VOL. 125 | NO. 55 | Monday, March 22, 2010
A story from The Memphis News
On newsstands throughout the city
By Eric Smith
There’s no doubt 2010 will go down as a watershed year for the Wolf River Greenway, the $28 million, 22-mile nature corridor that traces the Wolf River from Memphis’ eastern border to Downtown.
The team responsible for giving life to the Greenway – the city parks department, the Wolf River Conservancy and the Hyde Family Foundations – has achieved a pair of key milestones, both of which are being celebrated as the jumpstart this project sorely needed.
Construction crews last month broke ground on the Greenway’s first segment, from Walnut Grove Road to Shady Grove Road near Shelby Farms Park, and designers are working on its second segment, from Shady Grove to the Memphis-Germantown boundary.
Despite these recent accomplishments, plenty of obstacles remain for those striving to deliver the most ambitious green project in Memphis’ history.
From land acquisition problems to funding issues, environmental concerns to community questions, Wolf River Greenway proponents face an uphill battle as they work to create – and sustain – momentum for a project whose master plan was developed six years ago and whose completion could be a decade or two away.
Fly in the ointment
When it is finished, the Greenway will boast a network of trails, nature centers, boat launches and boardwalks along the entire stretch of the Wolf River in Memphis, connecting with similar greenway systems in Germantown and Collierville.
It will link neighborhoods as disparate as Mud Island and Frayser, New Chicago and River Oaks, allowing residents to walk, jog, bike or skate across the city via a 10-foot-wide pathway. The Greenway also will intersect with the Mississippi River Greenbelt and the recently begun Shelby Farms Greenline (see sidebar).
With hopes of making Memphis healthier and greener, planners want to protect natural landscapes and also promote the river for its role as a recreational and environmental resource. They designed the Greenway to be built from the west and east ends first, and then toward the middle as it progresses. But the only segments moving forward are phases two and three on the city’s eastern edge – near the suburbs, near the affluence.
And while the original plan suggested the Greenway might take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to build, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said at last month’s groundbreaking he wanted to fast-track it in six or seven years. But that proclamation might be difficult to support because the project has so many moving pieces.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Greenway is the city hasn’t been able to secure the acreage flanking the Wolf River near Mud Island between the Mississippi River and North Second Street – an area that would have been the initial phase. The three-parcel property is owned by a trust, and the trustee hasn’t agreed to sell, city officials said.
EXPERT: KEEP THINGS GOING WITH PERSISTENCERobert Searns has spent decades working in greenway development.
A principal of The GreenWay Team Inc. and chairman of American Trails, a nonprofit organization that works to promote and protect trails, Searns is consulting the Memphis team that is bringing the Wolf River Greenway to fruition.
Searns said any hurdle being encountered here – whether it’s land or public perception or economics – is a common roadblock in greenway development.
“Historically, many urban rivers, for obvious reasons, have become the places where you face some of these challenges,” Searns said. “Right of way for a trail and improvements is always something you’ve got to work through. There’s a lot of private property and you’ve got to respect the rights of the owners.”
Searns helped develop a greenway system in Denver, where one of the trails went through a working gravel mine and another went through an area with oil refineries.
And dealing with landowners who don’t want to sell at first happens all the time.
“We always try to work with people," he said. "We try to turn the lemons into lemonade when we can."
The landowner, William “Bill” Gerber of Gerber Realty Investment Co., said the city has been after the property for 25 years. Gerber had sold off some of his nearby land, but he retains a little more than 30 acres on the north side of Mud Island, straddling the Wolf River and encompassing both banks.
Gerber, a 40-plus-year real estate veteran, plans to develop the land, which he calls unique because of its proximity to the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi, and because it includes acreage on the other side of the Wolf, where trees could buffer a sewage treatment plant.
He envisions a mixed-use development with 51 condominium units and 30,000 to 40,000 square feet of commercial space. Gerber admitted that the current real estate market isn’t conducive to the plan, but when that changes, he said demand for more Mud Island rooftops will be strong.
“We think it’s practical, defensible and financeable,” he said.
Gerber said he can’t speak to the Greenway plan because he doesn’t know exactly what the city has in mind for the land in question – “I’m the last one to find out what the heck’s going on,” he said. But he is aware of the Greenway’s general concept, which might mean a trail through his land that would conflict with his development.
“You can’t do ’em both as near as I can tell,” he said. “What can I say? They’ve been talking about it for a very long time, and to what extent it is more serious now than it has been in the past, we can’t judge that. All we know is that is the last piece of desirable property on Mud Island that could be developed, which could be of great benefit to Mud Island and the city if it were to occur.”
Mike Flowers, administrator of the Memphis Parks Service's planning and development department, said the city is trying to determine a fair market price for the property and is working diligently to buy the land so it can move forward.
“We picked that one to be our first segment, our first phase, but we realized that it was a tougher piece of property than we initially thought to get a trail in,” he said. “And one or two property owners weren’t being real cooperative, so we decided to put that on hold and go to an easier segment, which was phase two out east.
“But I’m pretty confident that eventually we will reach a resolution.”
Flowers steered clear of discussing eminent domain – the power of a government to buy land for whatever use it deems worthy – only to say that, “In the city’s efforts to acquire property on Mud Island in the past, eminent domain has been used. I wouldn’t say that it would or would not in this case.”
Gerber, who said he’s experienced in dealing with eminent domain cases, isn’t opposed to selling at a fair market value. He said he recently sold land near the Interstate 69 corridor in Mississippi to the state’s department of transportation at a price that was “eminently fair.”
But he added that there are no negotiations between him and the city other than the city has an interest in it.
