After reviewing the 20 riverfront plans issued since 1987, prominent city planner, urban designer, and author Jeff Speck said it best:

“The potentially easiest win on the Memphis riverfront is the reconfiguration of Riverside Drive.  While a vast improvement over the interstate highway that was once planned for this corridor, it still functions much like a highway, moving four to five lanes of traffic speedily through downtown, creating a high-speed barrier that discourages pedestrian activity and river access.  Does Riverside Drive need to take such a strictly automotive form?

“The answer to this question can be found each May, when one-half of the street is closed for two weeks and the entire street is closed for three weeks.  While presenting some temporary inconvenience as people adjust their paths, it is clear that the City’s grid of alternative north-south streets contains more than adequate capacity to absorb the trips typically handled by Riverside Drive.  Such an experience has been mirrored in American Cities from coast to coast, where highway removals have repeatedly failed to cause traffic crises.  From New York’s West Side Highway to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, removed road capacity has not had a negative impact on travel times.

“For this reason, and as further studied by transportation engineers at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, we have the luxury of asking ourselves what kind of street Riverside Drive wants to be.  Surely it can still hold cars, but the downtown would benefit tremendously if it were to hold cars moving a bit less speedily, alongside pedestrians and cyclists.  Additionally, the inclusion of parallel parking would both provide protection to its sidewalks while eliminating the need for parking lots within Tom Lee Park and at Beale Street Landing.”

A Better Riverfront

Mr. Speck reached his well-reasoned recommendation in 2013 after reviewing about 25 years of plans for improving the Memphis riverfront and drew liberally from the lessons in his latest book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time and his experience as director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts and Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co.  He is also the co-author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream as well as The Smart Growth Manual.  His TED talks and YouTube videos have been watched more than three million times.

Nelson Nygaard is one of the country’s most influential transportation planning firms, and it made a recommendation for configuring a two-lane Riverside Drive to make it safer, make the riverfront more accessible, and make the area more pedestrian-friendly.

Unfortunately, the test of a two-lane Riverside Drive set up by the city engineering department for 12 months ending May, 2015, was ill-conceived from the beginning.  It not only was not one of the proposed configurations recommended by Nelson Nygaard, but it created terrible optics with two lanes simply walled off from the other two with no obvious benefit from it.  Some suggested at the time that the engineers’ intent was to ensure that the pilot program failed, but we think that city government was simply unwilling to spend the money to do it right and gauge the change’s impact more accurately.

Put simply, a two-lane Riverside Drive has made sense in Memphis for years from the perspectives of livability and an overdue shift from car-centric planning, but it is now imperative with the design to transform the 30-acre pasture that is Tom Lee Park into the most spectacular park on the Mississippi River.

A Test Of Civic Maturity

Memphis has never handled change particularly well, and we see it once again with the overheated response to the prospects of a two-lane Riverside Drive as part of the plan for a grand riverfront.

At this point, there is a vocal minority of Memphis in May boosters who exhibit a “kill the park design at any cost” and who seem to be throwing out any disparaging complaint to see what sticks.  Included in this grab bag of protestations is putting Riverside Drive on a road diet.

Unfortunately, in keeping with the unfortunate realities of social media, there have been personal attacks on Memphis River Parks Partnership staff members (including suggestions that one who chose to move to Memphis should go back to where he came from) that have reflected poorly on the city’s ability to discuss issues maturely; there have been some comments opposing the park plan – particularly its basketball courts – because it will attract more of “those people”; and there are some old timers who seem more fixated on the way things have always been done than inspired by the possibilities for the future.

That said, we believe these scorched earth advocates are a minority, and we are confident that the staff and board of a festival, which was created decades ago to bring Memphis together, are not now involved in fueling divisiveness.  After all, there are people supporting the design of a great Tom Lee Park who were also involved in saving Memphis in May from bankruptcy…twice…and continue to do so.

Compelling Evidence

As we have blogged for about 10 years, Tom Lee Park – the city’s most valuable and most visible real estate – deserves a higher and better purpose than as a flat field – once called a moonscape by respected Memphis architect Frank Ricks – with isolated special uses scattered  sporadically in it.

In addition, we have been blogging for six years about the virtues of Riverside Drive becoming a two-lane street.

