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VOL. 128 | NO. 55 | Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Riverfront Report Highlights Quick Fixes

By Bill Dries

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With a set of 20 Memphis riverfront plans and reports spanning several decades, urban planner and designer Jeff Speck’s mission wasn’t to add to the stack of documents, maps and renderings.

Memphis Riverfront Analysis and Recommendations

Instead, city leaders wanted his thoughts on the different plans and what some quick remedies were for the riverfront that has had many different looks in the renderings of past planners.

“I’m not the first person to suggest almost everything I’m telling you,” Speck told a group of 200 Monday, March 18, at the Memphis Cook Convention Center. “I’m just consolidating and winnowing.”

His recommendation to cut Riverside Drive to three lanes of moving traffic, including existing turning lanes and including curb parking and bicycle lanes is a matter of different markings on the same street surface. Speck termed it the “easiest win” of six he recommended to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

The street parking also would allow for the elimination of parking lots in Tom Lee Park, which Speck also would like to see divided into several “rooms” with the planting of trees along walkways that now constitute the only borders on the greenspace.

“I have to say that my choice of the six lowest hanging fruit is partly a function of what seems the most opportunistic, but also a function of enthusiasm within the mayor’s office to make change,” Speck said after his presentation. “We’ll see which one they choose first, but I believe that the first initiatives will come out of my six highest priority items.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the potential and promise Speck sees in what was until recently called Jefferson Davis Park. It is temporarily renamed Riverside Park as the Memphis City Council considers new permanent names for it and two other Confederate-themed parks.

“I think Jefferson Davis Park is probably the next great waterfront opportunity in Memphis,” Speck said as he outlined a plan to sell the public land around it and the visitors center for what would be a very specific and particular plan for mixed-use development on what is now a parking lot that borders the Wolf River Harbor.

“It’s a bookend. It’s one bookend to Beale Street Landing,” Speck said. “It’s another bookend to one end of the cobblestones. And it’s small, so limited investments could really transform it.”

The transformation also would include changes in the south road entrance to The Pyramid as is envisioned in current plans by Bass Pro Shops.

Speck says the road’s traffic load justifies fewer lanes of traffic with parallel parking and bicycle lanes there as well.

Shift it a bit to the east and Speck says there is more room for private development by the park.

Speck also sees longer-term potential in linking up an east-west axis that begins with Court Square to the east and then moves directly west to what was once Confederate Park and then down the bluff to what was once Jefferson Davis Park.

Another recommendation is a short-term move to improve access to Mud Island River Park, just across the harbor, by eliminating the round about journey someone enticed by Mud Island from the mainland must make back up to Front Street to get to the entrance to the park.

Speck suggests “a simple vertical structure with a stair and an elevator” in what amounts to a western entrance to the mainland entrance that would “get you across much more quickly.”

Mud Island Park itself still has some problems recognized in many of the past reports Speck reviewed.

“It still is disconnected from the heart of Downtown. When it does come time to make Mud Island better, it’s a multipart deal,” he said. “It needs to be open if not 24 hours then at least from sunrise and well into sunset all year round.”

He also likes the idea of a water taxi from Beale Street landing to the island’s southern tip provided it “functions like a bridge.”

“It just goes back and forth. You can always see it,” Speck said. “You always know where it is and you know you don’t have much of a wait.”

Another longer-term dilemma is development of the public promenade part of the riverfront, which Speck conceded may only be resolved through litigation between the heirs of John Overton and other founders of the city and the city government. The dispute centers on past plans by the city for private development on the land that now includes public parking garages.

Speck said the garages are a stretch in terms of the public uses as defined when the land was given to the city specifically for public uses.

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