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VOL. 7 | NO. 19 | Saturday, May 3, 2014

Across the River

Plans emerge for eco-park in Arkansas

By Bill Dries

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The Arkansas land between the bridges across the Mississippi River at Memphis doesn’t have a name, at least not yet.

On the other side of the Harahan Rail Bridge – the centerpiece of the $30 million Main Street to Main Street Multimodal Connector Project, which includes a pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk along the span – Arkansas officials are exploring the creation of an eco-park. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

If graffiti is any indication, lots of people go there. And they cross numerous boundaries on dirt and gravel roads and paths that can end abruptly and are posted with “no trespassing” signs and other warnings as well as railroad video cameras.

But many more have no idea what is on the other side of the Harahan Rail Bridge, the north side of which groups in Memphis and West Memphis want to build a pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk.

The bridge project is being rebid after the initial design proved too expensive by $7.5 million for the overall $30 million Main Street to Main Street Multimodal Connector Project that the boardwalk is a part of.

Boardwalk backers are also going back to potential private donors and looking for other sources of funding as the rebid and redesign is underway.

Views of the Memphis skyline await cyclists, walkers and joggers who venture across the Harahan Rail Bridge once the boardwalk is complete. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris is overseeing the project that includes a revitalization of Main Street in Memphis and Broadway in West Memphis, streets that will be linked by the Harahan boardwalk. He has said the boardwalk won’t go forward unless all of the money needed for the bridge is already in hand, but he is optimistic that will be the case once the new bids come in this summer.

With the second looks, questions have returned about what there is to see for those who cross from the Memphis side.

Preliminary ideas for the Harahan project treaded lightly on the idea of bike and pedestrian trails on the Arkansas levees. The idea is politically complex because the levees are governed by local boards whose duty is to maintain the levees as flood control. Any system of trails would involve negotiations with boards in each county who are each likely to have questions and concerns about paved or other types of surfaces atop the levees.

So the flood plain has emerged as a new possibility that it is hoped will sustain interest in the boardwalk.

The Arkansas end of the boardwalk, which is now a set of six steel girders where a paved road for first wagons and then automobiles once was, is a 1930s-era concrete viaduct off the Bridgeport Road exit of Interstate 55. Parts of the viaduct are crumbling or about to be hidden again by the seasonal return of kudzu.

Greg Maxted, the professional engineer leading the Harahan project, can already envision food trucks parked in an area that easily has the room for such gatherings and even a welcome center.

The curves and concrete borders of the old roads combined with the three bridge structures that run overhead give the area a feel that is somewhere between Atlantis and an abandoned amusement park where the sounds of traffic – rail and auto on the bridges – echo with a reliable rhythm.

As an engineer, Maxted’s mind always goes to statistics and other facts about the building of the trio of bridges.

Paul Luker, director of planning and development for the city of West Memphis and point man for the “eco-park” effort, sees it as an attraction in and of itself for “tech heads.”

“That area’s almost like a museum because you are looking at the two historic rail bridges that have been there and then also the I-55 bridge,” he said. “If you’re an engineering type, those three bridges represent a different type of bridge building technology.”

Before the kudzu comes back, the dark brown squares formed by the bridge supports and girders of the Harahan offer immense frames of shade and light. By summer, the frames will look like hanging gardens in a long corridor.

Cyclists would gain another place to ride once the Main to Main project is completed. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The stone bridge supports just south of that offer a different Stonehenge-like perspective in their symmetry from the green river’s edge across the river itself.

This time of the year, the sandbar beaches with views of the Memphis skyline are lost to the rising river but not the grassy areas.

“It’s a little bit challenging piece of property to work with because on average a month of the year it goes underwater,” Luker said. “It’s also a very wild and natural area. Most of it’s been used for farming but some of it’s not. There’s some wetland areas out there. Part of this idea would turn some of that farmland back into nature. The idea is to have some trails that would go close to the top of the bank of the river. Others would traverse back into the areas towards the levee and go north to Dacus Lake as a destination point.”

When most of the area is visible, taking it all in requires permission to cross numerous boundaries from farmers and at least two railroads. Some of it is paved. Some of it is gravel. But most of the network of roads and trails are dirt – mud when the river recedes.

The riverside area is about two and a half miles from the levee that protects the town of West Memphis.

