De­bate con­tin­ues on River­side Drive changes

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - COLUM­NIST OTIS SAN­FORD

In 1986, well-known fash­ion de­signer, phi­lan­thropist and civic leader Pat Kerr Ti­grett led the charge to add some 200 lights to the M-shaped Her­nando DeS­oto Bridge over the Mis­sis­sippi River.

It was a grand en­deavor. And once the lights came on, it seemed the en­tire city of Mem­phis beamed with pride.

Now, 31 years later, Ti­grett is try­ing to shed ad­di­tional light on a brew­ing de­bate over sig­nif­i­cant changes pro­posed for River­side Drive — this city’s most scenic road­way that tra­verses the river­front next to Tom Lee Park. Otis San­ford holds the Hardin Chair of Ex­cel­lence in Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mem­phis. Con­tact him at 901-678-3669 or at o.san­ford@mem­phis.edu.

And to put it mildly, Ti­grett is not happy with what she’s learn­ing.

“It’s ex­tremely con­cern­ing to me,” she said, re­fer­ring to a pro­posal — still on the draw­ing board — that would re­duce the four-lane road to one lane in each direc­tion, and add two bike lanes — one on each side.

Ti­grett, who lives down­town in a town­house over­look­ing River­side Drive, the park and the river, be­lieves the changes — par­tic­u­larly adding the bike lanes — will do noth­ing to add to the beauty or the am­biance of the river­front. Far from it.

“I love bik­ers,” she told me last week, “I’m not against bike lanes.” But she’s con­vinced there are lots of other streets, av­enues, drives and boule­vards in Mem­phis that could ben­e­fit for bike lanes — af­ter the pot­holes are re­paired and the road­ways repaved, of course.

The truth is, Ti­grett’s might be the most rec­og­niz­able voice, but she is not alone in crit­i­ciz­ing the River­side Drive pro­posal — part of an am­bi­tious Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Pro­gram that would repave and add bike lanes to sev­eral city road­ways, mostly with fed­eral dol­lars.

De­tails of the pro­posal — in­clud­ing im­pres­sive ren­der­ings — were un­veiled at a pub­lic meet­ing last month at the Ben­jamin Hooks Cen­tral Li­brary. Ti­grett was there and, like many oth­ers, left unim­pressed, de­spite the fancy charts and graphs.

A few days later, she fired off a se­ries of emails, in­clud­ing one with the head­ing, “We Must Save River­side Drive.”

“No amount of fed­eral money will EVER be enough to al­low our great river city and its mighty Mis­sis­sippi to be de­stroyed,” she wrote.

As an aside, Ti­grett is also not a fan of the pop-up ex­er­cise sta­tions and vol­ley­ball court at Tom Lee Park. “I love over­look­ing the park. It’s so placid and calm, and I don’t think it’s right to turn it into a gym­na­sium.”

As most Mem­phi­ans know, this is not the first time that pro­posed changes to iconic River­side Drive has sparked con­tro­versy. In 2014, af­ter the an­nual clos­ing of the road­way from Ge­or­gia Av­enue to Beale Street for Mem­phis in May events, city of­fi­cials — with­out much no­tice — shut down the two south­bound lanes of traf­fic and con­verted them to lanes for bik­ers and pedes­tri­ans.

The two north­bound lanes were turned into traf­fic lanes for both di­rec­tions. The changes were an­nounced as merely a one-year trial study. But few bik­ers and even fewer pedes­tri­ans ac­tu­ally used the con­verted lanes. And all the ex­per­i­ment did was cause more traf­fic ac­ci­dents and shorter tem­pers.

In June 2015, the road was re­stored to its orig­i­nal con­fig­u­ra­tion. But city traf­fic of­fi­cials have con­tin­ued to study ways to mod­ern­ize River­side Drive and add bike lanes. Hence the lat­est pro­posal that would keep one traf­fic lane south­bound and one north­bound sep­a­rated by a land­scaped me­dian.

It would also pro­tect bik­ers with planters all along the road, and add a left-hand turn lane for mo­torists en­ter­ing Tom Lee Park as a way to pre­vent traf­fic back­ups.

Hon­estly, it looks good on pa­per. But de­spite the stylish ren­der­ings, adding bike lanes to the south­ern por­tion of River­side Drive re­mains doubt­ful. I’m told it’s more likely that the city will seek to ac­com­mo­date cy­clists with lanes in­side Tom Lee Park and link those to the new Big River Cross­ing board­walk on the Hara­han Bridge.

The pos­i­tive in all this is that at least city of­fi­cials are be­ing trans­par­ent about their pro­pos­als. They are wel­com­ing pub­lic feed­back on the en­tire Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Pro­gram through April 17 on­line at https:// www.sur­vey­mon­key.com/r/ STPGROUPS56.

But if changes are com­ing to River­side Drive, they won’t hap­pen im­me­di­ately. Af­ter this year’s Mem­phis in May events end, the road will re­open in its cur­rent form.

What’s more, the city has al­ready made plans to take care of one of Ti­grett’s other pet peeves. The blown light bulbs on the Her­nando DeS­oto Bridge will soon be re­placed us­ing pri­vate dol­lars.

Af­ter all, that was Ti­grett’s baby. And she wants it to have all its teeth.

Otis San­ford holds the Hardin Chair of Ex­cel­lence in Jour­nal­ism and Strate­gic Media at the Univer­sity of Mem­phis. Con­tact him at 901-678-3669 or at o.san­ford@mem­phis.edu. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @otis­san­ford.

BRAD VEST/THE COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL

Mo­torists move along River­side Drive at Court Av­enue on March 22. Bi­cy­cle lanes will be in­stalled again on River­side Drive, although this time along a dif­fer­ent stretch.

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