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VOL. 124 | NO. 234 | Monday, November 30, 2009

Mud Island Makeover

The RDC wants to nip sags and tuck bags at a park that's seen better days

By Bill Dries

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TOP: Archival shot of Mud Island River Park under construction in 1979. -- PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
BOTTOM: The 5,000-seat Mud Island Amphitheater offers a spectacular view of Memphis at night but needs repairs and an upgrade to its facilities. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

In August 1976, Roy Harrover, the Memphis architect who designed such landmarks as Memphis International Airport, Memphis College of Art and the NBC Bank Building wrote a six-page description of a project then known as Volunteer Park.

It was a plan for 50 acres of city-owned property.

Harrover termed it a “unique opportunity to provide (a) broad recreational and entertainment opportunity to Memphians and visitors in the Downtown area.”

Two years earlier, he had been hired by the city to do design work on the public park that was then known as Volunteer Bicentennial Park, with the idea that the park would be ready in time for the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

By the end of the summer of the bicentennial year, the word “bicentennial” had been dropped and yet another attempt to rename Mud Island had failed.

“Mud Island is a unique land area with unparalleled views westward across the Mississippi of the green fields and woods of Arkansas, and eastward across the 250-foot Wolf River channel of the dramatic skyline of Downtown Memphis,” Harrover wrote in 1976.

Elvis Presley had about another year to live. Downtown Memphis was dead and city leaders were looking for anything that even vaguely promised to bring it back to life. Overton Square was thriving. The Mid-South Coliseum was open and doing a booming business. Beale Street was fenced off and The Orpheum was still The Malco movie theater.

Harrover outlined a plan that would include much more than trees and park benches and great views of the Mississippi River. His plan included an interactive river museum, a scale model of the Mississippi River that doubled as a walkway, a 4,000-seat amphitheater, shops, restaurants, and even a monorail from a Front Street entrance to Mud Island.

Mud Island River Park would open on the Fourth of July 1982 with all of those things except the Volunteer Park name.

Nearly 30 years later, the park on the southern end of what is really a peninsula – albeit a manmade peninsula that used to be an island/sandbar – is poised for its first comprehensive makeover. The land use plan is being assembled by the Riverfront Development Corp. (RDC) with help from Looney Ricks Kiss architects.

Visitors follow the curves of the Mississippi River at Mud Island River Park during the facility's summer season. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

The RDC is the latest in a series of entities that have run the park for the city of Memphis. The park has been run by the Park Commission, the Parks Division, an appointed board, developer Sidney Shlenker and, since 2000, by the RDC.

“This will be sort of a roadmap that says how these pieces fit together on this piece of property so we’re not tripping over our own feet as we come up with future projects,” said Benny Lendermon, RDC president.

Straighter gait, they hope

The RDC is a nonprofit entity created by the city in 2000 to develop and run its riverfront parks and properties as well as carry out a riverfront master plan.

The plan includes the Beale Street Landing on the other side of the harbor that is scheduled to be completed next fall. It also includes restoring the cobblestones next to Beale Street Landing that once were the city’s river port.

Harrover’s 1976 idea grew as it had before in the previous decades when the river was low and the island’s promise was most apparent. But the brown water always returned to cover the island. Opinions of the island would change with the river level, which can vary by as much as 30 feet a year on the Memphis waterfront.

Mud Island surfaced around 1899 or so, by most historical accounts. At first, it would quickly vanish below the river waters like the sandbars that emerge when the river is low. But when it kept returning, it became apparent that the island was there to stay and was initially viewed as a hazard to river navigation.

Legends persisted that the buildup of silt that formed the island came from a boat that sank during the 1862 Civil War gunboat battle in the river. All of the vessels were quickly accounted for by historians and the legend debunked. But it still persists along with a story of another boat that ran aground in Memphis in the early 20th century and thus helped what was already a buildup of silt.

