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VOL. 127 | NO. 96 | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Riverfront Rehab

Historic cobblestones ready to undergo $6 million restoration

By Bill Dries

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As the American Queen steamboat docked Tuesday, May 15, at Beale Street Landing and left the same day for a trip to New Orleans, plans were under way for the restoration of another part of the riverfront just to the north – the cobblestones as well as a plaza and fountain at the foot of Union Avenue.

The cobblestones that line the bank of the Mississippi River will be restored through a $6 million project that calls for pathways making the riverfront more walkable. Work is slated to begin on the project this fall.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Construction work on the cobblestones is expected to begin this fall, said Riverfront Development Corp. president Benny Lendermon.

The restoration project costs $6 million, much of it federal funding. The city has put up $400,000 in the way of matching funding for the federal dollars that have gone into planning.

Like the landing, the cobblestone restoration concept has come with its contentious moments. And those disagreements resulted in changes to a plan years in the making.

The cobblestones will include a ramp area for launching canoes and kayaks in the Memphis harbor but not motorized boats.

The area will remain accessible to automobiles and have a walkway by the river’s edge as well as two east-west paved walkways leading to the river.

The plan was approved earlier this month by the Design Review Board of the Downtown Memphis Commission, the last local stop before the amended plan went to Nashville for state approval.

“We have a number of people we have to satisfy,” Lendermon said. “In many situations even people very much invested in historical preservation have very different opinions. … This is a very harsh environment. Whatever we put there will be flooded.”

Some preservationists argued that paved walkways are an unnecessary break in the field of cobblestones. Others point to old asphalt paving over the cobblestones expressly for access to the excursion boats at the foot of the landing as well as pedestrian access to the water.

The same features that allowed the cobblestones to hold tons of cotton have also made the landing difficult to walk on for any great distance. The city was sued at least twice during Lendermon’s tenure as public works director over people injured while walking on the cobblestones.

The dilemma reflects the functional origins of the cobblestones. They are believed to have been first laid out in the 1850s. For more than a century they have been a working part of the riverfront, either piled long and high with cotton bales and other freight or as a parking area for Downtown office workers and the site of the old Waterway Marine facility that ferried goods to barge crews moving up and down the river.

“That’s what it should have been all along. That’s what people have been looking for.”

–Ray Brown
Design Review Board, Downtown Memphis Commission

“How do you know what was in the missing areas?” asked Design Review Board member Nancy Jane Baker.

The cobblestones were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 as part of the Cotton Row district.

Landscape architect Ritchie Smith counts 12 different types of cobblestones at the sight without any restoration having started. Not all of the stones are granite, he added. And no mortar or grout was used to install them or to patch other areas that eroded away.

Federal standards require that visitors to the site after it’s restored be able to tell the difference between restored areas and the original areas.

There remains some debate about whether the concrete cobblestones to be used as the replacement blend in too well or don’t blend in at all.

And there are some spare cobblestones that will probably come into use.

“There’s a lot of cobbles down at the bottom of the river,” Lendermon said. “We will – I guess you could say – mine the river bank for the existing cobbles. There are also a few cobbles the city has in their possession that they’ve picked up in the past where they’ve had to dig up a street or where they a long time ago dug up some material on the edge of the cobbles they shouldn’t have dug up. Whatever they had we’ll use.”

Approximately 80 percent of the existing cobblestones won’t be touched in the restoration.

The north-south walkway along the top of the landing will tie in with Beale Street Landing and the water’s edge walkway. It is part of a harbor walkway that Lendermon said Bass Pro Shops developers have talked of linking up to as they prepare to renovate The Pyramid as a super store with other attractions.

One of the lingering controversies is over what kind of access and how much access to the river should be possible on the cobblestones and other features along the still developing riverfront.

“Why are you even possibly encouraging people to go down there?” asked Design Review Board member David Schuermann.

“Are you kidding?” replied fellow DRB member Ray Brown. “That’s what it should have been all along. That’s what people have been looking for.”

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