Property disputes are bad PR, but continued emphasis along the eastern portions of the trail could create a perception that Greenway officials are more focused on that area, so they understand the need to begin a phase along the Greenway’s western end soon, even if that means choosing another segment where land ownership isn’t a hurdle.
“We need to do something Downtown,” said city architect Mel Scheuerman. “Since we haven’t been able to get going Downtown, we may have to just pick a spot where we can do a mile segment, have an appropriate beginning and end, and it will be a linear park until it gets connected to the big piece eventually.”
Connecting the entire trail and then engaging all of the Greenway’s neighboring communities is imperative, said Steve Fleegal, CEO of the Wolf River Conservancy. He agreed that the Greenway’s west and middle sections need to remain on the front burner so people don’t think the only important areas are out east.
“We favor the entire system being constructed,” he said. “We would support a standalone segment if it was viable anywhere along the route, and there’s a number of places where they are viable and would be successful, I think.”
Lauren Taylor is program officer for greening initiatives at the Hyde Family Foundations, an organization that has committed $24 million to local environmental projects and $700,000 specifically to the Greenway.
She said the completion of the $1.4 million phase that’s under construction now – which encompasses public and private land and includes an easement – will provide a needed spark, giving city residents an idea of what the Greenway will be when the portion nearest them gets built.
“I really think it’s important to be a step ahead, even so that at some point we’re constructing multiple segments at a time,“Taylor said. “That’s the dream scenario.”
However, funding for the project will continually be a concern, especially as the city deals with stagnant population growth and a host of urban problems ranging from budget woes to high crime to mounting job losses.
“In today’s economy funding can always present a challenge, but we feel that this project will create great momentum for its continuation and the city of Memphis will continue to find ways to move this project forward,” said Cindy Buchanan, director of park services for the city.
The team behind the Greenway also hopes the project can be a catalyst for improving economic conditions in the city, as it did in places like Denver where consultant Robert Searns (see sidebar) has completed similar projects.
Flowers, the city parks planner, likened the Greenway development to the nation’s 1960s space goal, in which the U.S. wanted NASA to reach the moon before the decade ended. Astronauts, of course, touched down in 1969, ahead of schedule and to the delight of many Americans.
“I can’t see the Greenway become the funding priority for the whole city, but what we’re hoping for in the future is an infusion of grant money and some private funding to help speed (it up),” Flowers said.
Something else that could slow the project is the Wolf River itself. Long neglected in Memphis, the river eventually devolved into an industrial dump. In the 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers rerouted the mouth of the foul-smelling Wolf north of Downtown, and the river became nothing more than something to drive across.
The Memphis section of the Wolf is a stark contrast to the river’s upper reaches in Fayette County. There, it has been preserved and now serves as a vibrant recreation spot.
The Wolf River Conservancy views the Greenway project as a way to create a similar appreciation for the river in Memphis.
“The river is a huge amenity that has been overlooked for all these years,” Fleegal said. “With the pollution and dumping and issues like that, it’s been relegated to the back door and not the front door.”
Oasis in a desert
CONNECT THE DOTSThe start of construction of the Wolf River Greenway isn’t the only good news for outdoor enthusiasts.
Last month crews broke ground for the Shelby Farms Greenline.
The project – formerly known as the CSX greenline because it is converting an abandoned rail line to a trail – is beginning with a 6.5-mile section from Midtown to Shelby Farms Park.
The $2.4 million Greenline will connect with the Greenway near the Wolf River on the park’s western boundary. The initial phase is set to open in the summer.
Eventually, the Greenline will continue along the northern edge of the park into the eastern suburbs.
Steve Lockwood crosses the Wolf River every day on his way to work at the Frayser Community Development Corp., where he serves as executive director. Lockwood understands how the Greenway, which will run along the southern boundary of Frayser, could be an asset for the community by promoting healthier lifestyles and perhaps improving property values.
“We think it’s a really good addition to the neighborhood, and that the Wolf River is an asset that is underutilized for the whole city,” he said.
Lockwood has a personal connection to the river, too, having canoed the Wolf years ago “when it was known as a moving trash pit.”
On the other side of the river from Frayser is New Chicago, a neighborhood that would have been near the Greenway’s first phase had the land issue not arisen. The community’s northern boundary will someday touch the Greenway, and the 8-acre New Chicago Park would be connected to the green space.
Eddie Hayes, executive director of the New Chicago Community Development Corp., said he hasn’t heard much about the proposed Greenway despite his organization’s proximity to it.
“They have not, that I know of, come out to this part of town and done any presentations,” he said. “Maybe I just missed it, but that I’m aware of, they haven’t come out and said, ‘This is what’s going on.’ As far as folks in the neighborhood, I don’t think it’s on their radar screen.”
What little Hayes does know about the project from reading about it in newspapers sounds good, he said.
“Good communities have good housing, retail, recreation and those types of services,” he said. “If this is the type of amenity that can enhance the quality of life, then it would be great to have.”
Like many other people, Hayes wants to see how and where the Greenway will be linked to his neighborhood, and he also wants some assurance that safety issues will be addressed. For example, because the trail won’t be lighted and will be closed at night, who will enforce park hours and monitor illicit activity?
Also, what happens to the trail’s route if private landowners – and there are many along the Greenway corridor – don’t sell? What happens if the Wolf floods and washes out parts of the trail? How does the city continue to maintain and operate the Greenway after it’s completed?
The Greenway has more questions than answers, but seeing dirt get moved and trail paths get mapped is a positive step for a potentially transformative project.
Not only could the Greenway spur newfound economic development, but it might inspire Memphians to reconnect with nature, take pride in their community and get in shape.
“We’re seeing a tangible result,” Taylor said. “To me it’s definitely a strong beginning of something great.”
The Memphis News and The Daily News are supporters of the Wolf River Conservancy.