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The New Bridge

After a decade on the river, a look back, and forward, at the RDC.

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Luckily for many of us, you don't have enroll in law school, take the bar, or even pretend to crack a book to enjoy the view from the University of Memphis' new downtown facility.

"Because of the bridge and the Hyde [Family Foundations] Plaza, we can allow others to see what our students see every day," U of M president Shirley Raines said at a ribbon cutting last week.

The event marked the Riverfront Development Corporation's (RDC) 10th anniversary — and simultaneously its 10th capital project — with the opening of the Court Avenue Pedestrian Bridge, spanning Court Avenue and connecting the law school to Confederate Park.

In the past decade, the RDC has built, among others, a traffic roundabout on Mud Island, five miles of bluffwalk, and shade structures in Tom Lee Park. It's seen its share of controversies with those projects as well as with the ongoing Beale Street Landing, plagued by cost overruns, construction delays, and plummeting public opinion.

For RDC president Benny Lendermon, one of the nonprofit corporation's biggest accomplishments has been simply "making the parks look like parks."

"When we took them over, the grass on the bluffs wasn't even being cut. People have a hard time remembering that," he said. "Riverside Drive didn't have a median. It was a super-highway."

As with the new $400,000 pedestrian bridge, Lendermon's priority for the RDC's near future is to make connections, linking the riverfront parks to the Greater Memphis Greenline and Shelby Farms.

"At some point, it needs to come up and connect to the Mississippi River. We have an easy connection. The hard part is getting it to us," Lendermon said.

The RDC board recently approved a new $200 million land-use plan for Mud Island that could reportedly take up to 50 years to implement. Lendermon described the future Mud Island as a 365-day-a-year destination with an improved amphitheater and museum, a ferris wheel, a skatepark, and more shops and restaurants.

The more skeptical among us might note that planning 50 years' worth of improvements — or five times longer than the RDC has been in existence now — is a symbolic gesture that, despite any controversy, the RDC doesn't plan on going anywhere.

The Beale Street Landing Project, currently under construction at the foot of Beale Street, needs an additional $6.6 million by next July. Earlier this year, council members initially balked at more than $10 million in capital funds from the city.

Without the additional $6.6 million, the RDC will have to shut down construction, a stoppage that Lendermon said would cost $2 million.

"If the project gets shut down, it can't stay that way. You can't leave a hole in the middle of the park," he said. "We're convinced we can make that work and construction won't stop."

Though the bulk of its funding has come from the city, proponents of the RDC argue that one of its strengths is its ability to leverage private dollars.

"Before the RDC was created, Pitt Hyde came down to the city and said, I have 'x' money I want to give to the city to improve the way downtown looks," Lendermon said, describing a series of meetings between public works, general services, parks, public works, code enforcement, and police. "No one was responsible for making it happen. He wasn't convinced it would get any better, so he took his money and went back to his house."

Which, perhaps, brings us back to the bridge.

The RDC's promenade plan may have includedseveral at-grade bridges overlooking Riverside Drive, but funding — and the impetus — for the newest bridge came from AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde.

In donating money to the law school, Hyde asked that half of the funding go to connecting the school with the river and the downtown promenade.

"The bluff was so neglected 13 years ago when I started talking about moving AutoZone downtown," Hyde said.

Will the RDC find funding to complete the landing? Lendermon is confident it will.

"When the Beale Street Landing is built, it will transform Tom Lee Park," he said. "Memphis will have a waterfront people will talk about."

The question is: What will they say?

To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/

InTheBluff.

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