Questions from the Internet

In early February as the programmatic design phase came to a close, the model for the new Tom Lee Park was unveiled. Thousands have visited the model, read the history, reviewed the test fits for Memphis in May, experienced the new park in virtual reality and left us their feedback at the engagement center. Thousands more have only seen parts of the plan online. We’ve heard a lot of good feedback — as well as some (more) good questions.

We’re answering some of the most frequently heard questions below. If your question isn’t answered here, contact us at with your question or to set up a time to visit the model.

Discover the design for the new Tom Lee Park here.

Check out the first installment of Questions from the Engagement Center here.

Does the design have the required permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

Permits cannot be filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until design is more developed. As is typical with projects that require permits from the agency, the park design team has met with the Corps a number of times to discuss anticipated changes in the park and identify any potential issues before permit applications are filed. The team first met with the Corps in March 2018 and as recently as May 2019. The park design team has successfully completed major projects in exacting permit environments in cities and countries around the world. These pre-approval meetings are a normal part of the process and help to shape a design that will ultimately acquire the required permissions.

Why not invest in Mud Island Park first?

Mud Island River Park opened July 4, 1982. The park, which is now nearly 40 years old, has an estimated $20 million in deferred maintenance costs. Even catching up on those costs would produce a park with a concept almost 40 years old. The Riverfront Concept suggests using Mud Island to capitalize on the University of Memphis Freshwater Institute for education, research and tourism. Earlier plans for the island proposed commercial development including housing, a conference center, camping and recreation.

Mud Island Park in the Memphis Riverfront Concept plan.

Since the formation of the Partnership last Spring, Mud Island Park has been re-opened as a public park with free access year-round. The Mississippi River Museum has been refreshed, and Memphians can bring their dogs and bikes on to the island. This year, an exciting program schedule combined with improvements including the new 50-ft “MEMPHIS” sign, are already attracting more and more people to the island.

05/24/19 — A Vibe on the Island: Bicentennial Edition

It makes sense to focus resources on the place where they will have most impact. Great public spaces make everything around them more valuable, spur development and have the greatest success in the most accessible locations. That’s why Tom Lee Park can have transformative social and economic impact in a way that would be less likely on Mud Island, given its location and limited access.

Why narrow Riverside Drive to two lanes?

Today, average speeds on Riverside Drive are about 47 mph and there are frequent accidents. To better connect the city to the river, and to make access easier for all, it’s essential that Riverside Drive is slower and safer.

A two-lane Riverside Drive with parking bays either side of the street.

The design maintains the same amount of pavement as we have today — so there is sufficient space for festival operations — keeps two travel lanes and uses the remaining two lanes for on-street parking. Importantly, this design does not cut into the bluff but reuses the same road bed we have today. Riverside Drive will have gentle curves so that it’s no longer a straight shot and parking bays will be added to the east and west sides of the street.

But, isn’t Riverside Drive a key connection to downtown?

Today, Riverside Drive carries fewer than 13,000 vehicles per day. A two-lane Riverside Drive has a capacity of 20,000 vehicles per day — allowing for more than 50 percent increase in traffic — and in addition, traffic counts on the street have declined 29% since 2001. Further, parallel streets in downtown, including Second and B.B. King (Third) are carrying many fewer cars than they are built to carry.

We don’t have to speculate on what would happen to traffic with a two-lane Riverside Drive. We have a test case every May when the street is reduced to two lanes the entire month and entirely closed for Memphis in May’s two major festival weekends. Yet, people still travel downtown to work, entertainment attractions continue to operate successfully, and hotels are close to full. The City of Memphis engineering report on the 12-month pilot program for a two-lane Riverside Drive concluded that traffic counts remained constant if not slightly increased, a two-lane Riverside Drive did not result in more traffic on other downtown streets, speeds on Riverside Drive were reduced slightly but were still above the posted limit, and accidents were less severe.

Will I still be able to see the river?

Yes! The design for Tom Lee Park capitalizes on the beautiful vistas across the Mississippi River. In fact, as a result of the design, there will be new promenades and new points like the Habitat Tower where the vistas will be newly revealed and appreciated.

Even while driving down Riverside Drive?

Drivers will still have views of the river “framed” by trees and plantings. The spectacular view from the top of the bluff at Riverside and Georgia will be even more dramatic. More importantly, the new park will entice more drivers to stop, get out of their cars and spend time on the riverfront.

Does the new design really have enough space for major festivals and events, like Memphis in May?

Yes. The design was based on Memphis in May’s detailed specifications. There are more than 250,000 square feet of open space within the park. Allowing for seven square feet per person — a much more generous accommodation than you’d expect at a music festival — means that more than 35,000 festival-goers can fit on the lawns. The new design also accommodates more than 220 teams to be placed for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Lawn sizes and capacities for Beale Street Music Festival.

Other improvements for festival operations include improved drainage, hardened turf, defined ingress and egress routes, paved truck turnarounds, emergency service access routes, relocated utilities and more. Some of these improvements are designed to mitigate the costs of returning the park to public use following major festivals.

Drone shots of Tom Lee Park taken after the 2019 Memphis in May festivals reveal the scale of damage to the park caused by festival operations today.

Is this new design going to add concrete and remove greenspace from the park?

No. In fact, the design removes concrete from Tom Lee Park by removing the parking lots from the park. The new design will much better integrate Tom Lee Park into nature by adding regionally-appropriate trees and plantings, bioswales and integrated habitat. Widened walkways are in place primarily to serve festival needs.

Why is the project so costly?

On a per-acre basis, the new Tom Lee Park is cheaper than many other equivalent park projects.

Do board members benefit financially from the work of the Partnership?

No. As with most nonprofits, board members serve voluntarily due to their commitment to Memphis. Board members must declare any potential conflicts of interests that may arise from the work of the Partnership and abstain from any related votes. Staff members at the Partnership are paid competitive salaries for their service.