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The Mississippi River Finally Meets Beale Street


A floating dock and helical ramp will help revitalize Memphis’s waterfront.

“We’re a river city,” says Benny Lendermon, the president of Memphis’s Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a nonprofit organization that the city has tasked with overseeing the development of the waterfront with an eye toward reconnecting the city with its river. “You can see the water, but you can’t get to the water. You can’t walk down cobblestone, you can’t get within 30 yards of the river.” There’s also river muck right at the water’s edge. The city perches atop bluffs along the river—this is what keeps the city from flooding. But it also makes the river remote.

It has been a tricky problem: how to take advantage of Memphis’s greatest natural asset while keeping a safe distance from the mercurial river. The existing facilities were not up to current codes. Excursion boats were operating off of cobblestone landings that were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Insurance and liability issues for tourists, especially the elderly or disabled, were placing pressure on the economic future of the docks. “It was of great economic importance to Memphis to have these vessels keep coming here, and we really had nowhere to accommodate them,” says Lendermon.

As its name suggests, the just-opened $42-million Beale Street Landing sits at the intersection of Memphis’s two greatest assets: the Mississippi River and Beale Street. The goal was to provide a new, up-to-date docking facility for the cruise and excursion boats that ply the river, as well as to give the city a new connection to its riverfront.

Plans for a new dock go back 10 years, when the RDC hosted an international design competition—Memphis’s first—for the critical Beale Street Landing site. The competition garnered 177 applicants from 27 countries. The winning bid came from an unexpected place: Buenos Aires, Argentina. RTN Architects, based there, proposed a bold solution based on the notion that the attraction was the river, not any one building by its side. The trick was just getting people to the water.

“We would have built something very visible to denote the terminus of Beale Street,” says Lendermon. “RTN submitted something that was very low profile, very green.” He says the selection committee called it a simple solution to the complex problem of getting people to the water.

“The river is the main protagonist of the project,” says Javier Rivarola, a principal of RTN. Rivarola and colleagues Gustavo Trosman and Ricardo Norton made 30 or 40 trips to Memphis over the course of a decade, trying to understand Memphis’s unique culture. “We understood that we were dealing with a part of the city’s history and not just a river,” says Trosman, also a principal of RTN. “What we wanted to do was make a sort of entrance to the city from the water. That was the starting point.”

The Beale Street Landing comprises several elements. The terminal building is a dramatic arched form—reminiscent of a contemporary airport terminal—fronted in glass and topped by a green roof that seamlessly links the structure with nearby Tom Lee Park. An elevator core protrudes through the green roof of the approximately 20,000 sq ft building. It’s clad in aluminum panels that contain a pixelated image of the Mississippi—featuring 25 different colors. Down the by the river, the landing joins the terminal to the water with a helical pedestrian ramp, a floating bargelike dock, and two small parks that jut out toward the water.

Connecting the landing to adjacent Tom Lee Park was a crucial element of the project. Tom Lee Park serves as the grounds for a month-long Memphis festival every spring, but otherwise it is seldom used. Lendermon, formerly the city’s public works director, says the park was a great place to walk or run, but it lacked human scale, and had few trees and minimal food and restroom amenities. “It’s one of the worst waterfront parks in America,” Lendermon says, “and I’m the one who built it.”

To make matters worse, Tom Lee is situated well above the river. “During most of the year, you see a great view of the river, but because of the slope of the bank, you can’t hit the water if you throw a rock,” he says.

But the same challenge of making Tom Lee Park an effective urban space also faced the designers of the Beale Street Landing: Ol’ Man River typically fluctuates 30 to 40 ft per year; one year the river fluctuated between 57 and 58 ft above the norm. Get too close, and your park is likely to flood. Go too far, and you lose the beauty of the river.

So RTN’s concept was to use the flows of the river not as a drawback but as a benefit. “We decided to play with the different elevations of the river,” says Rivarola.

The architects positioned the riverfront park across a sloping elevation. At the top, the landing was to be home to seven “islands,” small parklets shaped liked guitar picks—an example of the project drawing from the musical iconography of Memphis. Those plans were eventually scaled back to just two.

The islands are pile-supported, according to Brett Dunagan, P.E., LEED-AP, M.ASCE, a civil design engineer with Nashville-based Smith Seckman Reid, Inc., (SSR), the design engineering firm on the project. (Bounds & Gillespie Architects, PLLC, of Memphis, served as engineer of record.) The half of each island that is closest to the river is supported by elevated structural slabs to minimize fill requirements. The other half of each island is backfilled with soil and supported structurally by piles and a concrete shear wall. Because of the minimal slope, the islands are loaded with drains: 43 small area inlets and three trench drains collect the runoff from storm water, irrigation, and two water features in the park. The islands are also ringed with a durable Brazilian walnut called Ipe.

