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VOL. 8 | NO. 20 | Saturday, May 9, 2015

Rollin' On The River

Harbor Town celebrates 25 years

By Amos Maki

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When the team of planners and developers behind the Harbor Town community on Mud Island wanted to build slimmer streets to promote a more pedestrian-friendly experience, the city of Memphis said they couldn’t do it.

"Everything we have done here has become a standard for the city of Memphis, but at the time it was illegal," said Tony Bologna of Harbor Town, which is marking its 25th anniversary.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The city, the development team said, claimed the streets did not meet municipal codes and emergency vehicles might have trouble accessing the narrower roadways. The developers had the city bring in fire trucks to test the roads, and the vehicles were able to navigate the streets just fine.

“Everything we have done here has become a standard for the city of Memphis, but at the time it was illegal,” said veteran architect Antonio R. “Tony” Bologna.

Bologna, the former director of development for the Henry Turley Cos., made his comments during a recent walking tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Harbor Town, the groundbreaking development that launched the local new urbanism movement and helped propel Downtown’s rebirth as a residential destination.

“Restrictions are good if you want to keep something from being bad, but restrictions can also kill you if you’re trying to do something new,” said Carson Looney, a founding principal of Memphis-based architecture and design firm Looney Ricks Kiss. Looney was recalling some of the obstacles the team faced as it launched what was then considered wild ideas by local bureaucrats and other developers: a dense, walkable community with a wide range of housing types and a mix of uses on a sandbar in the Mississippi River.

But after acquiring the property, the team – including LRK, Henry Turley Cos. and Belz Enterprises – immediately began planning what Jack Belz described as “the most special place in Memphis.”

“All of a sudden we had access to this piece of ground that had never been developed and you had a way to go get to it and it was this beautiful piece of ground along the magnificent Mississippi River that is still one of the most beautiful sights in the world, truthfully,” said Belz, chief executive of Belz Enterprises. “A sunset over Harbor Town is really something to behold and that caused us to start thinking of a way to do it.”

Time and time again the team leapt over hurdles to build Henry Turley’s idea of a dream community.

You want aesthetically pleasing mailboxes that complement the community and don’t dominate the street? You can’t have them, the U.S. Postal Service said, because they didn’t meet the standards of the time.

Jack Belz and Henry Turley discussed their vision for Harbor Town at a recent event celebrating the development.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“The Postmaster just gave us grief because we were trying to do something that hadn’t been done before,” Bologna said.

A grocery store was always part of the Harbor Town development plan. But large, national chains wouldn’t set foot on the island because it didn’t fit in their traditional boxes.

Turley, whose vision and constant questioning of conventional wisdom was the driving force behind much of the development, had a solution for the grocery store issue. He asked residents to supply him with their grocery receipts for a month so he could tailor a store specifically for Harbor Town, Miss Cordelia’s Grocery.

“Miss Cordelia’s was catering to the marketplace versus the mass marketplace,” Looney said.

Miss Cordelia’s now has expanded three times since it first opened.

Harbor Town was privately built and is privately maintained. The developers were responsible for extending utilities and sewer service, storm drainage and garbage pick-up.

What did the city provide to help usher the development along?

Not a lot, a “big goose egg,” Bologna said.

Turley was a little more gracious.

“No, they left us alone,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t give a damn. It’s Downtown on the island.’”

That allowed Turley to tinker, and the architects and planners to be as ambitious as they wanted, said Frank Ricks, a founding principal of LRK.

“I used to tell (Turley), ‘Good design doesn’t cost more,’ and at one point he said, ‘I don’t agree. It does cost more, but is it worth it?’” said Ricks. “How many times as an architect do you get a client that says, ‘How do we make things better?’

“It was a constant reevaluation of what works,” Ricks said. “It was a constant churning of ideas.”

The process worked. Harbor Town became an internationally recognized symbol of good, smart development. Planners from all over the world have visited it or studied its design. But it also has attracted locals, Memphians and Mid-Southerners who drive across the A.W. Willis Bridge to visit the special place on the river.

“When you drive through Harbor Town or when you walk through Harbor Town, you have a happy face and a happy feeling that you saw something special,” Belz said.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 291 21,272
MORTGAGES 0 160 16,194
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 23 1,487
BUILDING PERMITS 258 692 41,920
BANKRUPTCIES 1 117 6,579
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 23 3,097
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0