Debate continues on Riverside Drive changes
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.
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.