During the early 1990s, Mike and Eloise Moffatt were living in downtown’s Riverset apartments, when they read an article about a residential development north of them on Mud Island. Curious about what it offered on such a sandy strip of land, they wound up buying one of the first lots. Standing today on their beautifully landscaped deck, Eloise gestures around to the lush growth — beyond which you might catch a glimmer of The Pyramid — and says, “This was all just sand at first, and when the wind blew, that sand would settle right there on the window ledge.”
Since 1992 the Moffatts have lived in their peach-colored plantation-style home at Harbor Town, watching the area grow from a handful of residents to a community boasting over 2,000 inhabitants. They remember when they had to drive to Midtown or West Memphis for groceries, and today they list the many conveniences their neighborhood offers, from restaurants and retail stores to schools and a health clinic. They recall when Eloise’s family “thought we’d lost our minds,” she laughs. And Mike tells of having to bring church friends over on a bus because they feared driving through downtown.
Now both retired (they owned and operated Mid-South Casters and Equipment), the Moffatts have enjoyed the proximity of the river, music concerts at Harbor Town parks, and the many friends they’ve made. “People will come through looking for a street,” says Eloise. “We ask who they’re looking for, instead of the address.”
Asked if they ever expected Harbor Town to grow into a vibrant community now marking its 25th anniversary, Mike says, “We didn’t really know. But it has far exceeded our expectations. We’ve been extremely happy and don’t plan on leaving.”
As for those who questioned the Moffatts’ sanity, Eloise laughs and says, “Now we’re visionaries!”
“I was the very boy for the job,” says Henry Turley.
“It scared me.”
The land on which Harbor Town sits came about through an act of nature. For years this pile of sand and silt had been pushed downstream by the Mississippi River and grew into a long narrow island that blocked the city’s waterfront. Memphians, with no luck, tried various means to rid themselves of it, from blasting it with dynamite to cutting trenches through it to flood it. The old sandbar didn’t budge.
During the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised the island above the 100-year floodplain and dredged a causeway that connected the northern end of the island with the mainland. In the 1970s, C.H. Butcher’s banking empire bought the land and lobbied for the state to construct a bridge to the island. The bridge was funded and eventually built, but a scandal brought down the Butcher empire, and the FDIC acquired the land.
Finally, the city, under then-Mayor Dick Hackett’s leadership, converted 65 acres on the southern tip of the island into Mud Island Park, which opened in 1982. When the new bridge — now called A.W. Willis Bridge, in honor of twentieth-century Memphis’ first black state legislator — opened several blocks north of the park in 1987, folks began to wander over to see what lay beyond.
Meanwhile, a native son named Henry Turley was beginning to change the face of downtown Memphis, as he redeveloped such old properties as the Shrine Building, 88 Union Center, Parking Can Be Fun, and on the south end of downtown, the area’s first residential condominium projects, Riverbluff Place and Chickasaw Bluffs, both built in the 1980s.
Sitting in his office in the Cotton Exchange Building, which he also redeveloped, Turley, now 73, recalls those years when he first committed to bringing downtown Memphis back.
“I think I knew, more viscerally than other people did, that it needed to be done,” says Turley. “I looked around and thought who would do it? And I could see nobody on the horizon but me. I was the very boy for the job. It scared me. I’d never built anything and didn’t get my first building permit until 1977.
“I kept redeveloping these buildings, but in order to get what they now call ‘scale,’ I needed to up the volume. And where could I do that? The answer was that piece of land on Mud Island, and at the opposite end of downtown, South Bluffs. That started some controversy with people saying you’re going to overload the market. I say no, you validate the market. You make people feel like it’s normal behavior to live down here.
“People ask me how I got all the good real estate. Hell, I was the only one in the game! So I could say, ‘I’ll take Herschel Walker. I’ll take Michael Jordan . . .’”
“I just decided to build a place that I thought people would like.”
Regarding “this unique island,” Turley explains, “my first thought was that it’s precious, and it should be treated so. I wanted to enable citizens to take full advantage of the water and of downtown.”
He had first explored it when the land’s former owner, the late Eddie Sapinsley, drove Turley over before the Butchers bought it. “Eddie said, ‘Isn’t this great? You need to buy it, Henry.’ I told him he should sell it to somebody with more political clout, somebody who can get a bridge built. And C.H. Butcher got that job done. He also pushed to build an expressway around it but some of us put up a fight about that. Then C.H. got in trouble for pilfering from his own banks and went to jail. And the land came available.”
Turley approached developer and friend Jack Belz, of Belz Enterprises, with whom he’d worked on other projects, about partnering with him to build Harbor Town. “We’d just made a wad of money selling Oak Court Mall,” says Turley. “And Jack’s ready for anything, plus he knows the riverfront.” Joining Turley and Belz as partners in the project was Meredith McCullar, of Meredith McCullar Realty. Together they formed Island Properties Associates, and in 1987 they purchased the 130-acre Harbor Town site for $2.25 million.
