In a recent video conference hosted last week by the Daily Memphian, the Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRRP) unveiled the latest designs for Tom Lee Park, an existing public green space along the city’s riverfront that will be revamped and expanded into a new and “beautiful place for community life to flourish on the water’s edge,” per the MRPP. As project architect, Chicago-headquartered Studio Gang is behind the revitalized park’s master plan while SCAPE is serving as landscape architect and park designer.
Before this month’s unveiling of the updated park redesign, Studio Gang and SCAPE had publicly revealed a first round of designs in February 2019. (AN shared a very early vision of the new Tom Lee Park in 2017.)
Spanning just shy of thirty acres, the $60 million project—the city’s self-described “next civic jewel”—breathes exciting new life into Tom Lee Park, a narrow, mile-long stretch of parkland nestled along the Mississippi that’s already a popular and superlatively scenic spot for jogging, walking, and cycling. The park, situated on former industrial land, also serves as venue for a handful of annual events, two of them involving two things Memphis does exceptionally well: live music and barbecue. The park is named after an African American river worker-turned-local hero who, in 1925, saved a number of lives after the steamboat M.E. Norman capsized in the river.
Studio Gang and SCAPE’s redesign of the park, which is the largest and most visible component of a sweeping transformation of the Mississippi riverfront that kicked off in earnest in 2016, entails improved entrance points that directly connect the park to the city’s expansive network of biking and walking trails, new pathways, spacious public lawns, and the creation of five signature pavilions and several signature outdoor spaces spread across a quartet of distinct zones.
Moving north to south, these zones are the Civic Gateway, an area located not far from the future new home of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art that will include a new entry plaza at Beale Street and a dramatic new landscape feature dubbed the Cutbank Bluff; the bustling and programming-centric Active Core, where park-goers will find the 20,000-square-foot Civic Canopy and a new children’s play area among other features; the heavily shaded and decidedly more low-key Community Batture, where new spaces include a Peace Walk, Civic Glade, and Meditative Paths; and the Habitat Terraces, an immersive, ecology-centered area that showcases the riverfront’s rich biodiversity and includes new features such as the Canopy Walk and outdoor education spaces.
“This new vision for Tom Lee Park is inspired by the vibrant culture and unique geography of Memphis,” said Kate Orff, founding principal of SCAPE, in a statement. “With this design, we wanted to bring the dynamic forms of the Mississippi together with a range of flexible spaces and outdoor rooms, creating places on the riverfront for all Memphians to enjoy.”
The grand redesign of Tom Lee Park hit a brief snag last year when the organizers the park’s signature event, the month-long Memphis in May International Festival, expressed concern that the reimagined space wouldn’t leave enough room for large-scale gatherings. Per the Commercial Appeal, following a mayor-ordered mediation between the MRRP and Memphis in May, the design was tweaked to include the aforementioned lawns and additional amenities. (This year’s Memphis in May, which includes the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the Beale Street Music Festival, and the Great American River Run will now be held late September through October.)
Studio Gang and SCAPE, which initiated community engagement initiatives including Studio Gang’s Youth Design Leadership Program, were first announced as the new Tom Lee Park’s co-designers in late 2018. Other project team members include Thornton Tomasetti (structural engineer), Kimley-Horn (civil engineer), and Innovative Engineering Services (MEP engineer). Groundbreaking is anticipated “within the year” as Studio Gang and SCAPE transition from the conceptual to developmental design stage.