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VOL. 9 | NO. 41 | Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fourth Bluff Momentum Grows With $5 Million Grant

By Bill Dries

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They’ve been called the “things between things” in Downtown Memphis.

The Fourth Bluff effort takes in two city parks, including Memphis Park (formerly Confederate Park), with a view of the Memphis harbor and Mississippi River.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

In the earliest plans for the city of Memphis, they were part of the Promenade – a section of public land that includes the city’s first public library, the river view behind what is now the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, and Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park below it on the other side of Riverside Drive.

These days, the area is called The Fourth Bluff. That’s also the unofficial name being given to Memphis Park – the second name change, formal and informal, in four years for what was named Confederate Park until 2012.

The letters spelling “Fourth Bluff” are now on the bluff hillside visible from Riverside Drive and Mississippi River Park at the bottom of the steep hill.

The first name change is still being litigated in state appeals court. The Civil War-era cannons and the 1962 statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis remain. But markers explaining the original name and Davis have been painted over.

The two-year Fourth Bluff effort picked up considerable momentum last month with a $5 million matching grant from a group of national foundations – The JPB Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and The Kresge Foundation.

The coalition made the grants under the banner of “Reimagining the Civic Commons,” an effort to not only link publicly owned spaces but also to do it with an “economic integration.”

“There’s quite a divide between the haves and have-nots,” said Justin Entzminger, director of Innovate Memphis, one of the local groups overseeing the Fourth Bluff efforts. “How can we bring everyone together to help build trust and get to know each other? How can being in the same space, using the same public assets, bridge those gaps? And also how can you reconnect with nature – in this case the river?”

The Fourth Bluff effort already has started a Fourth Friday beer garden gathering in Memphis Park, and September saw the debut of a four-part monthly Pandemonium film series on the second floor of the Cossitt Library.

In the tentative Fourth Bluff plans, the Cossitt is described as the “centerpiece.”

A structural engineering study is underway, said Maria Fuhrmann, a city grants coordinator and part of the local Fourth Bluff effort.

“Then we are going to do a feasibility and use study that will make some recommendations about possible uses and what would really work,” she said. “I think at that point we are going to know a lot more of how we can proceed. … We want to preserve the historic section of the building.”

That doesn’t mean a full-scale overhaul of the library, which originally was a late 19th-century castle-like structure made of red sandstone. In the 1950s, the front part was demolished and replaced with the modern box-like structure that still fronts the building today.

“We are not going to get all the way there with Cossitt,” Fuhrmann said. “But hopefully we make significant progress and have a plan for what happens next. But in the meantime we are going to keep programming and having activities.”

That is the case for the other parts of Fourth Bluff. The preliminary plans suggest light displays in the large trees of Memphis Park, a playground and outdoor performance stage at Mississippi River Park, and a redesign of Court Street from the Main Street Mall and Court Square to Front Street as a pedestrian corridor.

Last fall, the law school joined with Cossitt in setting up outdoor seating, umbrellas and picnic tables along its rear section overlooking the harbor and extended its Wi-Fi to the entire area. There was also a sculpture by local artist Elisha Gold.

“All of those things were a big hit,” said Ryan David Jones, communications director of the law school. “We saw a high degree of new usage from both current law students as well as individuals that use that back promenade for walking, running, strolling or just enjoying the view.“

And since then, Jones said, citizens have asked about the return of the infrastructure.

“I believe we saw enough positive usage there … that I believe all of those elements will be considered for future integration in that area, whatever specific larger plans are put in place there,” Jones said.

Later this month, the law school hosts a “fall festival” for students as the Fourth Friday gathering is underway in Memphis Park.

Some in the Fourth Bluff effort have begun referring to the area behind the law school as the Third Park.

Fuhrmann said “large” is a relative term for infrastructure that isn’t a road into a new public facility or something of that magnitude.

“This is not going to be a $40 million capital project,” she said. “These are going to be fairly low-cost and not for something that is going to be huge and here for 50 years. This is going to be kind of a light touch. It’s going to be flexible.”

Urban planner and designer Jeff Speck, during a 2013 survey of the riverfront for the city, pegged Memphis Park as “the obvious next opportunity” for riverfront development and “a big bang in an important place.”

Speck suggested developing an east-west corridor linking Court Square to Memphis Park and on to Mississippi River Park. That is part of the thinking in the Fourth Bluff effort as well.

“We need to make it more obvious how you access the waterfront and design it for pedestrians,” Fuhrmann said. “Give people visual cues that prompt them to keep exploring. There are a lot of points that once you get to them you feel like, ‘I’m not supposed to be back here.’ We want to change that.”

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