“I wanted it dense, with mixed uses and mixed prices and sizes.”
When it came to launching the project, Turley was at first “a little bit stumped.” He says he knew two forms of development — urban blocks in the city and old suburban streets that looked like Carr Avenue or Chickasaw Gardens in midtown. “Then I just decided to build a place I thought people would like. I wanted the neighborhood to have a school and a grocery. I wanted it dense, with mixed uses and mixed prices and mixed sizes. I wanted it to be nice for kids and for old folks. And I wanted them not to be at the mercy of their cars. Put the car in the back and the porch on the front because there’s not a better way for social interaction than a porch.”
To design his vision, Turley sought the direction of RTKL Associates of Baltimore. “We had good architects here but they weren’t familiar with this type development,” says Turley. About three weeks after meetings in Baltimore and Memphis, a plan was in place. Says Turley: “The folks at RTKL got it so very right,” says Turley. “And we pretty well built what they laid out.”
The complex — with its broad and well-integrated mix of housing types, sizes, and price ranges — lies east of Island Drive, the main road running the length of Mud Island to the Wolf River Harbor. Running eastward from Island Drive is Harbor Town Boulevard, which ends at a park called Settlers Point, with a view of the Wolf River and the Memphis skyline. Two other boulevards intersect Harbor Town, each terminating in a village green surrounded by homes.
Tree-lined streets wind past distinctive homes, primarily of wood and stucco, that bring to mind styles of centuries past. Streetlamps are reminiscent of nineteenth-century lighting, and cast-iron mailboxes adorn decorative posts. Most garages open on to back streets, not on the front of the homes. At every turn, luxuriant greenery meets the eye. Six parks mark the complex and, with a nod to wetlands conservation, ponds help form the 100-foot-wide Greenbelt Park that encircles the complex. Hiking and nature trails follow the banks of the ponds that are stocked with fish, and several species of ducks make Harbor Town their home.
The complex is designed around three neighborhoods. In the center is the garden district, which includes townhouses, zero-lot-line houses, and larger, detached homes. The village district at the north end contains apartments and houses in a higher density setting. The harbor district to the south offers apartments, condominiums, and townhouses.
“I knew if I could get 345 people into those first apartments, I’d have a population to build upon.”
At first, builders and architects shied away from the project. After all, Turley was bucking a centuries-old trend of Memphis’ eastward development, and even old friends had doubts about his plans. But in 1989, Harbor Town’s infrastructure was put in place, ponds and wetlands were dedicated, and construction began on the first single-family home, known as the WKNO Auction House, designed by Memphis architect Carson Looney of Looney Ricks Kiss.
“We knew people wouldn’t purchase ‘experimental spaceship homes,’” says Looney, whose role was design architect and later town architect for the project. “But there was a desire for a fresh and livable type home where the place and neighborhood become part of the buying experience.” Because the house was off the riverfront, Looney and his colleagues showed how window placement could capture borrowed views of the river, the skyline, and the interior parkway. “That first house met with great reviews and helped the first group of six homes get off the ground,” says Looney.
Before many houses went on the market, however, an apartment complex, the Arbors at Harbor Town, opened first, in 1991. Turley had good reason for this: “I learned quickly, or anticipated, that people are a lot more willing to make a short-term commitment than a 30-year mortgage. And I knew if I could get 345 people into those apartments, I’d have a population to build upon. It was the right thing to do because when we started building houses, we could show that we already had about 600 attractive young people living there and having a big time on the river.”
Over the next few years, by 1994, more amenities were added to “that unique piece of land” — the Memphis Yacht Club, a 50-slip marina, a school (see “School Days” on page 65), and finally in 1998 the Harbor Town Square retail development. Henry Turley’s vision was shaping up into a thriving community.
“I wanted porches considered living areas. Because here they are.”
Teaming up with Turley in shaping that vision was Tony Bologna, a local architect, long-time colleague, and vice president of Henry Turley Company. The two had worked together on other downtown redevelopment projects, and he had accompanied Turley to Baltimore, where the RTKL staff had compiled a massive list of guidelines for designing and building the homes.
“One of my first tasks was to simplify those guidelines,” says Bologna. To do that, he hired five architectural firms, and together they whittled down the book to 20 pages so that builders had a clearer idea of what Turley wanted to accomplish. “We didn’t deviate,” he says. “We stuck to those guidelines. Somebody wanted to buy 10 lots. We wouldn’t allow that. They could buy no more than three lots until they had closed on those and started construction.”
