Some clarity could soon emerge around one of Downtown Memphis’ perennial questions: What can be done to restore Mud Island to its former glory?
According to New York-based real estate development advisory firm HR&A — commissioned to create a report about the best and highest uses for Mud Island — the answer to that query could begin with letting go of what Mud Island has been and looking at not only what it can be, but what is likely to be successful, said partner Jonathan Meyers.
“The key to places like this is to start from a place of real, direct honesty about opportunities and challenges,” he said. “The mistake that sometimes gets made is to say ‘well, gee, if we can convince, you know, a lot of people to behave in a way that they never behaved in the past and don’t normally behave right now, then we can have a very, very different future.’ And trying to bend the future to that, to that vision, is rarely successful.”
The realization that maintaining the status quo is not an option is another important hurdle to leap, said HR&A director Lydia Gaby.
“This project is really centered around the reality that Mud Island is in dire need of reinvestment,” she said.
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HR&A has studied Mud Island and come up with four umbrella concepts encompassing multiple reinvestment ideas for the island which can work in harmony with the ideas under different umbrellas. The concepts are the expansion of development on the northern part of Mud Island, creating destination entertainment and recreation activities, river research and education uses and emphasizing nature and the impact of the river.
Those ideas were presented Wednesday to a Memphis River Parks Partnership subcommittee which included partnership board chair Tyree Daniels, Memphis Grizzlies President Jason Wexler and Memphis City Councilwoman Michalyn Easter-Thomas, among other stakeholders.
After the presentation, subcommittee members held a closed-door discussion about the public presentation. In a later conversation with reporters, Meyers said the committee members had stressed the need to think about the riverfront as an ecosystem and take a big-picture look at Mud Island, rather than allowing piecemeal development as ideas came along.
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Meyers, who oversaw the early stages of the redevelopment of Governors Island — a strip of land accessible only by boat — in New York Harbor, said the “awayness” of Mud Island, while a challenge, can also be a unique asset. Something like glamping (glamorous camping) or an aquatic research station couldn’t happen at Tom Lee Park, Cobblestone Landing or other points along the water like it could on Mud Island.
But he added that despite Memphis’ currently strong tourism market, successful redevelopment of spaces such as Mud Island needed to include uses that appealed to locals.
“If you can create something that’s that’s interesting, vibrant and attractive to locals, it will, by definition, be attractive and interesting to visitors,” he said.
Deciding how to move forward with redeveloping portions of Mud Island also depends on what the definition of success is — revenue generation, civic benefit, increasing visitation, providing educational uses or myriad other potential benefits. Different uses, and different combinations of uses, will provide different outcomes.
“But there’s no right or wrong answer to that question,” Meyers said. “I think part of the exercise is to say ‘you are valuing the civic opportunity. Here are some ideas that can then be ranked in terms of strengths and weaknesses.’ If you are valuing a revenue opportunity, here are some specific ideas that can be understood in terms of strengths and weaknesses.”
Ultimately, a collection of uses is what will likely reinvigorate Mud Island. Task force members told Meyers and Gaby they wanted to focus on making sure anything added to Mud Island enhanced the riverfront experience as a whole, rather than drawing bodies to Mud Island at the expense of another part of the riverfront.
Part of the equation of reactivating dormant portions of the island relies on operators, Meyers said. If an operator for a restaurant feels a certain number of parking spaces are needed, and that’s not available, it doesn’t mean the concept is bad, Meyers said. But it might not work in that way, at that place.
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Similarly, so if an operator specifies they need a highway off-ramp or a new monorail. And ideas that don’t work on Mud Island could work elsewhere, he added.
As far as what cannot work, “there’s nothing that I would point to right now and to say that that’s a terrible idea. I think it’s more about making sure that there’s a strategy that underlies how you think about any given idea,” Meyers said.
The next step, he said, is to take a look at the concepts presented and start to formulate specific ideas. That involves honey in on new ideas for the island and taking a look at how to realistically take age-old concepts — like breathing new life into the amphitheater — off the drawing board and into everyday life.
A finalized presentation on how to understand the opportunities Mud Island presents — Meyers stressed it would not be a slate of recommendations — should be ready within several months.
Corinne S Kennedy covers economic development and healthcare for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com