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Tom Lee Park redesign plans released to the public

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tom Lee Park downtown is set to get a redesign in an effort to make the park more attractive and useful year-round, and those plans were released to the public Saturday afternoon.

Natural play areas, dynamic topography, rocky boulder outcroppings, and winding paths make the Tailout zone of Tom Lee Park a playtime paradise. An outdoor classroom, experimental garden, and other hands-on opportunities give kids a chance to connect with and learn about the unique ecology of the Mississippi River.

At the public release at Beale Street Landing, staff unveiled their new vision for the park. The redesign is slated to begin this June and finish sometime near the end of 2020.

The goal of the new design is to bring people to the park year-round, something it struggles to do now, according to George Abbott, director of external affairs for Memphis River Parks Partnership.

“The park right now is very active at some points in the year, but most of the year, it’s not a particularly vibrant park,” Abbott said. “There’s not a lot to do in the park. In the summer, it’s very, very hot. In the winter, it’s very, very exposed.”

He said Tom Lee Park is basically just a “blank field” and isn’t designed to host the events that it currently does. The River Parks Partnership wants to produce a riverfront with parks designed to do what they are used for.

“What we want to produce is a park that is active 365 days a year, which is a great host for large festivals like Memphis in May, but also gives Memphians a reason to come down to the river,” Abbott said. “It’s a kind of suitable front door for both the city and the state of Tennessee.”

The River Parks Partnership is halfway to their $70 million fundraising goal for their projects, which include three that have already been completed: River Garden, River Line and the restoration of the Cobblestone Landing. The rest of the money will be used on the Tom Lee Park renovation.

In the park’s wildest reaches, a dramatic tower stretches into the sky. An immediate landmark at the southern edge of Tom Lee Park, the Habitat Tower provides an attractive structure for birds to nest and rest and a memorable gathering space where park visitors can feel as if they’re hovering above the Mississippi.

Abbott said the redesign will allow for an easier time for everyone during Memphis in May, and the festival will not tear up the park as it does now.

“It should be a win-win,” Abbott said. “Better festivals and then a better park year-round.

He said another goal is to reflect what Memphis is about: a city with ambition, momentum and progress.

Those traits are things Charmeal Neely-Alexander knows well. She is the great niece of the park’s namesake, Tom Lee. She said she loves to see the thought and effort put into the park her family cherishes.

“It’s a passion of mine that the park officials, the city, the organizations are aware of what Tom Lee did,” Neely-Alexander said. “And they’re doing a wonderful job. I don’t have to do anything.”

Lee was a river worker who saved the lives of 30 people in the Mississippi River in 1925. He also has a statue at the park in his name.

A terraced, universally-accessible pathway flows down the bluff to connect downtown Memphis to the new Tom Lee Park from Beale Street. Wide steps provide a comfortable place to sit and take in the views of the revitalized park and the river beyond.

Neely-Alexander said history and lineage is very important for her family, and she is glad that officials are making sure her family history is preserved.

“We just want to be an advocate for Tom Lee, and that is what this is all about,” she said.

The redesign divides the 30-acre park into four different zones used for different purposes. This is how the developer describes each zone:

Near the river’s edge, a central canopy floats above a set of Activity Courts, framing theriver beyond and protecting the courts below that can be used for basketball and other sports, as well as events like concerts or weddings. Concessions, lockers, storage, and bathrooms are located nearby.

The Gateway: A welcoming new connection linking downtown Memphis to the riverfront will bring new life to the east side of Beale Street Landing, create a universally accessible pathway down the bluff from Beale Street and welcome visitors in a new entry plaza that can accommodate public gatherings, art installations, and festival tents.

The Riffle: Modeled after the pattern of river water flowing over stones, the park’s central zone is defined by dynamic topography that shapes areas for relaxation and play, activity courts shaded by a signature canopy for everyday use(from basketball to yoga, dance, and fitness classes)and special events, and river-facing overlooks and “eco edges” that give visitors an intimate experience of the water.

A welcoming entry plaza greets visitors and orients them to a range of riverfront and park activities, from boat cruises to basketball. In the heart of the plaza, water features and bright swaths of native plants evoke the movement of the river and providephoto-worthy moments for all ages. Large open areas within the plaza can accommodate public gatherings, art installations, and festival tents.

The Pool: A network of open lawns that act as the park’s anchors for field activities and large events, designed to accommodate signature events including the Beale Street Music Festival. The pools support large and small festivals,and everyday recreation-like field sports, picnics, kite flying,or playing fetch.

The Tailout: At the southern end of the park, where its landscape becomes more wild, active and accessible recreation paths lead to an outdoor learning and play area where children and adults find hands-on opportunities to connect with nature. A large outdoor classroom will host STEM programs facilitated by a scientist-in-residence. The dramatic Habitat Tower provides an attractive structure for birds to nest and rest and a memorable gathering space where park visitors can feel as if they’re hovering above the Mississippi—taking in views of the water and, after sundown, the Mighty Lights.

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