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VOL. 133 | NO. 119 | Thursday, June 14, 2018

Changes Coming Quickly to Riverfront

By Bill Dries

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Changes are coming fast, if tentatively, to the most identifiable part of the Memphis riverfront – the part between Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid and the southern end of Tom Lee Park.

RiverPlay – the pop-up park with summer recreational activities including basketball, skating and similar adventures – is returning Friday, June 15, to the riverfront after last year’s inaugural run. But it will be moving from last year’s spot on a closed-off Riverside Drive between Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park.

Instead, it will be around Beale Street Landing, including the parking lot on the northern end of Tom Lee Park, as the Memphis River Park Partnership is weighing what MRPP president Carol Coletta has called a “restart” of the landing.

The restart also includes not reopening the restaurant and using it instead as a forum to talk about riverfront and other plans under the banner “Urban M.”

Across the harbor, on Mud Island River Park, the Lake Pontchartrain fountain in the River Walk has been altered just enough to safely allow children to play in the water feature.

And a Saturday “People’s Day” event at the park with the Wolf River Conservancy will include a volunteer cleanup of the harbor and the park, kayak and canoe demonstrations, and guided paddles around the harbor.

Meanwhile, new signage for the RiverLine trail running along the riverfront goes to the Downtown Memphis Commission’s Design Review Board for approval at its July meeting. Gone are the earlier plans for yellow orbs or spheres marking the trail.

Instead, the trail will be divided into sections, with markers for those boundaries and some way-finding columns at central points.

The regular trail markings will be much smaller, brightly colored ground-level circles that MRPP staffer George Abbott describes as “a little more subtle” than the yellow spheres.

“It will be pretty unobtrusive,” he said.

The most talked-about change so far, however, is the long-discussed plan to make significant changes to Tom Lee Park.

Coming in at a tentative $45 million, the plan Coletta unveiled this week would add more trees to Tom Lee Park and other amenities and still keep the park as the home of the Memphis in May International Festival, with some of the festival infrastructure becoming permanent.

The board of the Memphis River Parks Partnership got a look Tuesday at how the mix of trees, utility hardware and different corridors from the riverbluff into the park would work after a review by Studio Gang designers, event consultants and Memphis in May leaders.

“You restart Beale Street Landing, you leverage Riverside Drive, diversify the park experience, relocate the utilities,” Coletta told the board in summarizing the design strategies. “You stretch the festival north, you modify festival operations – that’s how things come in. Build a flexible pavilion as part of the work that we will do. Maximize the hardscape. Plant resilient landscape.”

The festival currently has to bring in utilities to support the Beale Street Music Festival, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, 901Fest and the Great American River Run events in the park.

“All the irrigation lines are broken. They have to run electrical,” Coletta said. “And those are all things Memphis in May has to pay to fix. What we want to do is put the infrastructure in this park that allows them to come in and other festivals potentially.”

A rendering of the proposed layout for the barbecue contest shows the event, which already features several hundred barbecue teams, could actually expand.

Memphis in May president Jim Holt said later that he hasn’t seen the final plan.

“MIM has been actively engaged with MRPP and Studio Gang over the course of the last year on the Tom Lee Park redesign efforts,” he said in an email. “We look forward to an enhanced downtown riverfront and operational improvements to Tom Lee Park.”

Studio Gang, the Chicago firm that came up with the city’s concept for overall riverfront development, estimates it would take 10 months to develop a specific design and 18 months to build and reshape Tom Lee Park. That’s if Memphis in May remains in the park during the construction phase, which would cause work on the park to stop during the month of May. The timeline is shorter if the festival relocates for a year.

“We don’t want Memphis in May to go anywhere. They’ve had to do it before with barbecue,” Coletta said, referring to flood waters in 2011 that reached Tom Lee Park, prompting a move to Tiger Lane.

“I think the question is how do we make sure that we can run as fast as we can on the park and not slow that down and certainly not damage anything,” Coletta said, adding there should be cost estimates in two to three weeks.

“We still have to raise the money. But what we hope to do is get the design work started so we don’t lose time,” she said. “We want a great park as soon as we can get it and we want Memphis in May to have a better festival ground. Getting the funding to get started on design is what we are about right now.”

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