Riverfront strategy moves to connect best-known features

By Published: November 26, 2018 2:40 PM CT

For all of the planning and man-made features that went into the new Mississippi River Park and its River Garden, including people-sized bird nests, there is another new feature that park planners didn’t anticipate.

“This hawk is ginormous,” said Carol Coletta, president of Memphis River Parks Partnership, on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.”

“And he decided to sit in this tree at the south end of the park,” she said. “You cannot miss him.”

The park on the Wolf River Harbor just south of the Tennessee Welcome Center had its formal opening a week ago coinciding with the formal opening of the 5-mile-long River Line – a path stretching between Confluence Park on Mud Island’s north end and Big River Crossing, with plans unfolding for a connection further south to Martin Luther King-Riverside Park in South Memphis.

“Part of this is just joining up the pieces,” Coletta said of the riverfront in general. “The River Line is the first piece of this new work we are doing. It really is the heart of the riverfront and the heart of Downtown – thus the heart of the city.”

On the program, hosted by Eric Barnes, editor-in-chief and president of The Daily Memphian, Coletta talked about the rapidly forming riverfront plan the same day this month the Hyde Family Foundations announced $5.2 million in funding for the effort. The donation will go toward the $70 million capital campaign that began a year and a half ago with a broad riverfront concept plan from Studio Gang.

The Chicago-based design firm is now working with landscape architecture firm SCAPE of New York on a specific plan for Tom Lee Park. And the partnership, which manages and operates the city’s riverside parks under contract with city government, is also moving ahead with plans for Mud Island River Park in its offseason – including paring down the park’s seasonal staff to centralize it.

BILL DRIES: Mud Island positions eliminated as management prepares to launch new strategy

The park remains open although the River Walk has been drained and the museum and food and beverage services are closed until the season begins again in the spring.

Coletta said keeping the park open through the fall and winter is part of a shift to “treat it like a park.”

“It’s about 40 years old. I was there when Mud Island was built,” she said of the park’s much simpler origins in the 1970s as both “Bicentennial Park” and “Volunteer Park.”

“And as the expense grew, the timeline was lengthened for building,” Coletta said. “Costs went up, and as it lengthened the programs didn’t change architecturally, but the programming changed.”

Today, Coletta said, the park triggers a lot of nostalgia from its ambitious beginnings. But she said there isn’t an “appetite to renew the infrastructure” of what was built as a park but became a theme park.

“Is there something we could layer onto the asset as it exists? Is there reason to radically change the asset?” she asked.

At least for now, the emerging plan for the park is a “three- to five-year holding plan” that could involve vendors running different parts of the island like the restaurant on the south end of the River Walk and similar parts of the park.

“There’s still too many unknowns,” she said when pressed for details. “But there are a number of people who have advanced ideas in the recent past and now again because the excitement about the riverfront is growing.”


Memphis River Parks Partnership Carol Coletta Mud Island River Park
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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