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VOL. 129 | NO. 148 | Thursday, July 31, 2014

Riverside Debate Reflects Pace of Riverfront Change

By Bill Dries

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On the day that the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation unveiled plans to add a soccer field, volleyball court and six-station fitness loop to Tom Lee Park, city engineers got an earful in the Beale Street Landing breezeway from critics of other changes to the stretch of Riverside Drive that runs by the park and the landing.

The bike and pedestrian lanes on Riverside Drive by Tom Lee Park are just one of several changes to the Memphis riverfront that, in the case of the lane changes, are prompting some debate among citizens about the changes.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The vocal opposition to the trial-run bicycle and pedestrian lanes on Riverside at the Tuesday, July 29, hearing by city engineers was the most significant since the installation of bicycle lanes on Madison Avenue in the fall of 2011.

The discussion about Riverside Drive also indicates that riverfront efforts and other Downtown development are reaching a critical point as those plans begin to show prolonged momentum for the first time since the national recession.

Reaction to the city’s decision to convert the two southbound lanes on Riverside Drive to only bicycle and pedestrian use drew a group of more than 50 and is the first in a series of at least three hearings the city will conduct.

In a year, the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. will decide whether to keep the tentative changes in place since June, modify them or go back to two lanes of northbound traffic, a median strip and two lanes of southbound traffic. That’s when the city is scheduled to repave Riverside Drive between Beale Street and Georgia Avenue.

One of the most frequent questions asked at the meeting, as well as on the comment cards they filled out, was why the city didn’t hold such hearings before the conversion in June.

City Engineer John Cameron said several times that the city had indicated in the year before the conversion it would be trying some kind of reconfiguration of Riverside Drive. But he also told the group, “At this point, it is what it is.”

One citizen said he is concerned “that we are building projects and then seeing if they work.” He too was critical of the changes, even for a trial period, and then seeking opinions on them.

“Gathering public input is very difficult,” Cameron replied. “Sometimes it takes putting something out there to get reaction. This is a way to get conversation going.”

There was also larger discussion about the collective impact of the set of changes to the city’s riverfront that Wharton has said are all geared to bringing more people to the riverfront.

“This is not a recreational area,” Cameron heard another citizen say. “This is an area for all of us to enjoy. … We don’t want it changed much.”

Asked why those on bicycles couldn’t use walkways in Tom Lee Park instead of Riverside Drive, Cameron said that could be the final plan in a year. But he also said “more experienced bikers prefer to have this.”

He was referring to cyclists on their way to and from the proposed Big River Crossing – the planned pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk on the north side of the Harahan Bridge, which is being rebid this week or next week with the hope that new bids are lower.

Those living on South Front Street were particularly concerned about increased traffic on their street as motorists avoid Riverside Drive.

By Cameron’s count there were five or six traffic accidents on the stretch of Riverside from Beale Street to Georgia Avenue in the first month of the trial period with one in the month of July. But some of the critics of the idea disputed that and said police weren’t reporting all of the accidents.

Others said the two opposing lanes of auto traffic that are now on the east side of the median strip with nothing more than a dotted pavement line between them are too unforgiving along a scenic stretch of road that dips and curves.

“It’s not like any other road,” said Janice Banks. “It’s the river and the curve that causes these accidents. You are blowing smoke.”

Meanwhile, proponents of the bicycle and pedestrian lanes west of the median strip, some who rode bicycles or walked to the hearing, argued that the change is a good one.

“There are people Downtown who love this idea,” a woman said to applause mixed with some jeers. “It’s good for Downtown residents and it will attract the young.”

Other advocates suggested speed bumps as a way to slow auto traffic and similar measures. Outdoors Inc. founder and owner Joe Royer noted that other changes to the riverfront landscape, namely the Bluffwalk above Tom Lee Park, were more controversial before they proved to be popular amenities, even with their one-time critics.

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