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VOL. 131 | NO. 10 | Thursday, January 14, 2016

RVC Outdoor Submits Ambitious Mud Island Plan

By Bill Dries

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RVC Outdoor Destinations, the Memphis-based company headed by Andy Cates, is proposing a conservancy for Mud Island River Park similar to the Overton Park Conservancy. And its proposal seeks an agreement directly with the city for his company to develop the park, bypassing the Riverfront Development Corp.

The Mississippi Riverwalk on Mud Island is one of two features that would remain in a river park makeover proposed by RVC Outdoor Destinations.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

RVC, an outdoor destination and resort company, submitted its proposal Wednesday, Jan. 13, to operate the city-owned park on the southern half of Mud Island. The proposal is part of a request-for-qualifications process by the Riverfront Development Corp.

“Make this the gateway to Memphis and the delta,” Cates said. “We failed to do that other than arguably the first couple of years.”

He was referring to the park losing money every year except for the first few years of its operation following its 1982 opening.

Cates said in a Monday, Jan. 11, conference call with designers and others who would be part of a design competition that the plan is “a primary proposal or at least foundation” and that RVC was willing to partner with or support others with a better idea.

“We don’t have it all figured out,” he added. “We are not in any way making decisions that we’re not in authority to make right now. … We’ll have some strong opinions and we’ll have some ground rules for the dollars we invest specifically on the private side.”

He didn’t give a dollar figure for that investment.

View/download RVC Outdoor Destinations' Mud Island River Park proposal (PDF, 5.8 MB)

RVC would abandon the monorail across the Wolf River harbor for a conversion of the walkway above it into something he likened to Manhattan’s High Line with elements of the Shelby Farms Greenline.

“We’re not Manhattan, but the High Line is world class, super attractive, wildly successful. The Greenline in Memphis has been wildly successful,” he said. “We think there is an opportunity to better activate the sky bridge as more of a true public space and a more active space.”

An expanded north entrance, originally used as a service entrance for employees, would become the primary entrance into Mud Island with an expansion of the Greenbelt Park on the northern half of the island into the development and to the southern tip of the island.

“You bring out the entry away from the (Hernando DeSoto) bridge. Right now it is under the bridge. Move it farther north,” Cates said.

“Use some of that greenscape to be parking for overflow. And no I’m not proposing a greensward situation. One debate is enough for that,” he said, referring to Overton Park’s controversy over the use of the park greensward for zoo overflow parking. “This would be clearly designed where it would be green but still utilized for parking without ruining it in the long run. … You have a far better sense of entry, to put it mildly, because right now it’s a horrible sense of entry.”

The River Terrace restaurant in its present location would be demolished, as would at least the northern wing of the museum building on the other end of the monorail and walkway across the harbor.

“Right now they block your north-south view corridor,” he said. “They block your pedestrian access.”

The River Museum would likely retain the packet boat and Civil War gunboat models in some updated form.

“They could be utilized in something more active and something more engaging,” Cates said. “You’ve got to figure out a way to reinvent the museum and I don’t think it is as simple as you just renovate the museum. It’s got to be more than that.”

Cates said the two indispensable items in a reconfiguration of the park are the amphitheater and the Riverwalk.

But the amphitheater would be updated to change a small and cramped load-in area in back of the stage and a front lighting rig that is too low by today’s standards. There would be more cover as well.

The Riverwalk would get badly needed repairs and the RVC plan would scrap the water flow mechanism that simulates the varying levels of the Mississippi River in the scale model. The mechanism hasn’t worked for years, according to Cates, and should be replaced with a constant level of water that allows children to play in it.

Beyond that, Cates said, RVC is open to some discussions about other buildings staying in a renovated form or going but added, “We shouldn’t be afraid to take some things down.”

“You do have some buildings that we think are worth spending more time to better understand,” he said specifically of the Harbor Landing restaurant. “The opportunity for meeting space is obviously there, and even now there is a significant amount of meeting and party rental going on in the existing buildings even in their condition.”

The river model would be bordered on the western river side of the island by the continuation of the Greenbelt Park that would include cottages and safari-like tents that are among the features common to the other outdoor areas RVC develops, manages and operates.

“Our cottages, put simply … think of a very high-quality hotel suite with no neighbors, and put in beautiful outdoor environments with decks and first-class appliances and Wi-Fi,” he said. “Everybody’s gotten caught on our yurts. We do yurts. I don’t think yurts are right for Mud Island. And it’s gotten a few people confused.”

The plan also calls for more access to the river and harbor through the boat ramp on the eastern or harbor side of the island, between the amphitheater and the museum building.

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