Looney also played a role in the guidelines process. When helping a committee decide on a design for the WKNO Auction House, he had used an image board showing various home designs, from transitional to traditional to modern. “That board was used so often that it became tattered and worn,” says Looney. “I used the format to devise visual guidelines and we hung them on the walls of the sales center. People would come in and pick out an image and say, ‘That’s cool, that’s what I’d like.’ These images also showed what was appropriate and what was not.”
To give a lighter look to the construction, only wood and stucco were allowed. “We didn’t want brick because it looks so much more massive,” says Bologna. “Once we had a lot more homes built, we began to interject brick. But we don’t allow two brick homes right beside each other.”
Variety was encouraged in style and color and soon extended to lot size. Most lots were 50 feet wide, but some builders wanted smaller lots. “So we identified a location to create five 30-foot wide lots and the first one sold quickly,” says Looney. “We knew we had found a sweet spot. So we set out to redivide the previous 50-foot lots into groups of 30 feet and came up with a new version of Charleston row-homes.”
“Look up ‘urban’ and the dictionary says ‘mixed-use.’ Exactly what we have.”
During those early years, Turley and Bologna had to convince local appraisers to give fair value to the Harbor Town properties. Says Turley: “I had [then-county appraiser] George Long in my office and the poor bastard had to sit here and listen as I told him, ‘George, I’ve done something a little extraordinary down here,’ and I explained about smaller lots, denser development, mixed development, apartments next to houses, etc. And I wanted the porches considered living areas because they are, and we wanted people out there talking to their neighbors. That was a big thing I wanted him to understand.”
Bologna, too, pushed for better understanding about Harbor Town: “I made one presentation after another, at least one a week — to Rotary, Kiwanis, appraisers, anybody who’d listen so we could get fair value. It took several years but we were finally heard.”
Relating an interesting side note to his conversation with Long, Turley recalls how he first learned about Seaside, a resort development on the Florida panhandle between Destin and Panama City Beach, to which Harbor Town is sometimes compared. “Not long after we talked, George called me and said, ‘Do you take the Atlantic Monthly?’ I told him no, I’m a developer, not an intellectual. He says, ‘All that stuff you were telling me is contained in an article in that magazine.’
“So I go over to the World News and plow through all the stripper and muscle magazines until I find an Atlantic Monthly. I open the damn thing and nearly get run over getting back to my office. Here was this article about Seaside, and a [similar development Battery Park City on the lower Manhattan].
“As I read that article and saw the pretty pictures,” continues Turley, “I remember thinking I’m at once pleased that I’m not way out on a limb by myself with this. But I was also pissed that these bastards copied my idea!
“But they didn’t. It seems the folks there thought it up on their own, and so did I. Kinda like the Indians of different tribes thought up arrowheads in Alaska and Florida.”
Indeed, mixed-use development of islands date back at least to the 1920s, when the Davis Islands community in Tampa was built, and they’re found in numerous cities around the U.S., from Coronado Island in San Diego, to Hilton Head, South Carolina. What makes Harbor Town unique, however, is its adaptation to a river location.
After Harbor Town was built, Turley attended a conference where the keynote speaker “blabbed on about this thing he was gonna do and it was Harbor Town word for word. When he was finished, I went up to him on the dais and told him we’d already built one of those. He said, ‘Oh, you couldn’t have. This is just a theory!’ I told him I’m from Memphis and we do all sorts of things before you guys get around to it.
“The guy who thought up Seaside, Andres Duaney,” continues Turley, “called the design neo-traditional. And I’m thinking, ‘Hell, is that even English?’ Then it came to be called ‘new urban’ and that works for me, You look urban up in the dictionary and it means mixed-use, which is exactly what we have.”
“My big idea was to give people opportunities.”
When it came to selling lots and houses at Harbor Town, the hardest part was getting people to come check them out. Says Bologna with a smile, “We had to bring ’em kicking and screaming. It was harder then because of the rough part of town they had to drive through. What’s now the Uptown neighborhood wasn’t so uptown then,” Bologna adds, referring to a Turley-Belz mixed-use development that replaced public housing.
“Henry and I walked a lot of people on this property. And our sales force had to think about it differently. Instead of selling square footage, we were selling the vision and what it would be like to live here. Realtor Annette Sharp is still with us. She got it, she caught on quick.”
Sharp, who started working for Turley in 1980, remembers operating out of her car at Harbor Town until a small trailer was installed for an office. “My selling tool was a two-story wooden tower that Henry had built. [Potential buyers] could climb that tower to see the view on their lot from what would be a second story.”
Some folks would balk at climbing the tower “but once they did that and saw the river views, as well as Harbor Town’s parks and ponds and river walk,” says Sharp, “they bought in.” Still, some potential buyers feared flooding, earthquakes, and sandy soil, she recalls. “Others just came on the front end with blind faith and an adventuresome spirit.”
