Tom Lee Park is a room with a view, and it’s a magnificent view but the room is empty.
That’s because Tom Lee Park is essentially a field without any activity beyond the month of May or anything to make it more than a spectacular backdrop for joggers or more than a photo op for visitors.
When the park was expanded from a four-and-a-half-acre sliver in 1991 to 25 acres, it was about engineering, not placemaking. Carol Coletta, president of ArtPlace, a national creative placemaking program, says: “Tom Lee Park was an incredible civic gift from the engineers, but from the perspective of the visitor experience, it’s a wholly inadequate park. The question is, ‘How do we take that asset and make a park that lives up to its location?’”
It’s a question that’s come up in meetings about “How to Build a World-Class Riverfront” being conducted for the Riverfront Development Corporation by Caissa Public Strategies. Paige Walkup of Caissa says: “People say they enjoy the space, but there’s so much to be done to heighten the experience. Someone said that after she’s taken her child to see the view once, she has more to do in her neighborhood park.”
About a decade ago, city traffic engineers kicked off a controversy when they proposed to widen and straighten Riverside Drive, once again underscoring the words of former National Endowment for the Arts Director of Design Jeff Speck, who said three years ago that “Memphis should not leave the design of the city to traffic engineers.”
As part of the process to consider Riverside Drive’s options, Frank Ricks of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects prepared some rough drawings for three “rooms” at Tom Lee Park that responded to the needs of Memphis in May. “The park’s so long and linear and the three rooms could be created by trees or by an allee of trees lined up with the bluff stairway,” he says.
“It’s a world-class view, but it’s barren. It needs something to give it context and human scale.”
Ricks’ ideas also include performing space on the hill on the south end of the park, ways to get closer to the river, and a better urban boundary that removes the overgrowth of shrubs and plants at the river’s edge. Coletta says the park could benefit from a variety of landscapes, paving materials, and uses.
Landscape architect Ritchie Smith, referring to the ways the land can be contoured to make it more interesting, says: “If you assume Memphis in May remains there, I wonder if there are gentle land forms that could be created to make the park more interesting.”
If the decision was made to move Memphis in May, he says a master plan should be developed. Ideas could involve more trees and plantings, improved restrooms and pavilion, places for children to play, picnicking, sand beach volleyball, zones around the Tom Lee sculpture and obelisk, all park benches on pads adjacent to the sidewalks, and sculptural and dramatic land forms “to break the park into distinct areas to create definition so it’s not an undifferentiated treeless lawn with a monotonous topography.”
Now, Tom Lee Park embodies two drawbacks frequently found in public spaces here. First are the weak links to other nearby civic places. In the case of Tom Lee Park, that means it needs strong connections to Beale Street Landing (connections weakened with the present parking lot for Beale Street Landing) and Mud Island. “You have to connect Tom Lee Park psychologically and physically to Beale Street Landing,” says Ricks.
Second is an absence of programming and activities that distinguish great public spaces. At Tom Lee Park, there is no programming beyond the three weekend events of Memphis in May.
“It’s all or nothing,” says Coletta. “The park is programmed during Memphis in May, so today, we have a crescendo of activity and then we leave it as barren festival grounds for the rest of the year. I’m all for Memphis in May remaining downtown, but if it were mine to do, I’d move it out of Tom Lee Park. The park is one of our greatest untapped civic assets and it can be a great place.”
Today, Memphis squanders its potential to develop a park that lives up to one of the most spectacular river views in the U.S. Twenty years ago, Memphis backed into the decision for Tom Lee Park to be our festival grounds, but facing the opening of Beale Street Landing, it seems the perfect time to consider how Memphis can turn Tom Lee into a truly spectacular park.