Memphis has a remarkable riverfront that made this city, but hasn’t gotten much love in return.
Carol Coletta plans to change that.
In 1924, the first comprehensive vision of the unattractive space was offered by the nationally renowned city planner Harland Bartholomew. It didn’t get far but there have been plenty of other studies, ideas, and projects since then, and while we have Tom Lee Park and Mud Island, there’s not much in the way of a unifying concept.
In April, Coletta took over as president of the Memphis River Parks Partnership, formerly known as the Riverfront Development Corporation. And she brings considerable energy and knowledge to further a concept that’s already under way.
Last year, the urban design company Studio Gang unveiled its idea for a six-mile stretch along the river that, as it says, could be “distinctive places offering activities and experiences that appeal to people of all generations, incomes, races, and backgrounds.” It identifies five zones along the riverfront: the Fourth Bluff, Mud Island, Tom Lee Park, MLK/Riverside Park, and Greenbelt Park. The consultants researched and extensively interviewed organizations and citizens about what they wanted to see in a revitalized riverfront.
The plan was guided by these principles: “Foster positive encounters, civic pride and identity, and new understanding of the Mississippi River; restore natural conditions, native ecology, and a more dynamic relationship between people and the river; and connect assets along the river, the riverfront to the city (downtown and the neighborhoods beyond), and people with each other.”
There are, generally speaking, three levels of making this happen — short, medium, and long-term. As Coletta says, it has to be malleable as time and circumstances change. But the idea will be that eventually the six-mile-long public riverfront will have bike trails, playgrounds, parks, performance areas, and plazas. Moreover, every zone will have greatly improved access.
The Studio Gang concept has already prompted at least one potential dramatic change with the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art hoping to move to a site on Front Street. In a letter to friends of the museum, Brooks officials say the concept is “a remarkably thoughtful, cogent, and actionable blueprint for reawakening portions of our historic riverfront that have been too dormant for far too long.”
Coletta says several elements of the project drew her in, particularly how Tom Lee Park might evolve. “We want to make it much better and even less expensive on Memphis in May to help them get in and out of the park quickly,” she says. “And once they get out, to have a great park for Memphians 365 days a year.” This is already under way, she says, with festival consultants checking out the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Beale Street Music Festival to see how the infrastructure might be improved. “What you really want to do is make sure that Memphis in May has a good, stable location with good utilities and can set up quickly, safely without damage to the park at all.”
She stresses that it is a concept and not a detailed plan. “When I look at that concept, I see a set of small, elegant, connected moves along the entire riverfront with an emphasis on connections and a de-emphasis on any one big, bold stroke,” Coletta says. “Not one silver bullet that’s going to save our riverfront, but rather understanding that the power of a riverfront is the connectedness and the continuous. That’s one reason we changed our name, to reflect that.”
Coletta sees the concept developing on different levels and at different speeds as important to doing it right. Some elements can be built or adapted fairly quickly, others will require a bit more time, and more ambitious projects may be years down the road.
“There are small tweaks design-wise, small tweaks operation-wise, and certainly a lot more activation this summer,” she says. “You’ll start to see things immediately on the riverfront. We also think that there are certain aspects of the riverfront that we need to do, and we need to do right and completely.” One such priority for her is slowing traffic on Riverside Drive, traffic that has, she says, knocked down six light poles and a fence in six months and which does not augur well for increased pedestrian activity.
“We need to think what will deliver an experience that people recognize as a significantly elevated experience,” she says. “I also think if you look at the way Shelby Farms developed, first some of the adventure aspect, then they did the playground, then they did the lake. They bought time for themselves, and let people enjoy the park in the near term, while they took away the lake to make something much bigger. I think we need to use that same sort of strategy as we work through the riverfront. Here’s an example: We could do, with the help of the city of Memphis, a street bike connection to MLK/Riverside Park much sooner than we could do a riverfront connection. Ultimately, we want a riverfront connection, but I’ll take a street option to get that connection between MLK/Riverside Park and Big River Crossing and the heart of downtown.”
The city of Memphis is the key partner for the re-christened and re-energized Memphis River Parks Partnership. “Our new name reflects the fact we’ve got to work in partnership with the city of Memphis and the citizens of Memphis,” she says. “So I do think that concept telegraphs a future in some ways that are more specific than most concepts.”
Coletta says it’s a long list of partners. “First of all, the city of Memphis owns the land,” she says. “We steward it for them on behalf of the citizens of Memphis. Because Memphians still make up the majority of the county, I think we also have an opportunity to be partners with county government, and I look forward to that. I think the county deserves great credit for the investment they made in Shelby Farms. That raised the bar for everybody. And there are the state and federal governments. But beyond that, as far as I’m concerned, everybody in this region has a stake in what happens downtown and the riverfront. I did some on-site surveying of people in Tom Lee Park and on the bluff walk for the concept. We had 4,000 surveys come in, and it was amazing to me. We plotted where everyone lived, and they live all over the area.”
Beyond the recreational users, there are businesses and residents downtown and in neighborhoods north and south. “People feel kinship,” she says. “They want to volunteer. So it’s beyond our governmental partners and our donor partners. People are seeing a transformed riverfront as something that will bring new value to their business or their real estate investment or their home, or their neighborhood. That’s what happens when you run something that is owned by everybody.”
Coletta is a senior fellow with the Kresge Foundation, a former vice president of Community and National Initiatives for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, led the two-year start-up of ArtPlace, and was president and CEO of CEOs for Cities. She’s been on the board of the River Parks Partnership for two years, but was involved with it when it was created in 2000. “That was early in my consulting life,” she says. “When I came back home two years ago, I saw that we were stalled. I felt like our riverfront was the jewel waiting to be claimed.” Kresge funded travel for Coletta and some of the staff to visit riverfronts in three cities — Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit — to see ways to make the one in Memphis work.
More support came along and last year, RDC’s longtime president Benny Lendermon decided to retire, saying a new staff would be needed to carry out the ambitious concept. Coletta was on the board and was approached about taking the job. “Yes, we needed to make a beautiful riverfront,” she says. “Yes, we needed to carry out the Studio Gang concept. But my question was: Can we make this catalytic for the city, the county, and the region, and most especially for downtown and north Memphis and south Memphis adjacent to the riverfront? That’s where it got interesting to me. The riverfront is sort of the power we haven’t claimed. It’s linear. It goes north and south. So can you make downtown connected to north and south Memphis in a way that takes the growing momentum of downtown and push it not just east, which I love, yay, but push it also north and south?”
It’s a grand ambition — and a tough haul. “Nobody’s done this,” she says, “but if we could, we‘d be on the map. Every urbanist in the country, if not the world, would be coming to Memphis, going ‘Show me how you made the riverfront an equity play.’”