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French Fort Redux

Blufftop neighborhood to get a facelift.

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Downtown's French Fort neighborhood has preserved its quiet, charming character for years, but changes on the horizon could make it Memphis' next cultural hotspot.

Both the Tennessee Department of Transportation's plans to begin work on a roundabout at the intersection of I-55 and Crump Blvd. and the proposed Harahan Bridge greenline project are expected to bring a new level of attention to the blufftop neighborhood. The Memphis Regional Design Center (MRDC) has stepped in to ensure French Fort thrives from the upcoming opportunities. MRDC, the residents of French Fort, and a number of developers took the first step in planning for the future last Saturday in a design meeting held in the neighboring National Ornamental Metal Museum.

"Both the roundabout and the Harahan Bridge Project are going to have a huge impact on French Fort," said Chooch Pickard, executive director of the MRDC. "The design we come up with is going to need to take into account being able to supply the commercial needs of those visiting the bridge [and those using the roundabout]."

At the meeting, residents were asked to imagine a design for their neighborhood that might mirror that of Mud Island's Harbor Town.

Ideas included art and gallery spaces, bicycle rentals, senior living facilities, a library, a new hotel, upscale condos and houses, and plenty of dining. The MRDC will begin working the best ideas into a master plan to be presented to residents at a later date.

Residents and developers paid special attention to the preservation of the area's historic significance. Ideas of building a visitor's center and museum, along with additional signage highlighting historic monuments, like ancient Native American burial mounds in DeSoto Park, were all discussed as ways to boost heritage tourism within the neighborhood.

The Harahan Bridge project, which will reopen the old rail bridge as a bike and pedestrian crossing over the Mississippi River and connect it with a planned extension of downtown's Riverwalk, is projected to dramatically increase visitors to the French Fort area.

"I think one of the important parts of the Harahan Bridge Project is the connector trail directly underneath the bridges to get to French Fort and the Metal Museum," said Greg Maxted, executive director of the bridge project. "We're going to have big numbers of people coming to walk across that bridge."

Pickard compared the Harahan Bridge project's impact on the neighborhood to that of the Highpoint Terrace area near the Shelby Farms Greenline. Business has been booming in that commercial center, home to Cheffie's Café, a hybrid bike shop, and a small grocery store, since the greenline opened last year.

Lauren Crews, developer and current owner of the Marine Hospital next to the Metal Museum, shared Pickard's sentiments.

"This is not scientific. It's just my gut," said Crews to French Fort residents. "Whatever impact you think this will have on the local community and our neighborhood, I think you've got to double it. People are going to visit and move into [the French Fort area] just so they can be close to the greenline."

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