for each:

  • While seasonal flooding can render much of Greenbelt Park inaccessible, it also cultivates rich alluvial soils that would support a more naturally lush park full of native species, as well as public spaces that can accommodate and thrive with flooding.
  • Mud Island River Park and the Mississippi River Museum are largely underutilized and disconnected from the city, but the scale model of the Mississippi River is a crowd favorite that should be preserved and enhanced in its reinvention into a destination for freshwater learning and recreation.
Mud Island – A hard-to-access peninsula with dispersed cultural assets becomes a connected Eco Hub where freshwater science educations and innovation thrive through institutional partnerships.
  • The hugely significant yet discombobulated series of historic sites along the river, including Mississippi River Park, the historic Cobblestone Landing, Memphis Park, the roadways leading from Riverside Drive to Front Street, and the Beale Street Corridor, must be connected and contextualized to increase foot traffic and civic engagement on the revitalized Fourth Bluff.
The Fourth Bluff
  • Anchored by an empty Beale Street Landing, Tom Lee Park offers a tremendous amount of open yet uniform space. Beloved during Memphis in May, the park’s riverfront edge has the potential to bring more visitors closer to the river during the rest of the year, too, with the addition of creative landscaping and dynamic amenities for all ages.
  • Located nearly two miles south of Beale Street Landing, MLK Park may offer the most riverfront park space, but it’s also the most physically isolated. Proper signage, a central trail system, and attractive amenities that play on its natural features, are necessary to reconnect the space to the rest of the riverfront, downtown, and South Memphis.
MLK Park – A historic park is reactivated as a new opportunity with new connections, a softer water’s edge, and structures that support festivals and community gatherings year-round.

The proposed interventions are designed in phased layers of investment that build on each other. Smaller projects that can be quickly realized, like seasonal plantings or pop-up programming, will support larger projects that build on their success, such as new parks and streetscapes, and repurposed or new buildings. Additional layers are added according to available funds and interest, as successful short-term projects generate further momentum and investment. We’ve already seen a few of these smaller projects activated at the Civic Commons on the Fourth Bluff, and look forward to continued new energy and engagement on our riverfront. Stay tuned for plan changes and announcements as it all shakes out.

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