While river views and trees helped sell the property, too many trees at first obscured the views. “It took forever to get Greenbelt Park cleaned up,” says Turley. “Tony and I used to go down there and cut trees and haul them off. We’d leave specimen trees to frame the river views and that made a big difference.”
“And we planted new trees, probably 50 to 100 species,” adds Bologna. “One thing we did different was to plant a different variety on each street — October Glory red maple on one, gingko on another, cypress on the next. We helped extend the [fall foliage] cycle for probably four weeks. People really liked that.”
“Living here is like being on vacation, year-round.”
The WKNO auction house that Looney designed sold in 1990 for approximately $250,000, and has re-sold in the past for $685,000, says Sharp, who still works for Henry Turley Realtors as part of the Sharp-Soro Team.
The price of homes now, she adds, ranges from a one-bedroom condo at $185,000, townhomes from $225,000 to $275,000, and single-family homes from $285,000 to $985,000 (riverfront). “The thing about Harbor Town is that it’s so well-designed as a community that the economic downturn did not hurt it like other areas did. There’s always been a demand to live here. It offers a lifestyle you can’t get elsewhere. The one thing I hear most from residents is that when they are coming over the bridge home, they feel such a release and weight off their shoulders. Like being on vacation, year-round.”
In the now-vigorous business district, shoppers stroll to such shops as Movie & Pizza Company, Happy Day Laundry, Pageboy Salon & Spa, and the Ivory Closet clothing store. They also take advantage of health-related businesses, including Inbalance Fitness, Harbor Town Day Spa, and the Harbor of Health medical center (see sidebar on page 57). On any given day you’ll find walkers, bikers, and skaters around Miss Cordelia’s, the grocery store that opened in 1998 and is named after Turley’s mother, and the cafe, Cordelia’s Table, which does a lively lunch business, as does nearby Cafe Eclectic. The River Inn — a 28-room/suite boutique hotel — also boasts several restaurants, including Paulette’s, Tug’s Casual Grill, and Terrace.
Looney is frequently asked to give tours of Harbor Town to visiting groups who want to understand how to design and build a place like Harbor Town. “I tell them it’s a great laboratory of both good, better, and best, and there are also lessons of what not to do.” He emphasizes the teamwork: “Henry, Tony, myself, and others met often and made it happen. I will say Henry was the one who would call a meeting and question why this and why not that. His vision endured through the whole process and he was always working to make things better.”
Through the years, Harbor Town has made national news, won rave reviews, been featured in countless publications, and earned 71 design, building, and planning awards from prestigious organizations. Without question, what started 25 years ago as an exotic plan that The New York Times in 1988 described as “downtown goes suburban” has become a quarter century later a Memphis civic treasure.
Early on, the first homes Looney designed were entered in the “Best in American Living” design awards. After receiving numerous calls that he “had” to attend the awards event in Las Vegas, “I took a red eye out,” Looney says, “and showed up at the awards gig. I walked into the room of about 2,000 people, and within a couple of hours we had been honored with nine design awards, including the 1991 Home of the Year.”
“I thought people would like it. And I’ll be damned: they do.”
Early supporters of Harbor Town never doubted that it would succeed. Says Sharp: “I have bought in every downtown project Henry developed and I have not gone wrong with any of them. There is no one like him.”
Bologna says Harbor Town turned out even better than he’d thought it would. “About five years into it, in the second phase, people were receptive and the idea was taking hold,” he says. “It was working the way it was supposed to. What really made it work was sticking to Henry’s vision. I became the keeper of that vision. And the developers and architects and builders were committed to it; they were in it for the long haul. It was an evolution of ideas. It still is.”
Turley himself, gazing out at his first project, a redeveloped Shrine Building with its luxury apartments, looks back at his dream of luring people to live downtown, from Harbor Town at one end to South Bluff’s upscale homes at the other. “I never set out to be a developer,” he says. “I always said I was lucky to come to this position. My idea was to give people opportunities and alternatives. A single-family house on a 50-by-150-foot lot is fine, but it’s not everything. I told [my wife] Lynne last night while walking along Riverside Drive, I must admit when I look up at the top of the bluff I take pride in what I see. I told a reporter years ago I imagined we’d have housing all along here, and I think it will give Memphis a distinct and warm feeling so that people will see they’re amidst inviting homes, not just a commercial area. And that’s what we have.”
As for Harbor Town’s success, Turley praises Jack Belz for his financial investment and confidence in the project: “Jack and his companies were the major investor when we began. And they unquestioningly supported all the work Tony and I did, even though our ideas were all new and untested.
“Harbor Town took its form out of respect for property and out of what I thought people would like,” concludes Turley. “And I’ll be damned. They do like it. To this day I get letters from people saying, ‘I just wanna tell you how you changed my life. I had no idea what neighborhood and community could be.’”