As Mr. Speck’s comments suggest, Memphis in May itself provides convincing proof that two lanes on Riverside Drive works.  More to the point, the engineering analysis for the pilot two-lane Riverside Drive dynamites the core criticisms leveled at the idea.  Contrary to the rhetoric, the two-lane trial run did not create chaos, it did not clog adjacent streets, it did not result in less traffic, and it did not slow down traffic.

Put another way, the engineers’ report concluded, using data gathered during at multiple points during the pilot program, Riverside Drive was safer for pedestrians and bikers, accidents were less severe, traffic counts on Riverside Drive did not decrease (note: the traffic counts for the street have been declining for years), drivers still exceeded the posted speed limits, and the two lanes did not result in more traffic moving on adjacent city streets.

Caring More About People Than Cars

The sometimes overheated comments about a two-lane Riverside Driver are reminiscent of a similar uproar over the City of Memphis’ engineering decision to put Madison Avenue on a road diet.  It was said that the change would lead to the demise of the artery, but following the change, there have been no problems in traffic moving smoothly and the parking spaces lining the street in Overton Square have contributed to its success.

The kneejerk response to these changes indicate how tenuous the movement for a more livable Memphis with higher quality public spaces is. After all, city streets are indeed public spaces – and in making Memphis’ public spaces better and in making a stronger commitment to urban design, we are in fact investing in a more successful Memphis.

A two-lane Riverside Drive is part and parcel to reimagining and animating the riverfront and making it Memphis’ premier public space.  It’s also about sending the message that Memphis’ positive national publicity in recent years about caring more about people than cars is no aberration.

Surely if there is one place in Memphis where cars should not get priority over people, it is the riverfront.

A More Livable City

It is now widely understood that traditional thinking here produced too many roads with too many lanes in too many places.  Lessons from other cities are convincing in the way they demonstrate that changes may be difficult, but once in place, they receive wide support and enhance the fabric of the cities.

In supporting Riverside Drive as “a complete street,” Mr. Speck pointed out how riverfront streets around the country – from Seattle to Chattanooga to Albany – are being changed, reconfigured, and even removed to increase the walkability of the riverfronts and to improve the livability that stimulates new economic growth.

Celebrated placemaker Gil Penalosa has pointed out that the path to a livable city can begin slowly but pick up speed and ultimately change a city’s character for the better.  We believe Memphis is on that kind of path and to speed up progress, we should reject those who tell us that it cannot be done.

Founder and chair of Toronto-based 8-80 Cities, whose mission is to bring citizens together to create more vibrant, healthy, and equitable communities,  Mr. Penalosa said: “Every city should have a law of two words – pedestrians first.  Livable cities start slowly.  They have public spaces that celebrate public life, including parks where people can gather, play and rest.  And they have clean, fast, public transportation that gives people choices about how to get around.  It is about designing streets for everybody and designing for pedestrians first – slow speeds, raised crosswalks, and next, make streets interesting for walkers.”

These may seem like pipe dreams to many people in Memphis, but it’s being done in cities all over the U.S., and we’re hard-pressed to understand why Memphis can’t join them.

Rejecting It’s Good Enough For Memphis

Gehl Studio, a design firm that began in Copenhagen, Denmark, and today has offices in the U.S., is celebrated for delivering on its motto, “Making Cities for People,” and two of its key designers Matt Lister and Blaine Merker provided their perspectives on the Memphis riverfront in 2016.

They described Tom Lee Park as an “underperforming space” (they accurately referred to it as an open field) that needed to be “designed for maximum use” and not just optimized for Memphis in May.  Mr. Merker, said that transforming the field into a signature public place requires “a commitment to saying, ‘we want a world-class park on our world-class riverfront,’” adding that this kind of quality space is not incompatible with the annual festival.

Memphis has long fought a battle with its own lack of self-worth and acted on a “it’s good enough for Memphis” attitude.  Surely, with all that is moving in a positive direction now, the city can shed its aversion to change once and for all and embrace the opportunities to transform the city and accelerate its progress.

A reimagined Tom Lee Park and a two-lane Riverside Drive would be proof positive that Memphis is indeed ready for a third century known for equity, an ambition for its public spaces to be the best, and a cocky self-confidence that we can come together to have both a great festival and a great park.

If the experts can see it, surely we can too.


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