It may be the gateway to Whitehaven and Memphis' most iconic tourist attraction, but Elvis Presley Boulevard "has lost all visual and contextual cohesion" and "aesthetic quality," a new city plan says. That's a bureaucratic way of saying it's downright ugly. But a joint city and state initiative would provide a nearly $50 million makeover for a three-mile stretch of the Elvis Presley corridor, improving its appearance and safety while better accommodating pedestrians and bicyclists.
The city has applied for a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant to help fund $20 million worth of improvements along the 1.6 miles of the boulevard from Craft Road south to Shelby Drive.
For the adjoining 1.3 miles between Craft and Brooks Road, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has pledged to spend $27 million on similar improvements over the next few years.
The enhancements are outlined in the "Elvis Presley Boulevard Revitalization Plan," which emphasizes the street's importance as a commercial, tourist and residential artery. The boulevard is the route traveled by some 17 million visitors to Graceland over the last 29 years, and it serves as a gateway to Whitehaven and the "aerotropolis" being developed around Memphis International Airport. Some 31,000 vehicles travel it daily, according to TDOT figures.
Yet long stretches of the street are lined with fast-food joints, title-loan businesses, low-end motels, shuttered businesses, vacant parking lots and gauntlets of utility poles and wires. The result is a "disconcerting visual clutter" that diminishes safety and economic vitality, the plan states.
The city project, which could begin by late 2013, would rebuild Elvis Presley Boulevard by relocating overhead utilities and installing landscaped or specially designed medians and new street lighting. It also would add or rebuild sidewalks, curbs and gutters and provide for upgraded crosswalks, shared vehicle-bicycle lanes and improved bus stops.
The result, said City Engineer John Cameron, would be a more complete road. "Right now, it's a very auto-related street," he said. The Tiger grant would bring in $12 million, with the city and Shelby County chipping in $7 million and $1 million, respectively.
Cameron said that while the project would help Graceland -- and an expansion planned by Elvis Presley Enterprises -- others would benefit, too, including business owners, residents and the larger community.
"It's not strictly about the tourism," he said. Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, concurred, saying the boulevard is a gateway to several neighborhoods and commercial areas. Improving it could help boost property values, leading to increased tax revenues, he said.
The project also could improve Memphis' image, Soden said, noting that "people from all over the world" travel the boulevard. "We've been interested in improving the appearance of Elvis Presley Boulevard for over 20 years," he said.
Elvis Presley Enterprises, whose parent firm, CKx, was purchased by a private-equity group this year, has been working on plans to add attractions in the Graceland area. But those plans are being "reshaped" in the wake of the economic downturn, Soden said. Attendance at Graceland hovered around 600,000 annually for many years, but it has dipped this year as a result of the poor economy and what Soden describes as sensationalized reports in the national media about Mississippi River flooding this spring.