Back into the Fold

Projects could reunite French Fort with rest of city

By Bill Dries

Before there was South Bluffs, there was French Fort.

Before the Hernando DeSoto Bridge was built and city zoning regulations placed more distance between commercial, industrial and residential areas, this neighborhood by the trio of older Mississippi River bridges south of Downtown survived in one of the most historic and isolated parts of the city.

The irony is the three bridges were once the only western gateway into Memphis. The Memphis-Arkansas Interstate 55 Bridge is still a major truck corridor into Memphis with an average of 50,000 vehicles a day whizzing by the nearly forgotten neighborhood of French Fort, which is home to Indian mounds, a metal museum, a vacant hospital for river workers and a set of riverside businesses that service barges and riverboats.

The historic neighborhood also boasts a commanding view of the Mississippi River as it turns west, yet it remains in relative obscurity.

An abandoned motel sits along I-55 near Crump Boulevard at the edge of French Fort. Its future is up in the air because of pending redevelopment plans for the area but mostly because of the slumping economy. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Lauren Crews is managing partner of DeSoto Pointe Partners, which owns the former U.S. Marine Hospital at  360 Metal Museum Dr. in French Fort. Crews hopes to renovate the facility into condominiums or apartments. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Willie Martin works on a yard in French Fort, south of Crump Boulevard near I-55. With a traffic roundabout in the works, residents and developers are brainstorming a redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

The Memphis-Arkansas (from left), Frisco and Harahan bridges span the Mississippi River and provide access into and out of town for vehicular and train traffic. This traffic nexus separates the historic French Fort neighborhood from the rest of Downtown Memphis, but a new roundabout will reconnect the area with other communities. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

The Metal Museum sits next to the Indian Mounds at Chickasaw Heritage Park in the historic French Fort neighborhood. With an Interstate 55 and Crump Boulevard roundabout in the works, residents and developers are devising a redevelopment plan for a community that has been cut off from the rest of Downtown Memphis for decades. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

“Eight out of 10 Memphians don’t know it exists,” said Lauren Crews, the developer who says that is all about to change because of two projects.

The first catalyst is a proposed bicycle and pedestrian boardwalk on the north side of the Harahan rail bridge that would take those on foot and two wheels across the Mississippi River.

The second is a change in how traffic on Crump Boulevard accesses I-55 from the north and south, a watershed transportation project that could reintroduce Memphians to the French Fort neighborhood. The state plans to replace the familiar four-leaf clover interchange west of Kansas Street with a roundabout, a large circle that allows traffic to enter and then branch off in various directions. One of those directions would be a direct connection onto West Alston Avenue that opens up access to French Fort considerably more than now.

“Until the roundabout construction starts, there’s nothing that’s going to happen,” Crews said. “We know the roundabout has definitely been approved (by the state) and will happen. But we don’t know when it will happen. It could be sooner or it could be later.”

The Alston offshoot would pass under I-55 as the interstate takes its existing turn south going directly behind an RV park and the eastern edge of French Fort. But the turn would involve more lanes than what is now a single-lane exit ramp off Crump past a “Welcome to Tennessee” sign.

Another alternative since rejected by the state would have taken the interstate into the neighborhood itself, wiping out several homes at the end of two cul de sacs.

Some of the open land near the neighborhood has been reserved to rebuild any homes that may be lost in the precise alignment of the roundabout.

“It’s obvious that this roundabout is going to bring change. There’s no way to stop it. I think it’s better that we have a comprehensive plan than a piecemeal plan so that we can have some control over what happens when that change comes.”

– Lauren Crews
Managing partner, DeSoto Pointe Partners

As things stand now, the access into the area is a tiny two-lane winding ramp onto Metal Museum Drive. For Memphians who know the Metal Museum is in the area, it’s a guidepost. Before the street was renamed for the museum, many had no idea where it led. That was the point of the renaming from the Virginia Street exit.

Crews and his City South Ventures partners have an evolving plan that includes some retail, some parking, some condos and restoring one of the two hotels on Alston Avenue in the strip of commercially zoned land between Alston and Crump. The group owns the old Marine Hospital and the old Quality Inn motel.

Parts of the plan hit the recession head on and Crews cautions that the master plan is still very tentative. Perhaps nothing more tentative than the “upscale” condos planned for the old hospital.

A roundabout will replace the current cloverleaf where Interstate 55 intersects Crump Boulevard just south of Downtown Memphis. The new traffic pattern will improve access for the historic French Fort neighborhood.

“If the market comes back and we get our road built and the creek don’t rise, that’s probably what we’re going to end up doing,” he said. “But right now, it looks like the creek is rising.”

