Feature Article - March 2019
Find a printable version here

Water Wise

Waterfront Development Ideas for Your Community

By Joseph Bush


On the Tennessee River

One of the central ways the once-booming city of Chattanooga brought itself out of problems caused by white flight to suburbs and a loss of manufacturing work was to overhaul some of its Tennessee River waterfront, beginning in the 1980s.

A task force that recommended the creation of the Tennessee River Park as the major tactic in the city's renewal said in 1985, "If properly done, reconnecting the city with its river, not only physically but by active use, will strengthen community pride. Tourists will be attracted and the word will spread, an essential step in focusing business and investment interest on Chattanooga."

River City Company began its existence in 1986 to oversee this park project, as well as the building of an aquarium that bridged downtown and the river. The Tennessee Aquarium rose from the site of abandoned warehouses and attracted 1 million visitors in its first five months. Walnut Street Bridge, slated for demolition, was instead refreshed and re-opened in 1993 as a non-motorized-vehicle walkway, connecting the first phase of the river park from the river's south shore to its north.

Residential and commercial and cultural development followed—a movie theater, a children's museum, a minor league ballpark and three hotels. With the re-opening of the Walnut Street Bridge, the north shore of the river got a boost for its own revival. Coolidge Park opened in 1999 with a carousel, a stage, walkways and a rock climbing area. Shops, restaurants and housing followed.

The $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan, announced in 2002, was completed in 2005; its focus was rerouting a major roadway and connections between riverfront features, a marina, a glass bridge, art, a new park and aquarium expansion. A combination of private and public funds and a hotel/motel tax provided funding for the plan, again overseen by River City Company.

A 2008 Brookings Institution analysis found that the city's wages increased and population—especially downtown—rose since the revitalization.

"Residential growth downtown is not simply a demographic accident," said the analysis. "It is largely a response to (and now a driver of) the city's revitalization efforts. More people are deciding to live downtown because of proximity to its and other nearby amenities."

The project never stops, according to River City Company Marketing and Communications Director Amy Donahue, as access and trail extensions continue. The work has attracted national media attention from the likes of The Atlantic, New York Times and Forbes magazine, and Donahue said more than 20 other cities have consulted with Chattanooga in the past year to help their own waterfront projects. There are river-centric music festivals and athletic events throughout the year.

"The reason we've gotten these accolades is because we smartly invested in our downtown and created special places people want to be," Donahue said. "If you build a special place that people want to use every day as part of their lives, then those other things will follow."

The Columbia River

When Boise Cascade closed a paper mill on the Columbia River in 2006, private investors bought the 32-acre site and began planning with a developer, the Port of Vancouver, and the city and its residents for a mixed-use development. When completed, more than $1.5 billion will be spent and every imaginable use will be covered.

The first phase opened in September 2018 and cost $31 million, paid for by the city, the developer, state and federal funds, private contributions and local grants. The 7.3-acre Waterfront Park is anchored by cantilevered pier walkway that is attached to two buildings that house restaurants and split a park that includes a plaza, benches, open lawn areas, a playground, restrooms and 14-foot wide pedestrian paths to accommodate walkers, bikers and runners. A flowing water feature is set to open in the spring.

Terry Snyder, the city's landscape architect, said privately held land, houses and ports had limited public access to the river, so the land purchase was meant to correct that.

"The main goal was to re connect our city to the Columbia River, especially the waterfront," said Snyder. "The river is the place to be."

Snyder said the first phase, Waterfront Park, was not meant to provide access to the water itself because of the strength of the current and the wealth of boat launches elsewhere in town. Establishing a place to gather, stroll, appreciate nature and enjoy food and drink was the first priority, he said.

Residents were a part of creating the master plan, said Snyder, and it was important to find a landscape architecture firm that could do more than the technical aspect of building the central figure of the park, the Grant Street Pier. With cables attached to a 75-foot mast and cantilevered over the water, it is a focal point for the development's debut. PWL of Vancouver, British Columbia, won the job.

"It was important that we stay with someone on the West Coast, if not the Pacific Northwest, that could reflect our typography, our lifestyle, our beliefs, our materials, and just have a good understanding of the people of the Pacific Northwest," Snyder said. "We wanted to make sure what we developed reflected the Pacific Northwest."

On the landside cable anchor are four images, three of the pier's engineering and one of the ship the river is named after. The design of the walkway that overhangs the water allows for as much light as possible to reach the water so predator fish have fewer dark spots, thus helping the smaller salmon that run the river.

Snyder said getting the job done while satisfying fish and marine and wildlife agencies was just one of the challenges. Calculating the elevation changes of summer and winter flows was another, and the small window of time crews were able to work with the water led to scheduling headaches among the various contractors. The lack of access and the building of roads just for work crews and equipment added to the logistical difficulties, said Snyder.