The ends of the islands jut out over the riverbank, which slopes down toward the river. Because the RDC wanted to allow pedestrians to traverse the grade, engineers used a series of articulating concrete blocks called Armorflex—a more attractive version of riprap—to keep soil in place and prevent erosion.

A large portion of the backfill for the park, Dunagan says, had to be a free-draining aggregate. “Crushed stone was originally specified, but because it had such a high unit cost washed sand was substituted to help bring the project within budget,” Dunagan says. “This highly erodible sand made permanent bank stabilization that much more challenging.”

Another challenge were three depressed areas—walkways with a straight slope down to the river. These were places where water could concentrate. The designers had to stabilize that land with a different system to reinforce the soil so that with channelized flow the slope would stay in place. The solution was a system called Geoweb, made by Appleton, Wisconsin-based Presto Geosystems, that consists of a plastic grid of small cups that are backfilled with soil, according to Dunagan. The cups hold the soil in place, allowing grass to grow on top.

But the biggest challenge was dealing with the dock on the river itself. The riverfront engineering was “the biggest part of the engineering by far,” says Harry Rike, a retired consulting engineer who worked on the project and whose company eventually merged with SSR. “Anytime you design a dock out there on the river, it’s a special challenge handling an annual change in river elevation that exceeds 40 feet. It’s particularly so if you’re dealing with something where people have to go from the bank to the facility and back again.”

Rike’s rule, honed over a long career of engineering docks up and down the Mississippi, was this: “Don’t ever try to do something that’s never been done before. Boats have been around longer than the wheel. Docks have been around. And every problem you run into, every challenge you have, somebody else has already had it and they’ve figured out what to do about it. Borrow from history and then creatively adapt it to your own project.”

RTN was adamant that the new dock not be supported by dolphins—large poles that support piers and docks. “We had one design that looked at potentially 25 to 35 poles sticking up along this dock, sticking up 50 feet in the air most of the year,” Lendermon says. “We didn’t want that downtown.”

“Anything obstructing the view should be deleted,” adds Rivarola. “When we went to the pontoon we didn’t want to use dolphins. So we decided to delete the dolphins.”

RTN brought in Consulmar SRL, an Argentina-based engineering firm and marine consultant. Consulmar’s consultant on the project, Carlos Brañas, was asked to design a mooring structure with a silhouette that would not rise above the dock. He initially proposed a scissorslike structure from the bottom of the barge and the bottom of the river that would contract and expand—not unlike a baby gate—with the rising water, thus keeping keep the barge in place. But debris from the river, especially sycamore trees and their limbs, would likely become caught in the gate and tear it to pieces.

So Brañas turned instead to a hinged lever attached to the river floor that could rise or lower. At its end were two large drums that the barge would rest against. It would be strong enough to keep the barge from moving. The lever and the dock both move independently, but since they’re occupying the same place they move together. And while the drums are visible above the surface of the water, they appear simply as low-lying elements of the overall dock.

The dock is connected to the bridge by a sloped, helical ramp with 10 ft of space between each spiral. The ramp enables patrons to access the dock to board ships from any of the spiraling platforms, which are located at different elevations along the ramp to account for changing river levels. Additionally, the deck of the dock itself contains a hydraulic ramp that can be raised or lowered to the appropriate level of the ramp from which passengers are entering.

The spiral ramp, constructed of steel, has a striking burgundy color—a nod to the red paddle wheels on the great steamboats of the Mississippi. The dock is elegant, Rike concedes, but adds with a chuckle, “It would have been a lot cheaper to put in those poles.”

Lendermon says ridership on excursion boats and charter boats is up. “It’s been a great addition to downtown—much more than most anyone in the public anticipated,” he says. The company that bought the bankrupt American Queen line and returned it to service relocated its headquarters to Memphis. That company alone generates $90 million a year in revenue.

Even before the project was completed four boats from three different companies had docked at the landing. Another boat has just been built and will begin docking in spring 2015.

In all the years RTN architects came to town, Tom Lee Park was scarcely used beyond the May festival. “The same day we had the opening for the project, it was full of people—and the next day was the same,” says Rivarola. “It was clear that the city needed this type of space for people to enjoy and come back to the river.”

This article was written by and originally appeared in Civil Engineering magazine.

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