But he says with or without a plan, the area will change.

“It’s obvious that this roundabout is going to bring change. There’s no way to stop it,” Crews said. “I think it’s better that we have a comprehensive plan than a piecemeal plan so that we can have some control over what happens when that change comes.”

Meanwhile, the engineering study to determine the feasibility of the Harahan boardwalk is under way. HDR Inc., an architecture, engineering and consulting firm based in Omaha, Neb., has been hired by the city of Memphis, which is working with Union Pacific Corp. and the Harahan Bridge Project, the private group led by Charles McVean that is putting up part of the money for the study.

“They are going to build a 3-D model of the bridge and simulate the loading of trains and the loading of people,” said Greg Maxted of the project. “That will determine how wide we make the walkway.”

Maxted said the report should be completed in about four months. McVean estimates the boardwalk construction itself would cost several million dollars including a second phase that would extend the existing river walk to connect it to the boardwalk on the north side of the Harahan. Extending the river walk under that bridge and the two bridges south of the Harahan would connect the Harahan to French Fort.

“That’s long term,” Maxted said. “But I think it’s really important to the project, to French Fort and the city to extend that river walk. Then if you are living in French Fort or you are living down on Riverside, you get pedestrian access to Downtown to the river front, which right now they don’t have. Currently you have to be pretty brave to ride your bike from Riverside to Tom Lee Park. I’ve done it before. It’s a little dicey.”

So are some of the considerations that come with pedestrian and bicycle access around the bridges.

“You have two railroads to deal with,” Maxted said. “You have TDOT to deal with and Homeland Security to deal with. We really have not approached that.”

Meanwhile, Crews has been reworking his master plan.

“We kind of compacted the hotel a little, more into the bluff on the corner,” he said. “We may have a smaller footprint but go up a story or two higher. That way, we left the majority of land there for Crump Park,” he said. “We’ve done away with some of the proposed residential units to the east of the Chickasaw Heritage Park, which some of the residents didn’t like.”

And Crews has added about 150 parking spaces between Alston and Crump on the strip of land now owned by the state that Crews believes the city of Memphis could possible help acquire. There would have to be some changes to the zoning of the land as well. Parking and traffic were the main concerns of homeowners in French Fort who turned out for an August hearing held by the Memphis Regional Design Center at the Metal Museum.

The French Fort neighborhood is a set of about 120 homes with Interstate 55 as its eastern border. On the other side of the interstate, the white plant works of the Memphis Hershey chocolate plant are the backdrop for a neighborhood of well-kept suburban style homes with neat lawns and a rigid enforcement by the neighborhood association of the ban on on-street parking. Wisconsin Avenue is the passage over the interstate into the industrial sector that marks the northern border of South Memphis. The industrial plants and factories old and new were the result of the rail lines that cross the river on two of the three bridges by French Fort as well as the more recent interstate.

Cross the bridge out of French Fort and you are in another world of big trucks, massive metal tanks, box cars and loading docks and railroad tracks that run parallel to auto traffic. Cross the bridge into French Fort last month and you would have seen the winner of the lawn of the month honors in the neighborhood with plenty of stiff competition from the neighbors. Property records still record the neighborhood’s name as Fort Pickering, a larger neighborhood that once existed about where Interstate 55 runs. For decades, the former residents used to have a reunion picnic in the summer by the Indian mounds.

“It has all the ingredients to be one of the premier developments or neighborhoods – something that everyone can be proud of,” Crews said. “It’s kind of detached. It has the trees. It has the river walk. It has the greenline. It’s one of the most historic spots in all of Shelby County. It has the arts with a canopy of trees overlooking the river. Hell, it don’t get no better than that.”

But some of the residents want to make sure they don’t go the way of Fort Pickering.

“I don’t want to wake up and see French Fort being a booming hot spot like Beale Street,” said Yvonne Smith, who moved back to her childhood roots after being a homeowner in Hickory Hill.

“We don’t want something that’s gong to overshadow the homes,” seconded Chester Collins.

Isom Buford was more adamant.

“We are three to five miles from any store and we would like to remain that way,” he said. “We don’t want it. We’ve been here 40 years and we’re OK.”

For all the formidable detail work, there is an undeniable tide of development that began in Downtown’s core and is moving to the south. The for sale signs on vacant lots and the clearing of lots soon to be vacant represent the crest of the wave of speculation that is now poised to cross to the south side of Crump Boulevard.

“As far as I’m concerned, once the roundabout’s built, French Fort will be the south end,” Crews said. “It will be the bookend. It will be the Pinch District of the south.”