Plans approved for Mud Island Aquarium Museum and Downtown home for the Brooks Museum

A bold concept that includes developing a unique aquarium museum on Mud Island that could connect to a relocated Books Museum took its first steps this week. 

The Memphis City Council approved plans for the $150 million aquarium museum along with improvements to Mud Island Amphitheater and a pedestrian bridge, as well as a new $80 million to $100 million Riverfront Cultural Center and plaza.

“We’ve been exploring different alternatives for some time now, and one of the premises particularly for what we are looking for on Mud Island is us Memphians finding a space where we really embrace what is unique about our city,” said Paul Young, director of the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. “We felt like it is important to have something that draws people to Mud Island, creating something that is iconic and a destination, but also something that is who we are.”

The freshwater and saltwater aquarium, designed by local architecture firm archimania and world-renowned aquarium architect Peter Chermayeff, would feature exhibits showcasing Mississippi River history and wildlife from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the existing museum on Mud Island will be preserved.

“The idea is not to tear everything on Mud Island down and build something new, it’s to build upon the existing assets. Some existing buildings will remain, and some new buildings would come into play,” said Young.

The aquarium museum would connect via a pedestrian bridge to the new cultural center and plaza, which could house the Brooks Museum, which is considering a move from its 100-year-old location at Overton Park. An existing Dowtown fire station would be demolished to make way for the center.

"We agree that an active, architecturally significant, and thoughtfully programmed asset of this type could anchor a critical juncture of the riverfront and deeply enhance the experience of all Memphians and its visitors," said Emily Neff, Brooks executive director and Deborah Craddock, president of the board of directors in an October 17 statement. 

Young hopes to create more anchors Downtown to create a seamless experience between South Main, Beale Street and the Pinch District.

“Having this anchor right at Union Avenue, Monroe and Front Street really changes the whole character and builds upon the work that’s happening with City Commons and the Cossitt Library,” said Young. “So there’s so much synergy where the cultural center would be.”

Mud Island Amphitheater will also be renovated and the loading area expanded to bring the facilities up to the modern technical demands of today’s concert industry.

Roughly $11 million in Downtown tourism and development zone surplus could be invested into the project. An application for TDZ amendment will be presented to the State Building Commission by the end of this month for possible approval in November. Upon SBC approval, the city will begin fundraising and financial due diligence for the projects, with Brooks handling fundraising for its portion. Private equity investors will also be recruited to help with the finances.

Construction could get underway as soon as the fall of next year if the appropriate funds are secured, and the projects could come online in the next three to five years.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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