Take me to the river: How the new Memphis riverfront is beating expectations

Years behind schedule and millions over budget, the redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront got off to a slow start. But with the rollout of two new parks, the tide may finally be turning.
Over the last few months, the redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront has attracted a lot of criticism. According to ABC 24, the recently completed Beale Street Landing--a centerpiece of the redevelopment--got off to a "rough start." Other local media have described it as "a SNAFU" (The Memphis Flyer) and "a mess" (WREG).

And you can kind of see where they're coming from. After years of delays, the project eventually ran about $15 million over budget--to say nothing of the seemingly impossible task of getting a restaurant into Beale Street Landing. But all that bad press overlooks one very important fact:

The new riverfront is actually pretty cool.

Take Tom Lee Park. Until recently, it functioned as a festival park, lighting up for Memphis in May and sitting dormant for the other 11 months of the year.

These days, if you go to Tom Lee, you’ll notice a big difference: there are people there. They're running the ropes course, swinging across monkey bars and even playing beach volleyball. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, none other than Memphis Grizzlies center Kosta Koufos was setting up for a serve.
Memphis Grizzlies center Kosta Koufos was at Tom Lee for the grand opening of RiverFit Fitness Trail Pop-Up Park
So what is Koufos' favorite part about playing volleyball?

"Ha! Definitely not serving," he answered, laughing. "Maybe spiking."

Koufos was at Tom Lee for the grand opening of the RiverFit Fitness Trail + Pop-Up Park. Presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee and the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation, it will run through November, giving Memphians the opportunity to experience the new riverfront and get fit, all at once.

What’s a pop-up fitness park? It's a sequence of six fitness stations--things like battle ropes and pull-up bars--plus volleyball courts and soccer fields. There are even rowing machines! That's right: on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., you can hop on a Concept2 Model D (on loan from Rhodes College and Crossfit 901) and row your heart out, while getting coached by professional fitness instructors.

The rowing is the brainchild of Simon Warren, a former Yale rower who currently teaches science at Soulsville Charter School.
Memphis Rowing led an urban rowing demonstration alongside the riverfront with the help of students from Soulsville Charter School
"I think Memphis has a lot of potential," says Warren. "Right now the biggest barrier to fitness is access. There are these opportunities out there, but kids don't know they exist, or they don't know how to get plugged in to them."

RiverFit is part of a 50-year redevelopment program headed by the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a nonprofit that uses taxpayer dollars to develop, program and market the city-owned properties along the banks of the Mississippi.

"When we started in 2000," remembers RDC Vice-President Dorchelle Spence, "there was no sidewalk on the west side of Riverside Drive. There was a steel fence. Visitors would try to walk down to the river, but there was nowhere for them to go. So they would walk back to the Peabody and watch the ducks swim around in the fountain."
Henry Turley tries out the new battle ropes at the RiverFit Fitness Trail
For the first ten years of its existence, the RDC focused on taking the 11 isolated, frequently inaccessible city parks along the banks of the Mississippi and connecting them to each other, and to the rest of Memphis. That meant building $10 million worth of sidewalks, stairways, pedestrian bridges, parking spaces and cycle paths.

That infrastructure work continues, but now the RDC has moved into the next phase of its 50-year plan: making the Memphis riverfront a destination for recreation and events.

Central to that vision is Beale Street Landing. At a cost of $43.6 million, it transforms two acres of scrub trees and inaccessible waterfront into a multi-use, public amenity that includes a modern docking facility, a restaurant, a gift shop, a play area for children and a civic gathering space.

"I think it's pretty cool!" says Christal Little, age 9. "We rode our bikes down here. I like to play in the fountain."

The first thing most people notice when they visit Beale Street Landing is the striking architecture, including an undulating, grass-covered roof that rises from street level to flow over the top of the Visitor Center. The design, by RTN Architects of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the result of an international competition among 171 firms from more than 20 countries.

To jury the competition, the RDC assembled a panel of architects, landscape architects and urban planners. RTN's design appealed to them because of the elegant way it solves the considerable problems of building along the banks of the Mississippi.

"Here in Memphis," says Spence, "the Mississippi rises and falls 57 feet every year. Most cities that have a similar rise and fall solve that problem with big, tall pillars that stick up in the air--but our designers were able to avoid that."

So how did RTN Architects solve the problem? By allowing the dock to float. Beale Street Landing’s 400-foot dock is perched atop two barges, connected to the land by an adjustable mooring arm and a giant, helix-shaped ramp.

When developing its concept for the new riverfront, the RDC took a tour of five cities: Baltimore, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Portland, Ore. Each of these cities has a riverfront that has been redeveloped to great acclaim, and the RDC hoped to replicate their success here in Memphis.

The resulting 50-year plan has attracted more than $22 million in federal and state grants. When fully implemented, it is expected to bring 250 new jobs to the city and stimulate more than $90 million in annual economic activity. The fact that it's also a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon--well, that's just a bonus.

Back at the volleyball courts, Grizzlies center Kosta Koufos was about ready to call it a day. At seven feet tall, with a 74-inch wingspan, he didn't have to jump to spike the ball over the net--he could just reach up. But the other players seemed willing to forgive his ridiculous advantage in exchange for a few star-struck selfies.

"We gotta do one for my son," said Jehmaximus Willis, holding up an iPhone. "He's a fan."

 For Kosta Koufos, the best thing about the new riverfront is the way it brings people together.

"It's great to see people working out in the fresh air," he remarked, walking off the volleyball court, "but it's even better to see them smiling."

Read more articles by John Minervini.

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