Feature Article - March 2020
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The New Community Waterfront

Boost Recreation, Revenues, Social Equity & Sustainability

By Chris Gelbach


Connect to Downtown

A key element of successful waterfront projects is helping to connect citizens to the waterfront effectively from the places where they live, work and socialize. Seattle's waterfront transformation will feature an Overlook Walk that connects the city's iconic Pike Place Market and downtown district to the waterfront in a way that is easily accessible to pedestrians and at the heart of the city's life.

"Our litmus test is when this thing's all built you could tell a friend downtown, 'Let's meet at Waterfront Park and we'll go out and get a drink and see a concert,'" Foster said. "People definitely don't think about our waterfront that way today. It's sort of a separate space. You might take your out-of-town guests to a meal there, but we're hoping to make it more of an integrated part of the city."

For river projects, Lacy likewise sees the most benefit in projects located in downtown areas and urban parks, and noted the examples of Calgary, Salida, Colo., and Reno, Nev., riverfront projects as ones that have transformed downtown environments. "Reno is one I built over 10 years ago, and it helped transform the downtown Truckee River riverfront from a place where you would not want to go with a family at night to now just one of the most vibrant parts of the city," Lacy said.

He has also seen a call from community business leaders to extend whitewater projects that once were limited to the outskirts of town well into urban business districts to maximize the economic potential of these amenities. One such example is in Golden, Colo. "The very first phase was probably about 1,200 feet long and now it's about a mile and a half or so," Lacy said.

Lacy noted that that initial phase was so popular that further expansion was a sensible option to help spread the use out over the river and mitigate overcrowding. Going further downstream toward town was a natural evolution. "It [the first phase] was built in a municipal park," Lacy said. "And all the downtown businesses were saying, 'Well shoot, why don't we get everybody floating down into town? They're hungry, they're thirsty, and there are all these restaurants right downtown.'"

In addition to boosting a waterfront project's economic benefits, this kind of synergy can also help spur the kinds of public-private partnerships that can help get more ambitious projects built. For the Seattle Waterfront, efforts to make the downtown business community key partners in the project from the start helped get everyone invested in the bold plan from the beginning.

"It became a partnership to bring in about $270 million of private funding to the park, which is supplementing the city and the state's investments," Foster said. "That happened because we brought people in so early."

Be Unique

While it can be instructive to look at what's worked for other waterfronts, designers of these projects also say it's critical to work with the essential qualities that make each waterfront distinct and promising in its own way.

"We are trending rapidly toward a different model like [recent projects] Black Bay or St. Patrick's where we are taking a site that has strong existing qualities, repairing it as much as necessary, and then inserting activities into it," Johnson said. "That saves money, but it also puts people more in contact with the authentic nature of the place. We're less interested in getting 40 acres and spending $30 million and completely transforming it, because that's not a very organic approach."

And waterfronts, by their very nature, offer an innately organic approach. According to Lacy, if designed properly, in-stream river features don't require ongoing outlays to treat the water, pump the water or dig out sediment regularly. In addition to boosting economic activity, they offer opportunities for recreation, environmental improvement and sometimes flood mitigation.

"It's a great investment with very minimal maintenance costs compared to say rec centers or golf courses or ballfields, something like that," Lacy said. "You just let it do its thing—you let that river go."


Some waterfront projects are even envisioned as direct revenue generators. Romens noted the example of the WhoaZone at Whihala Beach in Whiting, Ind., a one-acre floating inflatable waterpark with slides, towers, monkey bars, bridges, jumping platforms and more. "In 2017, we added it out on Lake Michigan," Romens said. "We put through 26,000 people in about eight weeks. It was like managing an event every day."

According to Romens, the attraction helped boost traffic to the area from nearby cities like Chicago and Naperville. "The city charged $15 a car for parking and just their parking revenues went up by about $125,000 by putting the attraction out on the beach," Romens said.

In many cases, municipalities can partner with an external private partner to manage these amenities. Or, as is the case with the Seattle Waterfront, a conservancy partner can be created to help handle the programming while the parks department handles the day-to-day maintenance.

Build it to Last

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized," is a quote often attributed to architect Daniel Burnham.

While the quote reflects Burnham's philosophy, it isn't certain that Burnham said those actual words. What we know for sure is that Burnham was co-author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago that proposed a park-bordered lakefront that remains a distinctive and beloved aspect of that city to this day.

That doesn't mean that all waterfront projects need to start big. They can be phased—and many are. "We try to figure out if we're doing a phased project, how can we get the most of a phase 1 to create the most complete park or space experience you can with that first phase?" Jordan said.

Lacy likewise often sees many riverfront projects expand over time, with a focus on providing the best possible water recreation first. "Usually what we say is start low and then build up," Lacy said. "You start in the river first. You don't phase that. You get all you can built in stream and maybe some adjacent bank work and some path."

Ultimately, the water is the draw, and the foundation being built should be something that should stand the test of time. "What we think about a lot is less about how it would be phased and more about what are the bones of the project that we're building," Johnson said. "If we get the bones right, people can adapt what we designed for the need they have 50 years later and not see it as static or stagnant."

Like the waterways themselves, a successfully developed waterfront may ebb and flow and shift over the years, but can stand the test of time in supporting and nourishing the community built around it. RM