While Luker hasn’t talked with all of the landowners and farmers involved, he’s found many of those he has spoken with are supportive. His idea is to form a conservancy similar to the Shelby Farms Park or Wolf River conservancies.

“This is going to be paved?” asked Bill Privette, who owns flood plain land near the Harahan as well as the Hernando DeSoto Bridge to the north, as he looked over a map of possible trails.

Privette’s question indicates his approval. He is also a frequent bike rider of the Shelby Farms Greenline.

The $30 million Main Street to Main Street Multimodal Connector Project will include a pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk across the Harahan Rail Bridge. Arkansas officials hope to develop an eco-park on their side. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I like the idea,” he said. “I think it should incorporate the Military Road and the Trail of Tears, make sure that is pointed out to the bikers as a draw. … It could have a draw across the country. I believe that bicyclists would like to do that – ride the Trail of Tears.”

The Trail of Tears is the route of the forced march Native Americans on the other side of the Mississippi River took to what is now western Arkansas and Oklahoma where they were exiled and confined in the 1830s. The river crossing by ferry long before any of the bridges at Memphis were built was near the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. The area is also where the Esperanza Trail used by Native Americans pre- and post-DeSoto, the explorer, also ran.

The area also includes the site of Hopefield, the Arkansas settlement before West Memphis, and the levee that keeps West Memphis from flooding like the land between the bridges.

A trail system would connect to all of those historical sites as well as Dacus Lake and Dacus Junior Lake. A man-made mound near the river’s edge could become an amphitheater.

Katie McKeel is among the University of Memphis students who have talked with landowners and others and sketched out some ideas including the mound amphitheater that mix the appeal of the area’s natural setting with the history washed away over the decades and even centuries.

“We’re trying to focus on the natural environment there. I think some of these concepts we see how we can celebrate the nature and history of the area without compromising any of the ecosystems,” she said. “How do you really bring attention to and recognize and celebrate the history that is there? … Signage is of the utmost importance when you are doing projects like that.”

Flooding is a factor some other parks and natural areas deal with routinely and they were the example for the students.

“It could be removable so the parks department could come and take it off,” Amy Collier said of the signage. “Or we have some examples of big stones and you carve into them. That would never be harmed by flooding.”

Austin Johnson, a student from Appalachia, brought some ideas from that region that would give visitors an alternative during the floods – a treetop trail system for the parts of the area that include stands of large trees that coexist with the farmland and serve as natural boundary markers along the farmland.

“We don’t really have anything like that in the Mid-South,” Johnson said of the treetop trails, which would be wooden boardwalks. “It’s a great bird-watching opportunity. It’s a different viewpoint, a different perspective on nature. It may be an opportunity to let people use the park when there’s some water on the site.”

The river itself at whatever level the muddy waters take and allowing people to get close to it with another view many on the Memphis side have not considered remains the draw, said Guy Headland of the National Park Service river trails and conservation assistance department.

“The main focus is a vista back to the Downtown Memphis skyline. Getting people to the river’s edge is the most important thing according to all of the stakeholders and participants in the meetings,” he said. “That’s priority No. 1. Then if that could happen … then a lot of these other things can be generated and talked about.”

That includes access to Broadway, West Memphis’s Main Street, which is the other Main Street in the Main to Main project.

Broadway’s eastern end, which skirts the flood plain, includes the first Pancho’s Mexican restaurant, part of which was the legendary Plantation Inn, an integral nightspot in Memphis music heritage.

A historical marker tells the story of the inn, which had the Broadway frontage in a row of nightspots that stretched further north of it in a row.

These days the area’s age is showing and Luker says the recent roadside metal tubing in the shape of a bicycle is something of a sentinel of things to come.

“The east end of West Memphis that’s in need of being redeveloped has lots of potential,” he said. “We’re looking at trying to build out from there. I think once the private market starts to see the numbers of people coming across the Harahan Bridge that that will start to trigger the idea that we need to provide more things for people to do when they get there. That will further entice them to come on into West Memphis.”

Anthony Raciti, a visiting professor at the University of Memphis from Italy who supervised the students who came up with different ideas, said the eco-park isn’t just about access on the way to other points.

“It’s a way to engage the community in activity in the area,” he said. “We have a lot of observation points from West Memphis to Downtown Memphis but also the opportunity to have outdoor classes and involve local schools. … There is Dacus Lake, which could be like a recreational space. We have Hopefield. There is a huge interest. It’s a combination of different projects.”

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