The long view: A look back at Harbor Town's first 25 years

As recently as 1988, Harbor Town was a scrubby sandbar in the Mississippi River. Today, it’s a thriving community of over 3,000 people, a haven for cyclists and pedestrians, and a test tube for city planners. What can Memphis learn from this neo-traditional neighborhood in the shadow of downtown?

 
On a sunny hillside overlooking the Wolf River, fourth graders at the Maria Montessori School are practicing for Historical Halloween. At the festival, each student must dress as a historical figure—people like prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and entrepreneur Steve Jobs—and deliver an oral report. Further down the hill, the school’s chickens hunt for bugs in the grass, while monarch butterflies flit past on their yearly migration to Mexico.
Fourth Graders at the Maria Montessori School prepare for the Historical Halloween festival.
It’s a bucolic scene. But the fate of Harbor Town—the residential neighborhood that includes the Maria Montessori School—wasn’t always so settled. In fact, in the mid-1980s, there was a plan to build an expressway here—one of several proposals designed to complete the I-240 loop.

“I thought it was a supremely bad idea,” says Harbor Town developer Henry Turley. “I thought, we shouldn’t use this unique and wonderful property for the conveyance of people.”

Today, more than 3,000 people call Harbor Town home. They live in apartments, row houses and detached homes, which range in price from $835/month for a 1-bedroom apartment to $850,000 for a 4-bedroom house with a river view. Whereas most Memphians depend on their cars to get around, Harbor Town residents inhabit a neighborhood that is uniquely dense and walkable.

And Turley says that’s the point.

“A car will trap you,” he explains. “It will trap you alone. And this whole experiment, which we call New Urbanism, has been about learning how to live without cars: how to let them serve us and not dominate.”

So how do you transform a proposed highway into a manicured haven for cyclists and pedestrians?

Simple. Working with organizations like Future Memphis, Inc. and the Greater Memphis Chamber, Turley was able to generate a petition and block the new road. A few years later, when the property fell into foreclosure, he bought it from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) for $2.25 million, a fraction of its former purchase price.

At the time, the land was unpromising: 132 acres perched atop a scrubby sandbar in the Mississippi River. But Turley saw potential in its beautiful views and its proximity to downtown. More importantly, he saw a blank canvas, a place where he could recreate the kind of friendly, small-town life that he had experienced as a boy while helping to repopulate the urban core.
Whereas most Memphians depend on their cars to get around, Harbor Town residents inhabit a neighborhood that is uniquely dense and walkable.
“When we started,” remembers Turley, “there were just two forms of development: urban and suburban. Tall buildings or white picket fences. I knew that in order to make this work, we would have to abandon those forms and make something new.”

To that end, Turley enlisted the architectural services of Baltimore’s RKTL and Memphis’s Looney Ricks Kiss. Together, they developed a land plan for the neighborhood, as well as a picture book that laid out simple “do this, don’t do this” instructions for home builders.

The resulting neighborhood is at once visually varied and utterly distinctive, a network of tree-lined streets that wind their way through public parks, playgrounds, and nature trails. Situated on narrow lots with small front yards, Harbor Town homes are designed to encourage human interaction, favoring the social front porch over the private back patio. Cars are tucked into alleyways behind houses.

“I love it,” says Bill Marty, who shares a condo with his wife, Ann, and their standard poodle, Francis. “You don’t have to get in your car. You can walk to restaurants, walk along the river. It’s a wonderful place.”

Susan Cushman agrees.

“People are so friendly,” she enthuses. “I’ll be sitting on my front porch with a glass of wine, and within half an hour, three friends will show up, just like that.”

Walking through Harbor Town, it’s easy to miss the extent to which this community was planned. Everything from the ceiling fans on front porches—a concession to Memphis’s blistering-hot summers—to the way the sidewalks penetrate curb cuts and driveways—giving precedence to pedestrians—was spelled out by architects back in 1989.

There’s even a plan for the trees.
"I love it," says Bill Marty (left). "You don’t have to get in your car. You can walk to restaurants, walk along the river. It’s a wonderful place.”
“We planted a different kind of tree on every street,” says Tony Bologna, the project’s director of development. “That way, we get to stretch out the fall foliage.”

“Like, the October Glory Red Maples have already started to turn,” he explains. “They’ll go from green to bright red to orange to yellow before they drop their leaves. But the gingkoes and cypress are just getting started.”

Until recently, such intensive planning was a new concept, and it wasn’t long before Harbor Town started attracting attention. Most notably, the Walt Disney Company sent several groups of architects and engineers to tour the development in the early 1990s. Disney was interested in New Urbanism—the term coined to describe neo-traditional neighborhoods like Harbor Town—and they incorporated what they learned into Celebration, their master-planned community in Osceola County, Florida.

But getting Memphians to move into Harbor Town proved more difficult. Maria Schuermann-Cole is the founder and principal of the Maria Montessori School, which moved to its current location in 1991. She remembers what it was like in those early days.

“I’ve got this postcard in my office,” says Schuermann-Cole. “It’s an aerial photo of Harbor Town from back when we moved in. And there’s nothing. There’s just the building in the middle, that’s us. There’s a clear shot to the river, clear shot to the Pyramid. Just a few houses in the very back, and then sand hills.”

“It was very natural,” she adds, “very different.”

The problem, says developer Henry Turley, was psychographic. Although the first 345 apartments rented quickly, Memphians were slow to build their homes in the Harbor Town, for the simple reason that they had never seen anything quite like it before.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Harbor Town Community Association has planned a series of events, including a crawfish boil, a dog show, the burying of a time capsule, and the dedication of a commemorative sculpture.
“When people are making their biggest investment,” reflects Turley, “they're cautious. They’re looking for affirmation, and in this case there wasn’t any. We were all new.”

“That just meant we had to work harder,” he continues, “and do things better. So it took a little longer.”

Gradually, the idea caught on, and today, Harbor Town is near capacity. Since its founding, the development has won over 70 design and engineering awards, including the National Association of Home Builders’ 1991 Home of the Year award. Residents can walk to a number of businesses, including a school, a grocery, a dry cleaners, a gym, a marina, an award-winning hotel, and several bars and restaurants.

And if it feels a bit like the Truman Show—well, that’s no coincidence. The 1998 hit movie was filmed in Seaside, Florida, another New Urbanist community.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Harbor Town Community Association has planned a series of events, including a crawfish boil, a dog show, the burying of a time capsule, and the dedication of a commemorative sculpture. The piece, entitled “Romantic Twist,” represents the joining of the Mississippi and Wolf rivers.

Looking back, development director Tony Bologna says that Harbor Town is one of the most ambitious projects he has ever undertaken. But he’s evidently pleased with the result. Today, Bologna lives on Harbor Isle Circle West, in a four-bedroom house with views of the Mississippi River.

In other words: he didn’t just build the place—he lives here.

“The best compliment I’ve ever gotten from a resident,” says Bologna, “is when you come over the bridge, you feel like you’ve gone on vacation. I think that’s great. I mean, here we are, right in the shadow of downtown, and people feel like they’re going on vacation every time they come home.”

 

Read more articles by John Minervini.

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