As director of Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, Jen Andrews has been on the front lines of what can fairly be called a green revival in Memphis. And she is amazed at how much change has occurred over the last decade, a rebirth that spans not just across the miles but now seems embedded in the city’s psyche.
“I feel like it’s a city that’s reinvented itself,” said Andrews, with the recent opening of the $52 million Heart of the Park project at Shelby Farms being one part of the revitalization. “It didn’t change who it was, but it reinvented itself – a sprawling city that chose to reconnect itself.
“I also feel there’s an optimism in the city that I didn’t feel when I started work here in 2006. Memphis has become a city that believes in making things better for the public realm. A lot of people who have come out to the park recently have said to me, `Gosh, we’re so lucky to have this here.’ And gratitude is important. But I hope eventually people will feel they deserve it.”
In a sense, it’s almost as though people – maybe especially those who grew up here – are working through the last vestige of an inferiority complex that was once foundational to being a Memphian.
If that’s so, then Heart of the Park, a portion of a $70 Shelby Farms Park Master Plan, is part of the therapy with its reimagined Patriot Lake, a sleek new Visitor Center and many other new or enhanced amenities.
Tina Sullivan, now executive director of Overton Park Conservancy, graduated Frayser High School in 1989, and then left Memphis and lived in several other cities, including San Diego and San Francisco, before coming back to town in 2009. She says she immediately felt a shift in the way the community viewed its green spaces.
“There’s a lot of excitement for the assets we have,” Sullivan said. “For the millennials, they think we have a great city, love Overton Park, moved to Midtown because of the walkability of the neighborhoods. I see a sense of civic pride that I do not recall from growing up in Memphis in the 1980s.”
So it’s a not a change that happened just last the decade, but more like, what, over the last 30 years? Joe Royer, co-founder of Outdoors Inc. back in 1974, says no, everything that is happening now started even earlier.
“All the people that wanted that 11-lane highway with no median right through the center of (Shelby Farms Park) are now big supporters of the park,” said Royer, who was an early member of Friends of Shelby Farms. “And that’s great. The same people that were in favor of Interstate 40 going through Overton Park are in favor of the Overton Park Conservancy.
“It’s been a 50-year effort,” Royer, 68, said, taking on the role of historian. “It hasn’t been a 10-year effort.”
Andrews and Sullivan are two of the presenters at the Tuesday, Oct. 11, Memphis Newsmakers Seminar: The Transformation of Parks & Greenways. Hosted by The Daily News Publishing Co., it will run from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Brooks Museum with a wine and cheese reception to follow. To register, contact email@example.com.
Joining Sullivan and Andrews as presenters are Doug Carpenter, principal of DCA and Explore Bike Share founder; Keith Cole, executive director of Wolf River Conservancy; and John Zeanah, deputy director of the Memphis & Shelby County Division of Planning and Development. The event will include a panel discussion moderated by Eric Barnes, publisher and CEO of The Daily News, and an interactive Q & A session with the audience.
Each presenter will have his or her own story to tell, but those stories in many cases intersect and overlap physically and philosophically.
Zeanah served as program manager for the Mid-South Greenprint, a 25-year plan to create 500 miles of greenway trails and 200 miles of bicycle paths/lanes by 2040. It’s an enormous undertaking, including Shelby and Fayette counties in Tennessee, Crittenden County in Arkansas and DeSoto County in Mississippi. Also, 18 other municipalities have signed on, Zeanah said.
Cole points to all of these projects and others, such as the Harahan Bridge, as having a growing power because of their relation to one another: “Take all of these, roll them up together, it’s like a tsunami.”
And you can’t have a tsunami without a big body of water. Royer, whose company for more than 30 years has put on a canoe and kayak race on the Mississippi River, believes the river is the starting point for much of the good that has happened in Memphis. Not to mention the river’s place as a living history lesson – without which there would be no civic conversation about the transformation of parks and greenways and bike paths across 700 miles and three states.
“We have this magnificent river,” Royer said. “Largest river in North America. And I don’t think we’ve scratched the finger yet on how important it is. I think every school kid from Little Rock and Birmingham and Nashville and Atlanta ought to be coming to Tom Lee Park for a school trip. When it snows in Yellowstone, it flows by Tom Lee Park. When you’re watching Monday Night Football, the sleet in (Pittsburgh) is flowing through Memphis.”
Said Carpenter: “Downtown’s greatest asset is its river. That’s why this town is here, why the industry is here.”
Carpenter says the river has framed Memphis to this point, adding, “Creativity is developed when there are parameters. Having an empty slate is harder than having to work with a constricted process. Downtown can’t grow in the water and you can’t go into the flood plain. So we’re forced to move north and south and there are restrictions to some degree. East runs out and our sprawl has not been a great thing.”
