The 1960s Riverview Urban Renewal Project



The Pyramid. Beale Street Landing. The Cobblestones. All in the news lately as major projects to revamp and revitalize our waterfront.

But, as grand as these are, they pale in comparison to a massive urban renewal project proposed in the late 1950s  that would have completely transformed most of downtown between the Mississippi River bridges and Tom Lee Park. It was called the Riverview Development Project.

And it never left the drawing board.

Then as now, various city leaders decided that one problem (out of many) with Memphis was that our "front door" basically needed a fresh coat of paint. The riverfront area was dormant, for various reasons, so the Memphis Housing Authority was called in — or maybe they barged in without being asked — and submitted a massive development shown here. It seems to me that other groups should have been involved, and maybe they were, but all the news articles I found pretty much gave credit to MHA.

Describing it as "a thing of beauty to be created along the river," the 136-acre complex would include a grouping of three high-rise apartment buildings just north of the old bridges, a 35,000-square-foot shopping center, pedestrian walkways, parks, and other bits and pieces that were never fully explained. Not to me, anyway.

One of the most unusual features was to be a circular restaurant, not just overlooking the river, but actually overhanging it — cantilevered waaaaay out from the riverbluffs. I've seen an artist's rendering of this thing, though I didn't bother showing it here, and the whole thing looked mighty dangerous. And ugly, too.

The Riverview Project would be a "parklike development." Now that sounds nice, but the main problem was that it would require a huge amount of space, and unfortunately this space was already occupied — by more than 530 buildings, which would have to be purchased one by one. Just the purchase cost alone was estimated at $30 million (which seems absurdly cheap today, but was a pretty hefty price back in the 1960s), and many of those property owners, as you might imagine, weren't that eager to move.

The other problem was that, even while this was being planned and fine-tuned, the new I-240 expressway was being pushed through, to tie in with the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge and Riverside Drive, which forced a complete re-design of most of the streets in the area.

The Riverview Project never came to pass. In fact, today it's difficult to tell where, exactly, it would have been. Where, for instance, were they going to build the apartment towers shown here? I found a 1959 Press-Scimitar article about this whole plan, and though I frowned and squinted, I just couldn't make sense of the poorly drawn map of the proposed site. And the description didn't help in the least: "At the south end, Harbor Street will be extended in a southeasterly direction to join with McLemore, which will be extended from its present terminal point near Kansas."

What? As I said, the new expressway changed everything, and if you take the time to compare then-and-now maps of the area — meaning pre-1960 and current-day maps — it's hard to match up the streets and roads. It's just as well. Something tells me the Riverview Project, if it ever was completed, wouldn't have looked anything like the plan shown here.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

Reader Comments:
Aug 22, 2011 02:42 pm
 Posted by  warbirdali

I am almost certain that most of the inner-city high-rise housing of those times that turned into slums and hotbeds of crime (around the world it is the same story) were all described as "park-like settings" by the developers eager to get the money and run. What I want to know is how they managed to fly the Coliseum and land it there?

Aug 22, 2011 03:55 pm
 Posted by  julie noir

I don't know how they managed to fly the Coliseum there either, but if you take a magnifying glass to it, George Jetson is in the window waving with Rosie and Astro.

Aug 24, 2011 10:04 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Really? Isn't this the I-55/Riverside interchange of today?

This area was a wasteland then, but looks GREAT now. It's home to WREG, Martyrs park, a fancy subdivision, and some very empty condos.

What's this about 530 buildings that would have to be "bought up" what was here?

Todd Demers

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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