Low-Water Blues

Beale Street Landing, near completion, has already seen it all.



The grand opening for Beale Street Landing should be a doozy.

From concept to completion, the $42 million signature riverfront project at the north end of Tom Lee Park has taken more than a decade. It is scheduled for completion later this year as a boat dock, gathering place, and indoor/outdoor restaurant.

Nothing has come easily. When the Riverfront Development Corporation began pitching the project years ago in public meetings, officials cautioned that river-stage fluctuations of 50 feet or more in a year would make it a challenge.

That prediction has come true and then some. Last year: record flood. This year: near record drought. Fluctuation: 54 feet.

What's more, Beale Street Landing sits at the mouth of the downtown harbor that is used by barges and the tour boats of the Memphis Riverboat Company. The southern tip of Mud Island grows like a tumor as silt and sand build up, bringing it ever closer to Tom Lee Park. The harbor entrance must be deep enough and wide enough for boat traffic, including the American Queen steamboat.

In June, the majestic American Queen — the upstart that revived the dormant overnight river cruise business and promises to bring thousands of free-spending tourists to Memphis — was unable to dock at Beale Street Landing due to low water and docked at the north end of Mud Island instead. Last weekend, the dock itself was unhitched from the cylindrical ramp and moved a few hundred yards inside the harbor next to the cobblestones.

"One of the few remaining items from the original contract is completing the dredging underneath the docks," said RDC spokeswoman Dorchelle Spence. "With the river at this very low level, it is an ideal time to do this work."

The U.S. Corps of Engineers will not do the work.

"Our authority to dredge is based on either an established harbor or an area being part of the main navigation channel," said spokesman Jim Pogue. "That area does not qualify. It will have to be done privately."

While the dredging is being done at the bottom level of the landing, workmen are getting ready to finish the colorful topper on the grassy hill over the restaurant and visitor center. In different renderings under consideration, the multi-named elevator tower/shed/bulkhead resembles a Rubik's Cube of multi-colored aluminum panels or, in a toned-down version, a graphic design that generally matches the rusty-red ramp.

The Downtown Memphis Commission Design Review Board meets Wednesday to discuss this sign of our times. Among the interested parties will be the group Friends For Our Riverfront, which has bird-dogged the project every step of the way.

"Having to disassemble the highly touted year-round boat dock and move it over to the forlorn and neglected Cobblestone Landing must have been a bit humiliating," said Friends champion Virginia McLean.

The biggest commercial user of the landing will be the Memphis Riverboats that now operate day trips from the cobblestones.

"I don't know how this is going to affect us," said William Lozier, president of the company. "The issue has always been parking down here. There are 52 parking spaces at the landing compared to seven acres of cobblestones. Once it's dredged out, our boats might stay at the dock if we can get it all squared away. We will definitely board there. I think it will be positive for us."

Restaurant operator Bud Chittom said he has been told that the opening date is still September. Having opened some 50 restaurants in his career, Chittom is not one to get overly excited about delays or last-minute changes to design details.

Asked what he thinks of the structure atop the grassy roof, he said, "I think it's pretty cool."

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