The 1990s: Development becomes the focus

In the 1990s, plans began to focus less on quality of life issues and more directly on economic development of the riverfront. Mayor Herenton came into office saying he wanted to turn the scenic but underdeveloped Memphis riverfront into an "economic engine" for Memphis. In 1994, he outlined an ambitious plan to enhance tourism and commercial use of the riverfront.

The suggested projects continued to include the renovation of the historic cobblestones and floating docks, but now stores were added to provide 75,000 leasable square feet. The projects also included dredging a boat basin along the riverfront from Beale to Court to accommodate large vessels. The estimated total cost was $19.7 million with the federal government to provide $15-million. Part of the money was for finishing and lighting the Pyramid and $1-million for face-lift for Confederate Park.

The Mayor also called for the creation of a riverfront development authority that could issue bonds, lease property, and grant tax incentives to oversee public and private improvements. The authority’s boundaries were to cover the area from Wolf River diversion channel on the north, to DeSoto Park on the south, and from Front Street on the east to the city limits on the west.

By 1995 four phases of development were defined to transform the harbor into a tourist attraction:
  • build an overlook plaza at the foot of Union and a cobblestone walkway to the new Visitors Center,
  • complete the walkway south to Beale Street and Tom Lee Park,
  • restore the cobblestones,
  • procure four barges from the Corps of Engineers to use for 84,000 square feet of retail stores and restaurants.

In 1996 the Mayor announced a new version of his Riverfront plan and three ideas appeared for the first time:
  • filling in the south tip of Mud Island to create 10 acres for private development as a "theme village"
  • building two land bridges (dams) to convert part of the harbor to a 28-acre lake
  • cutting a channel from the remaining harbor to the Mississippi River

The two bridges would connect Mud Island to the mainland, one at Beale Street and one near the Visitors Center. Docking and mooring would be moved to the south side of the Beale Street bridge. A boat channel would be built north of Hernando DeSoto (the “M” bridge) to reconnect the remaining harbor to the Mississippi River.

The price estimate was to $25-30-million and depended upon securing Federal funding. [September 5, 1996]

Click for larger view
Figure: Detail of the 1997 version showing two bridge-dams forming a 28-acre lake. A new boat channel (click picture for a wider view to see the channel) would prevent the north harbor from becoming yet another lake. Source: Hnedak Bobo Group

By 1997 the price of the riverfront had grown to $43.2-million. The plan still included the ideas from 1995 and 1996, but:

  • the channel to provide Mississippi River access to industries in the harbor would have to be cut at the north end of Mud Island, through the levy, for safety reasons;
  • a bridge would need to be built over the channel so cars could enter the north end of Mud Island;
  • the mouth of Wolf River where it empties into the Mississippi would have to be widened;
  • the lake had grown to 36 acres;
  • an upgraded riverboat docking facility was mentioned
  • Tom Lee Park would be turned over to developers for residential units.

They're talking about private development of parkland, but at this time the parkland involved was south of the original 5000-acre tract and did not involve the dedicated Public Promenade.

Developers were interested. As a marketing expert said at the time, extending Beale Street to an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River -- that gets people’s attention.

But the plan didn’t get federal funding. Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. said the requests arrived too late and suggested Mayor Herenton reconsider his priorities and focus on education and housing.

The 1997 plan failed, but the development concept did not die.

By 1998, there was a new estimated cost: $50-million. The Mayor mentioned scaling down, but said he planned to continue with plans for waterfront development and would ask the City Council for $6-million for the plan.

In 1999, the Waterfront Center was hired to work with over 100 members of the public in developing ideas for the riverfront. The public consensus from that session was for
  • free year round access to livelier Mud Island River Park
  • slower traffic on Riverside Drive
  • protection of the cobblestones
  • an improved dock for river tour boats, and
  • to scratch the idea for a lake.
Several people now closely associated with the RDC attended this meeting, but no mention of the Waterfront Center recommendations can be found on the RDC website.

After the Waterfront Center planning session, Mayor Herenton appointed a Riverfront Steering Committee with John Stokes as chairman. The steering committee was chartered as the Riverfront Development Corporation, and Benny Lendermon agreed to retire from his job as the City’s Director of Public Works to become the new organization’s executive director.

Stokes said the new focus would be to provide a lot of development opportunities for the private sector.

By now, the city had spent $15-million on expansion of Tom Lee Park, improvements to Riverside Drive, the Tennessee Welcome Center, the Bluffwalk, and engineering studies and had $12 milion in hand.

The RDC did not yet have control of the riverfront parks, which were still managed by the Memphis Park Commission, and they needed more money.

NEXT: The RDC Plan: Paving Paradise