At least by the Depression era, squatters were living on the island with farms that flooded every year and basic houses often built on stilts. Some of the squatters took the city and state to court, claiming the land wasn’t part of Memphis. They lost and were evicted in some cases. In other cases, they remained until the mid-1960s when another court fight erupted and the squatters again lost.

Memphis political boss E.H. Crump devoted some of his considerable political will to the island, at one point suggesting it be blown up.

By 1950, he still said it was an eyesore, but he wanted the Wolf River channel between the island and the city blocked with an earthen dam and the Wolf channeled to meet the Mississippi farther north. He then wanted what is now the Memphis harbor filled in, just as one of his sucessors in the mayor’s office – Willie Herenton – would propose more than half a century later.

“It is going to take some time,” Crump said in an October 1950 article in The Commercial Appeal. “Rome wasn’t built in a day but we are very hopeful that in the not too distant future Wolf River will be diverted and everything in front of Memphis filled up. Instead of an eyesore, there will be a beauty spot with parking, flowers, trees, athletic fields and scenic drives.”

Ten years later, the harbor was created with the dam that served as the access road onto the island and made it a peninsula. The rest of the plan fell through as public opinion and the pronouncements of political leaders changed.

'A little tired'

By 1970, a strong sentiment remained to leave the island at the mercy of the river and let it reclaim the land. There was a struggling airport on the southern end of the island with a 20-year lease that at times complicated things. Heavy industry including a crushed-stone plant and an asphalt plant, were tenants on the north end along with the persistent squatters.

Construction of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge in the early 1970s over part of the island finally doomed the airport. But by then, several civic groups had repeatedly suggested a park.

Almost 30 years after Mud Island River Park opened, it doesn’t vanish beneath the high water. But it does get ignored.

“It's a very, very underutilized, in my view, asset for the city of Memphis. And I believe that if a bit of master planning were done, it would be very, very possible to make Mud Island a very important regional, if not national, destination.”

– Barry Howard
Original planner of river park museum

Harrover told The Memphis News his work has held up “quite well.”

“It’s been heavily used, of course not as much as our other parks,” he continued. “People don’t realize that. They think it’s unused.”

Lendermon said park attendance for 2009 will probably finish ahead of 2008, although October was rainy and that kept attendance down for that month. It might be a peak.

“We don’t think attendance will continue to rise like it has been the first few years we were operating it,” he said. “We took away the admission fee. We added little amenities for things to do. We think we’ve pushed that about as far as we can without really changing things on the island.”

Meanwhile, city money to maintain attractions such as the River Museum should have remained instead of going to other projects, in Harrover’s view. He went through the museum earlier this year.

“It’s a little tired. It needs some help,” he said.

Skate Park Slated for Mud Island 'At Some Point'

