The 1980s: Emphasizing conservation and public spaces

By the late 1970s downtown Memphis had been abandoned for the suburbs. The Public Promenade and Front Street were lined with parking garages -- the City had turned its back on the River. Searching for a way to rejuvenate a depressed downtown, the City decided to take another look at the riverfront.

As Memphis grew, the section of the Bluff designated as a Public Promenade felt the pressure of City needs. At first these pressures were cultural and civic in nature, but by the 1950s the City wanted downtown parking spaces. The solution they came up with was to build parking garages on the Public Promenade; after all, they wouldn’t need to pay for the land. A commitment was made that the parking garages would be built underground with parks on top. That promise was broken.

In 1970 the City even considered building a 16-lane expressway along the riverfront to connect the Mississippi River bridges on the north and south ends of downtown. As then-Mayor Dick Hackett said,
I inherited a Federally funded design that would have tied the interstate from the south end of Downtown to the tip of Mud Island, up Mud Island, and connect to I-40 on the north side. If that had been allowed to continue, it would mean that our Downtown would be separated from the river by an expressway.

The City decided to take another look, and many of the ideas that have since given us a Bluffwalk took shape.

1978 Memphis Riverfront Study

In 1978 the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development recognized the value of parks and civic spaces in a city and suggested the riverfront become a garden walkway. They specifically recommended:
  • Connection of all publicly owned river frontage from J.B. Edgar point to Volunteer Park as a "Riverfront Garden Walkway"
  • historic restoration and development of the cobblestone wharf with suggestions that a "performing arts barge, an open air marketplace, barges or piers, marine service, and a better mooring site for riverboats" be considered for the area;
  • the cleanup of the Wolf River Harbor;
  • construction of a boat ramp and canoe pullout on the north end of Mud Island
Some of these things have since been accomplished; other ideas have reappeared in later plans.

Center City Riverfront Public Spaces Plan

In 1982 Mitch and March Hall in the Center City Riverfront Public Spaces Plan gave detailed suggestions for a path system and ways to beautify public spaces. Among other things itsuggested:
  • improving the Public Promenade with new landscaping, a bridge to cross over Court Ave., and better access to the west side of the library
  • renovating the cobblestones and adding a floating dock system,
  • constructing a Bluffwalk that would include a footpath over Riverside Drive to Tom Lee Park

Center City Commission Plan

In the 1984 the Center City Commission hired noted architects Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown to do a comprehensive plan for downtown. According to the architect's website,
Fearing intense development could erode the amenity of the City-river connection, the Center City Commission called for a comprehensive development strategy, an overview that would address the area's problems, develop policies, and implement programs to encourage development, while at the same time preserving the amenity of the downtown, which is the prime attraction for economic development.

The study divided downtown into subareas; one of these was the riverfront. The Riverfront Sub-Area volume, completed in 1987, began with these words:

The Memphis riverfront is completely unique with its unspoiled natural amenities, its lack of industrialization, and its general accessibility and proximity to Downtown. Historically, the river and the bluffs determined the very establishment of the city at this point. Favored by the natural beauty of the river and a dramatic view to the fertile Arkansas flood plain, the Memphis riverfront offers young and old a serendipity for the senses and an easy escape to nature.

1987 Center City plan - click to enlarge
Figure 2: The 1987 Center City plan for the Promenade area. We had it redrawn and spot color added for visual clarity: green means green space. Click to enlarge.

The 1987 Center City plan recommended:
  • improving the Public Promenade as a grand civic open space connecting the River with downtown
  • historic restoration of the cobblestones and making the wharf area into a place to visit with such amenities as floating restaurants and places for art
  • something special at the foot of Beale Street
  • a Bluffwalk with pedestrian bridges to cross over Riverside Drive from the Bluff to Tom Lee Park
  • a pedestrian drawbridge at Monroe to connect with Mud Island
  • the addition of an aquarium to Mud Island River Park,