What’s going on now with parks and greenways, he says, has a role to play in the “recruiting and retention” of people in Memphis. The Wolf River Greenway, Heart of the Park, Overton Square, Explore Bike Share and other efforts are all part of attracting and keeping businesses and employees while changing daily life for citizens already here.
Or as Sullivan said: “It’s both the right way to live and the right way to do business.”
WHAT PROGRESS LOOKS LIKE
When Cole started at the Wolf River Conservancy (WRC) in 2011, the Greenway was a “20-year project.” Then came a generous donation from the Hyde Family Foundations and now the timeline is for the approximately 25-mile Greenway to be finished by 2019 or 2020.
Construction of a Greenway Raleigh segment on 120 acres of WRC land began in August. The Mud Island to Second Street segment is being started this month. Kennedy Park in Raleigh and bordering Frayser is one of the city’s largest and most underused parks and Cole concedes the park has had crime problems, but believes the Greenway can be part of cleaning that up.
“We believe we’re doing so much more than building a 12-foot wide hiking and biking path,” he said. “The real success is in how the community uses it.”
Overton Park Conservancy long has been improving pedestrian, wheelchair and bike access to the park. The park is also moving forward with an Urban Forestry Fellowship program in conjunction with Rhodes College, in which students are trained to identify ecological strengths and weaknesses on site – gauging the health of trees, gaps in the canopy, and the state of the forest floor.
But it’s the Greensward issue about the parking of cars on the park’s lawn that generated the big headlines and inspired protests.
“That controversy had both positive and negative long-term effects,” Sullivan said. “Obviously, it has been a distraction for our staff and our board. And we incurred costs not anticipated and that could have an impact on the budget long-term. But it re-energized advocates. Now we have a broader base of supporters and shareholders.”
Carpenter says Shelby Farms Park hasn’t just made some improvements, but “re-introduced a public asset that is resort-style quality and there for every citizen.”
Other enhancements tied to Heart of the Park: a stunning Events Center with a signature restaurant that has indoor and outdoor seating; a new water playground and Wetlands Walk; an event stage and picnic pavilions; and separate walking and cycling paths around Patriot Lake.
“Heart of the Park is likely the biggest thing we’ll ever do – the centerpiece of our master plan,” said Andrews.
Going forward, she says the task is to make good on the mission of operating well and using the revenue generated by improvements to tend to the park’s ecosystem. Still to be resolved is the proposed Shelby Farms Parkway that ostensibly would ease traffic congestion around the park with only limited environmental disruption. (That, like the Overton Park Greensward, is its own debate).
Explore Bike Share, which Carpenter hopes will be wheels on the ground by next spring, could be the ultimate moving link that connects everything. A 501 (c) (3), Explore Bike Share has raised $2.2 million of the $4 million needed to launch with 600 bikes across 60 stations within the Interstate 240 Loop.
Current plans upon launch call for 27 stations in Downtown, 15 in Midtown, five each in Binghampton, Orange Mound and South Memphis, and three in Uptown.
“Bike Share systems work on density,” Carpenter said, noting they are in about 115 markets in the United States and only partly geared toward tourism. “We want to make sure we’re making strides with transportation options. And we’ll have a cash option for the unbanked, and a lot of programs related to education and health that can increase utilization.”
Carpenter also says they have “built a financial model very conservative on revenue” and he is confident once they have the funds to launch the program it will be sustainable long-term. That opens up the opportunity to go well beyond the initial footprint and eventually perhaps go to the outer reaches of the three-state Greenprint.
“So much of the data we’ve seen, not just in our region but in other regions, is that there is an economic impact (from greenways and bike paths),” Zeanah said. “There’s an uptick in home values. It attracts large-scale investment with business and jobs.”
Times change. Cities change.
“Denver was a cow town until they embraced the mountains,” Royer, of Outdoors Inc., said. “Use what you got.”
Memphis and the Mid-South seem to be doing just that.
“There’s a lot of momentum,” Andrews said. “And as people understand what’s possible, they’ll push for more.”
Carpenter agrees and believes the next major transformation – already in progress – will happen along the riverfront.
The momentum is perhaps also aided by aging baby boomers wishing to remain active. While Memphis isn’t Florida, it is a warmer option for retirees looking to migrate from the North. They just might be thrilled to have all this green space available for biking, hiking, running or walking; Big River Crossing, for example, will connect to about 70 miles of levee trail stretching from Downtown Memphis to Marianna, Ark.
“Downtown is kinda like being on vacation,” Carpenter said. “You have all these assets at your doorstep. You’ve got a river, walking paths, merchandise, retail, food and beverage. It’s a great place to be. There is more of out-of-town investment. The interest in the riverfront is at a fever pitch and is going to demand thoughtful responses. Status quo and maintenance won’t suffice. There is too high of a bar set.”
Memphis minds, in other words, have been forever changed.
“This city no longer accepts acceptable,” Carpenter said. “We’ve moved past generic. We’ve got a lot of style to keep up.”