There are several proposed locations for a skate park on Mud Island. And it could either be a “world class” skate park that’s a regional draw or a “really nice” one, said Riverfront Development Corp. president Benny Lendermon.
“We assume one or the other is eventually going to go to Mud Island at some point,” he said.
Talk of the skate park has dominated public input sessions and generated several Web sites as well as numerous social networking efforts.
Aaron Shafer, a Ph.D. at Children’s GMP LLC at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, started the Web site Skatelife Memphis and has been involved in other efforts across town including a Nike grant for some ramps at a North Memphis community center.
“I rank it right up there with the Beale Street Landing and even the Redbirds stadium in terms of the impact and per day use,” Shafer said of the skate park proposal. “It’s a big deal. It’s hard to sell unless people see what it actually looks like and go to one of the other parks in the U.S. and see how successful they are.”
What it should look like, Shafer said, is a concrete landscape of curves, mounds, dips and other landmarks made for skateboarders.
“Some public skate parks can get really rushed because the skaters want to get out there and skateboard,” he said. “The wrong skate park would be going with prefabricated, pre-built, modular types of elements. … That is not a skate park. You definitely want to go with a concrete park just from the standpoint of creativity of the design as well as the long-term low-maintenance aspect of that type of material. … You are not going to get people out there to skate a wood ramp or a metal ramp. It’s boring.”
Lendermon told The Memphis News the ideal location is on the southern end or tip of Mud Island, although alternative locations are on the northern end of the park around the old Memphis Belle pavilion.
“A skateboard park looks wonderful on the tip,” he said. “It’s an architect’s dream to put this neat skateboard park on the tip of Mud Island.”
Shafer said the southern tip “can’t be beat.”
“You really want to make this something where it’s visible to the public eye, especially considering that they’ve built Beale Street Landing 300 yards away on the other side,” he said. “You want it to be open and visible.”
Shafer said green paths and biking paths could be added around the skate park to expand recreational uses.
But Lendermon was quick to add that it might not be doable because he questions whether the skate park should be that far removed from existing parking, which is now near the old pavilion.
“If you have to park in the northern parking lot, the distance you have to park and carry your skateboard is the distance from the convention center to The Peabody hotel, almost.”
Shafer said the distance is “not a big deal” as long as there’s a path to the skate park along the eastern edge of the island park.
“Completely bypass the river park itself, just because you don’t want the skaters going into and out of that area where you’ve got a lot of kids and pedestrian traffic,” he said. “I think as along as the public understands and the RDC board understands that we’re going to make a clearly marked trail along that road that goes to the amphitheater (stage’s rear area), around the Gulf of Mexico … I think it would be great.”
That’s not an opinion shared by architect Roy Harrover.
“I think it’s a great idea, but why put it near the river?” he said. “I think the park needs to remain a river-related park. … That’s pretty precious ground. It cost us literally a fortune to build that up.”
Shafer acknowledged money is an issue, be it public or private.
“I don’t feel comfortable with asking for the project to be completely funded by the city given the economic climate of our country and just the local situation,” he said. “That’s a lot of money to ask a city when you’re just trying to take care of the basics. I’d love to see some private foundations step forward.”
– Bill Dries

The museum recently got an audio tour and a few small updates from Barry Howard, the Santa Monica, Calif., planner who designed the museum from the ground up in the early 1980s.

“It’s a very, very underutilized, in my view, asset for the city of Memphis,” Howard said of the whole island park. “And I believe that if a bit of master planning were done, it would be very, very possible to make Mud Island a very important regional, if not national, destination.”

Howard came up with the multistory riverboat models complete with voices from passengers and crew that are part of the museum. The RDC plans to add a hand-built flatboat to existing attractions that also include a Civil War diorama that takes visitors from the inside of a Union gunboat to a Confederate shore battery.

When the museum opened, the diorama included sound and light effects of a noisy battle between the two that had to be toned down after scores of children reacted as the soldiers might have – running and screaming and crying. At times, the sound effects have been turned off completely.

“The moving sidewalk that goes up to the Confederate battery has quit running,” Harrover noted during his visit this year. “It’s completely worn out. It needs replacing. But it’s not getting its share of money from the city. It’s been seriously hurt.”

Howard, like other museum planners, including those at the National Civil Rights Museum Downtown, are faced with an audience that is used to better technology and has different expectations from museums.

“Those are timeless,” Howard told The Memphis News when asked about the Civil War diorama and the riverboat. “And I certainly have no intention of doing anything but improving the experience through the new innovations in lighting and other special effects we have available to us now, which we didn’t have 25 years ago. Those experiences are completely valid and won’t change at all. It’s just that there are some other things that need to be addressed that we can do now but couldn’t do then.”

He has a plan that Lendermon is reviewing that might add several rooms to the museum as well as include a three- dimensional exhibit on the ecology of the Mississippi River.

“There wasn’t enough room in the original iteration of the museum to devote as much space and as much importance to the ecology of the river … nor the role of fresh water in America in general,” Howard said. “There’s a lot about the river that isn’t visible because the nature of the river is certainly – as it broadens out through Memphis – it’s sort of lazy, broad and very hard to see into.”

