John Doyle

John Doyle is a native Memphian who is executive director of the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum.

Let's talk before we send the bulldozers to Tom Lee Park

By Published: May 05, 2019 12:39 PM CT

Our city is back in the national limelight and on many travel itineraries as Memphis in May once again stages its world-class events in Tom Lee Park, taking advantage of one of the country’s best venues and, undoubtedly, one of the best vistas of the Mighty Mississippi in the United States.

For over 40 years, Memphis in May has invited Memphians, and the world, to our city’s cherished front doorstep, Tom Lee Park. Both Memphis in May and Tom Lee Park have drawn global media attention to our city; created city pride; provided us with opportunities to come together; brought millions of tourists to the home of blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll; and – most important to an East Memphian like myself (and it should be important to everyone throughout Shelby County) – generated many millions of dollars in economic impact and tax revenue. Regardless of whether you ever step foot in Tom Lee Park, that economic impact helps to strengthen our city – its schools, its safety, its roads, its infrastructure.

<strong>John Doyle</strong>

John Doyle

I am not against Tom Lee Park renovation. I appreciate the energy and ideas that the Memphis River Parks Partnership has brought forward. However, as significant as Memphis in May is, and as critically important as Tom Lee Park is – as Memphis River Parks Partnership claims – let’s make sure we get it right.

Let’s not lose more of Tom Lee Park’s valuable green space to concrete structures before first determining that this is what citizens want, as well as the impact on tourism, traffic flow and celebrations. Surely a renovation of this magnitude calls for 100% transparency, and surely it’s important enough that all citizens have a right to be fully informed and involved, especially now that $10 million in taxpayer dollars are involved.

Bring us together (the same way Tom Lee Park does) along with MRPP, Memphis in May, our mayor, council and city leaders to ask and answer any questions. I want to hear that Memphis in May is fully on board, and is excited about these changes, but I have yet to hear that. Memphians do hear, however, that dirt starts turning in June.

Let's slow down.

It wasn’t too many years ago that we were shown beautiful renderings generated by the Riverfront Development Corp. to accomplish the same “world-class riverfront” that MRPP offers. Again, dirt started turning before funding was complete. Plans were scaled. There were no “floating platforms” as depicted in the beautiful models and renderings. Precious green space was taken away for a painted parking lot (I hear Joni Mitchell) and a closed-down restaurant and gift shop. Tom Lee Park continued to be used by Memphians, but the droves of people didn’t come … except during Memphis in May.

Aside from being a native Memphian, I’m also proud to work in the tourism industry, and I know what May means! So do restaurants, museums, attractions and retail stores as thousands of hotel rooms are booked by guests eager to spend their money in Memphis every single May. Why jeopardize that?

Tourism continues to be one of our city’s most powerful industries. It paves our streets. It lowers our taxes. Before we start shoveling dirt, any renderings that jeopardize the presence and effectiveness of Memphis in May – for tourists, and for Mid-Southerners – should be fully transparent. Is the Habitat Tower part of the plans or not? Who will maintain landscaping to assure it doesn’t become littered or overgrown? (Sorry, but Riverside Drive medians failed to pass the “beautification test” for our city and guests.)

And what is wrong with massive green space as an oasis at the foot of our Downtown? The Downtown Memphis Commission says to “stroll along the elevated Riverwalk” and touts Tom Lee as one of the most Instagrammable spots in Downtown. If you want to stroll among mature trees, there's Greenbelt Park, with 105 acres of trees, a 1.5-mile pedestrian trail, three parking lots. Or Fourth Bluff, which received $5 million in funding to match renderings with walking paths, dining carts, ambient lighting and mature trees. Or MLK Park, or Ashburn-Coppock Park or Chickasaw Heritage Park? There’s always Overton, Audubon and Shelby Farms Park. Don’t forget Mud Island, which already has terraced concrete walkways, water features, an amphitheater and the infrastructure for intimate picnic spots – these same amenities, but no success. Why not fix Mud Island first (or link it to Tom Lee), rather than dissecting one of the most breathtaking expanses along the Mississippi in Tom Lee Park?

Before replacing green space with concrete for water features, concrete topography, concrete activity courts, find out if citizens and tourists have been asking for these. The MRPP website offers renderings, but there are still questions. What will reducing Riverside Drive to two lanes do to traffic and access to our riverfront, Downtown, Bass Pro and Welcome Center? Do the carved terraces of Cutbank Bluff destabilize the bluff? (Remember the Riverside-closing mudslides of 2016?) Who is going to manicure and maintain the experimental garden, landscaping and the vegetation growing over the Habitat Tower? Who is going to manage the lockers and concession areas touted? Who is going to program activities, basketball games and concerts for these concrete structures?

People respond to programming – like Memphis in May. Structures and concrete terraces don’t draw people; programming draws people to the river, like the Star-Spangled Celebration and Stone Soul Picnic once did; like RiverArtsFest does. Why not engage other organizations like Memphis in May to activate our riverfront  – for tourists and for Memphians – other weekends and months of the year? Why not work towards connecting Beale Street to Riverside, or bring life back to closed down riverfront facilities like The Pier? Tom Lee Park isn’t what's broken.

Why are we so eager to fire up bulldozers in June before all questions are answered? It’s important that we all get on board. This is our welcome mat. Let’s catch our breath, enjoy Memphis in May, park the bulldozers and talk about this first.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at


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