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VOL. 126 | NO. 155 | Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Greener Gateway

‘Grand move’ will bring more trees, plants to airport area

By Bill Dries

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Work crews unearthed an old concrete planter last week along the rapidly greening median strip along the Plough Boulevard connector to Memphis International Airport. And on Saturday, Aug. 6, they began laying out what will be an M-shaped planter that will be a visual centerpiece of the effort to make Plough Boulevard more of a Memphis gateway for those going to and from the airport.

Luis Hernandez of GreenPRO Landscapes digs an irrigation trench for trees along Plough Boulevard near Memphis International Airport as part of a beautifcation project of the roads leading to the airport. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“It’s a long, meandering M that’s 150 feet long that will have a color, concrete band,” said landscape architect Ritchie Smith.

The concrete borders will contain a variety of colorful plants that replace the smaller, planted M.

“This M is big,” Smith said. “We took up the entire slope. It’s a pretty grand move.”

The concrete borders will be ringed with 31 LED lights that will be timed to give the 150-foot M the effect of a wave for the mere two or three seconds it should catch the attention of nighttime drivers along the roadway between the airport and Interstate 240.

If the visitors have any doubt about what the M stands for, the word Memphis will be spelled out in three-foot-tall, stainless-steel letters about 20 feet apart at the base of the floral M and lit with more LED lighting.

Meanwhile, thousands of shrubs have gone into the ground and 1,200 of the 1,600 trees to be planted are already in the ground, along with an irrigation system.

Smith said it is one of the largest public planting projects he’s ever seen in Memphis – certainly in recent memory.

It stretches from the airport to the southern bank of Nonconnah Creek.

Brooks Road is the dividing line of sorts, with the city of Memphis responsible for maintenance of the part north of Brooks and the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority responsible for maintenance of the southern part. All of the work and planning have been a city project, though the airport was consulted about some concerns unique to having this much greenery near an airport.

The airport has its own full-time federal wildlife officer who reviewed the plans for the impact the changes might have on air traffic. Traffic from two runways at Memphis International passes directly over Plough Boulevard.

“The trees that were selected are trees that are not extremely dense,” said John Greaud, vice president of operations for the airport authority. “The birds like the dense trees so they can hide. As the city began the design process, we worked with them … to ensure the trees were not going to be attractive for the birds.”

Harry Martinez, left, and Alfredo Rivas of GreenPRO Landscapes irrigate trees along Plough Boulevard near Memphis International Airport as part of a beautifcation project of the roads leading to the airport.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The northern section of the project, toward the interstate, has trees; the southern part near the airport is limited to low-lying plantings. But even the sections with a lot of trees have been planted with air traffic in mind.

“You can’t plant any oak trees in the airport vicinity. And that’s probably our best canopy tree in this part of the country,” Smith said. “Because of the acorn crop, it just attracts too much wildlife. Everything is geared toward relatively low maintenance – a lot of native trees that hold up well in our climate and soil.”

What amounts to an airport greenbelt should be finished by November or December. And the plantings have a one-year warranty, which might come in handy given the long, hot and dry summer that followed the planting of most of the trees by April 12.

There have been some changes to the plan to take into account a deteriorating concrete median strip 15 to 17 feet wide and shrinking north and south of the Democrat Road bridge.

“The pavement has completely deteriorated,” Smith said of the 2,000-foot stretch. “There was so much gravel that windshields were getting popped, and they periodically had to try to keep the gravel off the road. It was really deteriorated.”

Safety reasons have kept plants from being installed there. Instead, different shades of integral concrete will create bands of color every 100 feet or so.

“We could not eliminate the paving and make it a green space,” Smith said. “It’s just too narrow for a 50-mile-an-hour roadway. It would be dangerous to try to maintain a narrow median.”

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