Outside the museum, most of the options the RDC and architects Looney Ricks Kiss took to the public this past year involved keeping the Riverwalk, the scale model of the Mississippi River, that runs for most of the length of the park, as well as improving the amphitheater.

“The park could use some freshening,” Harrover said. “But it’s built as a very permanent structure. The buildings are all concrete and the park is holding up quite well. The river model is in quite good shape to be as old as it is.”

He gives special praise to the landscaping along the Riverwalk, which he said is “beautifully maintained.”

“It was pretty barren when we opened but those trees are just beautiful,” Harrover added.

The other elements of the park would be proposed during future years in pieces by the RDC to the City Council. Several are already the subject of much discussion and debate.

Skate Park:

There has been a lot of talk about a skate park – so much that some newcomers to the issue of Mud Island’s future had to look twice at the five scenarios for the park. Skate park supporters have been so vocal that novices believed the park for skateboarders and other athletes might dominate the park.

It’s a small but important part of the overall plan and one that Lendermon told The Memphis News is a strong possibility in some form at one of several possible locations. It’s a specific piece of a move in a more general but vital direction, Lendermon said.

“There needs to be more recreation there and it needs to also be more connected,” he said. “You need to connect out of the park to the greenway system.”

Access to the South Tip:

Click image to view PDF.

“None of this is brain surgery,” Lendermon said. “Everbody understands access to the island is the issue.”

One way to get more activity on the southern end of the island is to use water taxis to ferry visitors from the soon-to-be completed Beale Street Landing.

“And for tourists they’re wonderful. For the everyday person who wants access, they’re too cumbersome,” he added. “In one sense, it’s easy to solve. You just provide a pedestrian bridge or two pedestrian bridges and provide connections where you want it to be.”

The catch is those bridges cross a harbor that is still used by tow boats and barges. So the bridges would have to move either up or sideways to let them through.

“If you go up and over like you did at the Auction Street Bridge, you can see what it looks like. That’s not a bridge anybody would walk across,” Lendermon said, referring to the steep angle of the car bridge. “It has to be grade moveable. That’s $30 million to $40 million a bridge. We absolutely love it. We would die for one. But that costs more than Beale Street Landing for a pedestrian bridge. It won’t even allow cars. … Can this community ever afford something like that?”

Harrover said such a bridge would help. But he found federal bridge standards formidable in the 1980s.

“You need 50 feet clearance in high water. That’s the height of the bridge that goes there now,” he said referring to the Auction Street Bridge. “I could not get the Corps (of Engineers) to reduce that, which is crazy, because only barges go up there. They’ve got enough clearance for the Mississippi Queen’s smokestacks.”

Extending Mississippi Greenbelt Park:

One idea is to extend the popular and well used Mississippi Greenbelt park that runs west of the residential development on the north end of the island.

As the city’s public works director in the 1990s, Lendermon fought to convince then-Parks Division director Wayne Boyer of the potential of the greenbelt park.

“The park could use some freshening. But it's built as a very permanent structure. The buildings are all concrete and the park is holding up quite well. The river model is in quite good shape to be as old as it is.”

– Roy Harrover
Architect of Mud Island River Park

“It took me two and a half years to convince (Boyer) … to do a little drainage work,” he recalled. “We spent nothing creating the park except the walkway on the top. It’s used more than any other park in the city. … It just shows that you don’t have to be afraid of the water coming up. It ain’t the end of the world.”

Harrover, however, points out that the west side of Mud Island park is different terrain than the greenbelt park.

“It’s steeper. We had to fill the park before we built it,” he said. “There’s 15 feet of fill in the park. We pumped it out of the river. And the banks there are considerably steeper than normal.”

If the greenbelt went the whole length of the western edge of the island, it would mean either demolishing some of the buildings, including the River Terrace restaurant and its river view, or creating more parkland.

