At the request of Mayor A C Wharton, Speck reviewed some 20 riverfront plans dating back more than 30 years. He gave a nice straightforward 90-minute talk to about 125 people at the Memphis Cook Convention Center Monday. Speck showed familiarity with the past, present, and future of the riverfront. He was last here for an extended visit in 2008, but also remembers the 2002 grand vision that included a land bridge and high-rise buildings on Front Street. He called it "as imaginary as it was imaginative."
"The last thing the city needs is another plan," he said.
Here are his six suggestions, along with my comments.
The Pyramid: Its connection should be to Main Street, not Front Street. The Pinch should focus on attracting people from conventions, not travelers on the interstate. Bass Pro "still has a long way to go" to understand the city. Speck suggests selling off four acres on Bass Pro Boulevard (the southern entryway next to the state visitors center) for private development and turning the boulevard into two or three lanes of car traffic and a lane for bikes and pedestrians.
Comment: I watched the Tunica casinos come out of the ground in 1994-1995. There was an incredible sense of drive, mission, and urgency. The Bass Pro Pyramid does not have that. I doubt it will meet the 2013 opening deadline. The boulevard is small change.
Mud Island Park: Still disconnected from the rest of downtown. Needs stairs to the monorail from the visitor center. Speck suggests a water taxi from Beale Street to the tip of the island. He thinks the park should be open year round. Speck did not comment on the naming controversy over Jefferson Davis Park, which is just south of the visitor center. He said this park is "the next great waterfront opportunity."
Comment: Visitor experts overestimate Mud Island River Park every time. Memphians are bored by it, and it attracts very few tourists. It is closed six months for a reason.
Riverside Drive: Shrink it from four lanes to three lanes or two lanes. Include a buffered bike lane and a lane for parallel parking. Take the parking lots out of Tom Lee Park and next to Beale Street Landing. Keep Memphis in May in the park. Break the park up into small areas separated by trees.
Comment: A $42 million boat dock with a restaurant with no parking lot. Yikes.
The Cobblestones. Speck said it is about impossible to make it usable and historically accurate at the same time, given the demands of accessibility and preservationists. He said the RDC should finish the project and add light structures "draping" on it.
Comment: The man has done his homework.
The Riverwalk: By this he meant the sidewalk and Bluff Walk going from the Pyramid to Martyr's Park. It now leaves the riverfront and goes behind the law school and into South Bluffs residential development. Speck suggests making it more linear and always within sight of the river. The walk should be extended between the Church of the River and Channel 3's offices to the French Fort area south of the Harahan Bridge.
Comment: The section along the railroad tracks between Union and Madison is a pain, but I like the dogleg through South Bluffs. Those who want to stay in sight of the river can take the 84 steps down from the Bluff Walk to Tom Lee Park at Huling Street and follow it south to where it ends near the church.
Beale Street to Beale Street Landing: Needs "edging" — development along Beale Street by the parking lots near the river, once envisioned as the site of One Beale, a tall hotel and condo. The Harahan Project needs something on the West Memphis side in the floodplain, maybe just a loop trail and a pavilion, because Main Street West Memphis (the other half of the "Main Street to Main Street" idea) is too far away.
Comment: The fact that there is basically nothing on the bluff at the corner of Beale and Riverside Drive, a pretty famous American intersection, is sad. This corner, like the Pinch on the north end of downtown, actually had more activity 30 years ago when Captain Bilbo's was around.
To learn more about Speck and his 74 pages of observations and proposals, visit the city of Memphis website.