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VOL. 132 | NO. 206 | Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Brooks Pursues Riverfront Site for New Museum

By Bill Dries

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The board of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art announced Tuesday, Oct. 17, it is working with city government to relocate the museum from its Overton Park home to a Downtown site on Front Street between Union and Monroe avenues.

View/download the updated Bicentennial Gateway Project plan (PDF, 4 MB)

A letter from museum executive director Emily Neff and museum board chairman Deborah Craddock refers to a concept plan for riverfront development the administration of Mayor Jim Strickland unveiled earlier in July, two months before the Brooks announced it might move. That concept includes a map with what is called a “cultural amenity” on the site of what is now a city fire station and a parking garage on the west side of Front Street.

“The Brooks Museum Board of Directors passed a resolution to seek formal consideration from Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration to be that iconic cultural asset,” the letter reads, noting the board voted Oct. 6 to move in that direction.

“Many further discussions with the city of Memphis will be required and we must still have complete and satisfactory answers to myriad questions about a potential new site for the Brooks Museum on the riverfront,” the letter adds. “Nevertheless, we feel that this is a singular opportunity to be part of a true renaissance along the river, particularly with tremendous developments happening in the Pinch and Medical Districts, around the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and throughout all of downtown.“

The block of riverfront real estate between Union and Monroe is all owned by the city of Memphis.

The emphasis in Studio Gang’s concept plan for the riverfront is on the corner of the block where the parking garage currently operates, across Monroe Avenue south of the Cossitt Library, which is about to begin renovations to its mid-century front space.

The river-facing side of the site of the fire station and parking garage would become part of what the concept plan called a “Civic Terrace” extending through other properties. A rendering shows a pedestrian bridge over Monroe Avenue.

The idea of moving the fire station, which includes Memphis Fire Department headquarters, has been considered before for other riverfront redevelopment plans since at least the administration of Mayor Willie Herenton.

The site is considered prime river bluff real estate that is also part of the city’s “promenade” – a larger swath of land that goes as far north as the Memphis Cook Convention Center – designated for public use by the city’s founders.

The public use definition has been stretched over the last 50 years or so to include a city government facility as well as public parking. Changing those uses has been a specific goal of past riverfront plans.

Neff and Craddock say an expansion of the museum in Overton Park would have been “both costly and disruptive to the park-going public and our fellow park partners.”

“Also, any subsequent renovation within the park would likely augur an expansion of our museum facilities to accommodate increasing storage and exhibition space needs; this could lead to an encroachment on the Overton Park Golf Course or other public space areas, which we of course would prefer to avoid,” the letter reads.

Paul Young, director of the city's Division of Housing & Community Development, said the Brooks' move to the site would be financed with Tourism Development Zone revenue – approximately $7.3 million through 2031.

The museum also would be a landmark that would include the mainland end of a pedestrian bridge across the Memphis harbor to the south end of Mud Island River Park.

That bridge would link to one of two Mud Island aquariums – one on the Riverwalk's Gulf of Mexico replica. The other aquarium would be a freshwater habitat attached to the current river museum and a planned freshwater institute.

Young estimated that with financing, construction on some parts of the more specific riverfront plan could start in the fall of 2018.  

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