“We have a walk along there that starts at the museum building,” Harrover said in acknowledging a blend of existing and new. “But I’m not sure how you could do that. It would be incredibly expensive. … The park is three feet above the highest flood on record and up to that point, things flood. I would think it would be hard. … In any case, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

The Gulf of Mexico:

The Riverwalk ends near the southern tip of Mud Island with a replica of the Gulf of Mexico. The large body of water is now a place to paddle around in a rented paddle boat. At one time it was a swimming pool.

“It wasn’t designed as a swimming pool,” Lendermon said. “So there wasn’t enough circulation of the water for it to be properly chlorinated. You would have high levels of chlorine on the outer edges and the center would actually have almost no chlorine. It was actually a very, very unhealthy situation.”

The local health department ordered it shut down in 1998.

Lendermon said with an operating restaurant nearby, it could become a popular splash park to meet the desire in the summer months for some kind of contact with water.

“Years ago, the city sort of had Gestapo people keeping people out of it. We’ve sort of backed way off of that,” he added. “It’s needed but it tells you they want some interaction with water.”

Playground and Recreation Uses:

Lendermon acknowledges the park needs a playground for younger children. Harrover is still angry over the demolition of the park’s original $1 million river- themed playground that included sandboxes, monkey bars, rope climbs and a playhouse/riverboat that was just the right size for smaller children. Lendermon said the playground was “renowned” and hasn’t been adequately replaced.

The playground was demolished in the early 1990s as the first act of developer Sidney Shlenker, whom the city gave control of the park as part of a grand and spectacularly failed theme to turn it and The Pyramid into a mammoth Egyptian-themed attraction.

As he finished off the playground, Shlenker wondered aloud if there was some way to make the propellers move on the nearby Memphis Belle, a vintage World War II bomber.

“Thank goodness Shlenker got run out of town,” Harrover told The Memphis News. “Anyway, we survived but the kids’ playground got lost. … It was fun. We could put the playground up where it was before, which is between the (northern) gatehouse and the north courtyard of the Riverwalk.”

Commercial Development:

One of the five scenarios developed by Looney Ricks Kiss would eliminate the Riverwalk and most traces of Mud Island park as it exists now. Replacing it would be a landscape of private commercial development with rows of retail, office space and residential towers. When asked if that level of change was likely, Lendermon said “probably not.”

“The idea is, is there a way for appropriate private development to be incorporated in the island to provide the amenities people told us they wanted anyway in a way that helps pay for the public improvements? That is something that’s intriguing but hard to do,” he said, adding there might be a place for some commercial development, “but it has to be done with a light touch.”


The gate house at the northern entrance to the park was originally for those who worked on the island, people going to the marina and some special guests. Harrover and Lendermon say the time has come to redefine the entrance to foot and car traffic on what originally was built as a service road.

“It’s time to open it up, which you could do,” Harrover said. “Howard isn’t too fond of the Front Street entrance, which is the way most get on the island.

“I think it’s important that that entrance is celebrated,” Howard told The Memphis News. “It’s almost impossible to distinguish the entrance building right now from a lot of other structures around it.”

The Monorail:

Aside from a life-size replica of Mark Twain in the River Museum that had a video of a talking face projected onto its head, no other piece of machinery in the park has been more temperamental. Even before its cars and other parts arrived in Memphis, the monorail threatened to delay the opening of the park in the summer of 1982.

Harrover recalled that at the time no American companies submitted proposals for the tram. The cars were made in Italy. The drive motors and other mechanical parts were made by a Swiss company.

“The day before the bids were to be taken, they walked into my office holding hands and said, ‘We’re making a joint proposal.’ So there was zero competition,” Harrover recalled. “The cabins were being built in Italy and the Swiss were going to wire them and put the controls and lighting system in. So, the Italians stopped the Swiss engineers and workmen at the Italian border and wouldn’t let them come to the cars. We had a strike that threatened to hold up opening the park.”

Losing the monorail, which is expensive to maintain, could open up other possibilities for the journey onto the island while leaving in place the pedestrian bridge above it. What was futuristic for Memphis in the early 1980s now needs some work and is “kind of tired,” in Harrover’s judgment.

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