Located on about 30 riverfront acres, Tom Lee Park currently offers a sweeping panoramic view of the Mighty Mississippi and downtown Memphis’ skyline. With nicely kept walkways and a wide-open lawn, it’s a great place to walk, run, and bicycle, and it’s also home to Memphis in May celebrations.

The history behind the park is well-known and cherished by Memphians. On May 8, 1925, Tom Lee was piloting his small wooden skiff upriver when he witnessed the capsizing of the steamboat M.E. Norman, filled with members of the Engineers’ Club of Memphis, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and their families — a total of 72 men, women, and children. Acting quickly, Tom Lee saved 32 people with five trips to shore in his small skiff, an act of bravery enhanced by the fact that he himself could not swim. Acclaimed as a hero, he received several accolades, including having the riverfront Astor Park renamed in his honor in 1954, two years after his death. In 1992, the park was expanded to the acreage we know today.

Over the years, plans have been made to make the most of the riverfront’s potential. Beale Street Landing, Mud Island, and Big River Crossing are three successful ventures, but none have connected the riverfront with the rest of Memphis. In fact, one of the city’s greatest attractions, our thriving downtown, seems to come to a screeching halt at Riverside Drive. The new Tom Lee Park seeks to connect the rest of the city with the riverfront and to make the riverfront as majestic as the river itself.

“The riverfront is not an asset that requires seeking out,” says Carol Coletta, President and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership. “As the front door of the city, a renovated park will have an outsize ability to influence economic and social value in Memphis.” Carol adds that visitors and residents have not had a place to linger and appreciate the natural wonder that is the Mississippi River, noting that while current tourism commercials and promotions may show the river, none feature Tom Lee Park. “That’s about to change in a big way,” she adds.

The new development will offer residents and visitors alike many reasons to visit the river, starting with four new “zones,” each with its own unique features, activities, and immersive landscaping. Designed for accessibility, the zones will frame three open lawns large enough for concert stages, which means Memphis in May will continue holding festivals there, pandemic restrictions permitting. Find out more about the four zones of Tom Lee Park.

ZONE 1: THE CIVIC GATEWAY

Work began with the virtual groundbreaking on December 9, 2020, of Cutbank Bluff in the Civic Gateway, located at the northern end of the park to provide a warm welcome to visitors from Beale Street and Vance Avenue. “It was critically important to increase access for everyone,” Carol says of the new ADA-compliant entrance and access point. She stresses that every entryway and the park itself will accommodate and welcome all visitors — from parents with strollers, to those with mobility issues, to the active and adventurous. In addition, a safer crossing of Riverside Drive will lead visitors to a new Gateway Plaza with shade trees and a 7,500-foot water feature. Landscape improvements are planned for Beale Street Landing as well.

Carol adds that although construction began with Zone 1, the park will not be completed zone-by-zone. “There will be some overlap,” she tells us. “The design development is ongoing. We are planning to have final construction drawings in mid-year.” With construction currently underway at Cutbank Bluff, work on the rest of the park will begin in June. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2023, and admission will remain free of charge.

The Cutbank Bluff into Gateway Plaza at new Tom Lee Park development

Visitors will enter through Cutbank Bluff into the Gateway Plaza, where they can enjoy a signature water feature. Final schematic designs were created by architecture firm Studio Gang and landscape architecture firm SCAPE.

ZONE 2: THE ACTIVE CORE

The Active Core includes a 20,000-square-foot Civic Canopy for hosting recreation and events. Centrally located within the zone, the canopy itself will appear to float above a set of activity courts, providing cover while still allowing for river views. A signature Play Deck with varying topography will be a great draw for the children, while the lush River Groves will provide shaded areas for visitors to relax and take in the view. The Active Core will also include two Point Bar Pavilions to offer food and beverages, rental equipment, restrooms, and a spacious patio. Pavilions are planned in different zones to offer elevated and affordable food and drink options that fit in well with the park’s aesthetic. “I’m super excited about the pavilions,” Carol says. “Visitors can have a seat and enjoy a beverage or a snack, and just hang out in a beautiful environment.”

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The Civic Canopy will be a beautiful space for basketball and other sports, and events like weddings or concerts.

Point Bar Pavilions

Point Bar Pavilions will be constructed of reclaimed materials and provide food, beverages, and amenities to park visitors.

ZONE 3: THE COMMUNITY BATTURE

Designed to be more contemplative, the Community Batture includes forested areas and higher ground, providing a different perspective of the river and surrounding area. It will include meditative paths that wander through the wooded landscape and a Peace Walk that seamlessly integrates the iconic Tom Lee Memorial into the environment. A Civic Glade will provide a sunny space for smaller events and gatherings, while a Point Bar Pavilion will be available for amenities. Stepped seating, hammock groves, sheltered spaces, and outdoor grills add the finishing touches.

Tom Lee Park Memorial

The paths that weave through the Community Batture are designed to create intimate gathering spaces for people to connect with the landscape.

ZONE 4: THE HABITAT TERRACES

The area that will become the Habitat Terraces is inaccessible today and will be the most natural of the four zones. Designed to offer an intimate experience with nature, the zone will feature hands-on experiences, including an outdoor classroom, a Pollinator Lab, and sound gardens. A unique Canopy Walk is anticipated to be a big draw to this part of the park, as the elevated path allows you to walk through the trees above the Mississippi.

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Canopy Walk

The Canopy Walk will offer an immersive experience of an ecologically diverse area at the south end of the park.

elevated Canopy Walk at new Tom Lee Park development

As the entrance to the Habitat Terraces, the elevated Canopy Walk connects the new Tom Lee Park to Ashburn-Coppock Park, Martyrs Park, and Big River Crossing.

“The downside of what I would term an ‘attraction’ is that you go once, but you don’t necessarily go again,” says Carol. “The beauty of a really great park is that you come back over and over again and have a new experience every time. Tom Lee Park will be that really great park for Memphis.”

To see the latest designs for Tom Lee Park and learn more about the plans, visit tomleepark.org.

All images courtesy of Studio Gang/SCAPE.

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