$75 million redevelopment planned for Memphis Riverfront

On May 22, the State of Tennessee approved a necessary piece that could transform Memphis' puzzle of an underutilized Riverfront.  

The State Building Commission’s executive committee agreed to expand Memphis' Downtown Tourism Development Zone to encompass the Riverfront and Mud Island Park. This modification means that more public funds can be used to redevelop these areas without draining the City's operating budget. 

While Downtown is drawing employers and visitors, pockets still exist Downtown that require attention, like the along the Riverfront. 

The TDZ expansion complements efforts made by the Fourth Bluff Project, a collection of leaders backed by the Kresge Foundation and charged with reimagining Memphis' relationship to the river. 

Each partner carries a stake in the revitalization project, either by proximity or mission.

“It’s a series of small connected elegant moves along the riverfront. As the mayor says, we’ve got a good riverfront because we’ve got a great river, but we don’t have a great riverfront. I think that’s what together we want to make it,” said Carol Coletta, Memphis River Parks Partnership during a May 8 panel discussion about the Fourth Bluff Project hosted by ULI Memphis.

Aerial view of the Fourth Bluff includes right to left: Cossitt Library, U of M Law School Promenade, Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park (Groundswell)

The project is centered on four blocks in Downtown Memphis that were deeded by the city’s founders for public use. Among the assets along the Promenade are the Cossitt Library, Riverline Trail, Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park. The goal is to link high traffic public areas Downtown with these underutilized ones. Obstacles often range from physical, economic, socioeconomic, cultural, and political.

For instance, the statue of Jefferson Davis, the South’s president during the Civil War,  was featured prominently for decades in what is now Memphis Park. It was by design an impediment to inclusion. It has recently been removed, along with other Jim Crow-era monuments placed in city parks.

“These assets are so close together; it’s just such a good opportunity. We knew the statue was a major barrier to that park being active and welcoming,” said Coletta.

So far, $75 million has been earmarked for phase one of the Riverfront redevelopment. It will include improvements to Tom Lee Park and Riverside Drive. Mississippi River Park is also slated for upgrades with construction scheduled to begin June 1 and end around Labor Day in early September.

“I think the money is well within reach and we have a fantastic board of civic leaders working to raise that money and make sure the plan comes together in a timely way. This is not a plan that is sitting on a shelf,” said Coletta.

“People are kind of hungry for another place to be and interact with people they may or may not know that is beyond school, home, or work. These sleepy assets are very likely to be a wonderful opportunity for Memphians and people in other cities to find that space,” said Justin Entzminger, executive director of Innovate Memphis.

A rendering of an activated Memphis Park. (Groundswell)

Efforts have already been made to awaken these Downtown assets. Lights were placed at Cossitt Library and Memphis Park to draw attention to their locations.  A seasonal ice rink was placed in Memphis River Park, and RiverPlay, a pop-up park on Riverside Drive, also drew people to the Riverfront in the past year.

“It went to a place where most people didn’t visit and over the course of a year, 15,000 people visited just in those two pilot efforts alone,” said Entzminger.

People have also turned out for “Fourth Bluff Fridays” and weekly yoga programming in Memphis Park.

While money, programming and awareness campaigns have been effective in limited trials, other problems persist in breaking down barriers to engagement. Poverty and homelessness are everyday realities for inhabitants of the Downtown district.

Instead of treating the poor as a nuisance, Fourth Bluff, and the larger Reimagining the Civic Commons national initiative to which Memphis' effort belongs, are striving for a mixture of economic backgrounds to visit and commune in these areas.

One partner that is following that approach is the Cossitt Library. Founded in 1893, the historic library has long been a space for the local homeless population. Recently, it has been undergoing renovations.

“We are designing Cossitt for everyone. Public libraries are kind of like the last great neutral ground. We are divided by so many things, race, belief, identity. The library opens the door and welcomes everyone,” said Shamichael Hallman, manager of Cossitt Library.

The digital age has been rough on local libraries, Hallman admits. 

“You can’t get an experience on Google. In the library you can meet that person. You can talk to those people. In a library, in a public space, you can talk to other people that have other thoughts and different opinions about things,” said Hallman.

Hallman also pointed to the digital divide that exists in this country. Some kids do their homework on their phone instead of a laptop while others don’t own a phone and much less have an internet connection.

“There are a whole lot of other people that don’t have that. The library serves that very vital need,” said Hallman.

Eventually, the goal of the Reimagining the Civic Commons program is to link revitalized areas to those still on the margins on a national scale, community by community. By connecting these areas, there is potential that South Memphis, for example, could see a rebound not unlike Cooper-Young.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.