Waterfront Access

Clever Planning, Activities Help Draw Visitors

By Deborah L. Vence

Waterfronts can be just the place you need to attract visitors to your area. But developing waterfront space to make it inviting enough for visitors takes skillful planning and some key elements conducive for such a development.

"Not only can waterfront space be developed for activities on the water, but also, the land space before the waterfront can serve multiple purposes as well," said Luke Diserio, MBA, PGA, CEO of a Wellsburg, W.Va.-based company that specializes in dock systems and dock hardware for commercial and residential applications.

"Waterfront space can be attractive to many boaters, fishermen and recreationists. When offering waterfront space, a facility can attract more visitors by adding other elements to the surrounding land area," he said. "Many parks offer waterfront access where they built a new picnic area, playground, RV camping, restrooms, sport fields, etc., in order to maximize visitors to the site. Waterfront space can be more comfortable and attractive to visitors when the entire family can find something fun to do in the same area complex."

In this issue, we explore the best ways to develop waterfront space to attract visitors, as well as some of the do's and don'ts in planning for such a development.

Planning for Waterfront Space

First, waterfront developments need to serve a purpose for some group of people.

"When the development can serve multiple groups of people, the waterfront development will show to be more attractive and, thus, more successful," Diserio said.

For example, including a dock at a waterfront development can serve quite a few people, such as fishermen, boaters and recreationists.

"Having a dock with a restaurant as well can draw more people to the development. Having a dock with a fishing pier can bring groups of people to fish in a designated spot," Diserio said. "A key factor for any waterfront space is location, and ease of getting to the location. The more diverse a waterfront is, the more it will appeal to different groups of visitors."

Ron Romens, president of a Verona, Wis.-based company that specializes in recreation products and services, and assists commercial clients with planning, designing and outfitting recreational sites, including waterfronts, said he approaches the development of waterfront space from a comprehensive perspective.

"Most projects [have to do with] what the goal of the owner is and customers and who their customer is. Who are they serving? When I look at waterfronts, we deal with municipal, summer camps and campground customers, and each are different in their criteria, what their goals and objectives are," Romens said.

"So, what I find is that people use these tools and develop these areas for recreating in three different ways. One way is a programming tool." As an example, he cited a waterfront at a summer camp geared toward programming, where there are outcomes they want to achieve and can use that waterfront to drive those outcomes. "They use it for general recreation as well. A big motivation for summer camps is programming. How do you best set it up for programming?"

For a municipality, on the other hand, waterfront space might be developed as an amenity for the people. Quality of life issues need to be considered for the people as well as a tourism draw.

Romens added that you have to look at what you want the outcome to be and break it into zones, too, such as active recreation and passive recreation zones that will accommodate different demographics of people. "So, you are getting cross-generation opportunities. People are going to circulate around the waterfront. You need to shade and [put] seating at the waterfront [chairs or benches]. When you are developing a waterfront, you are developing an environment, as opposed to just saying that we are going to put a dock there and that's it," he said.

Active recreation is very strong in the municipal market, and at campgrounds and camps.

"People are driving it as a whole. They want to control their experience and be a part of the experience," Romens said. At a waterfront people can control how deep they go in the water and how much they want to challenge themselves. A waterslide, on the other hand, is passive. You just go down the tube. Kayaking, aqua parks, floating climbing walls, even sand castles on the beach are a little bit more active and engaging. The customer creates the experience and uses the facilities the way they want.

"What we're seeing in recreation as a whole … all the way from [kids to] seniors … people are moving more. Active recreation [involves] creating the environment and stimulating the person's imagination," he added.

You have to understand the water body that you have, the depth, the slope, if it's swimmable water. Is there a way to enhance water quality, circulation systems, water quality, to be more adaptive to swimming? If it's not swimming quality, how are you getting in and out of the water with stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, a docking facility?

"A key element in developing waterfront spaces is providing a variety of experiences and places that enable users to exist within the space in a way that is comfortable to them," noted Scott Jordan, a principal with Civitas Inc., a Denver-based urban design studio and strategic consultancy that was the lead designer in collaboration with Spurlock Poirier and Project Design Consultants of San Diego for the new North Embarcadero Waterfront Esplanade in San Diego.

Jordan said that "Inherent in most waterfronts, it is the serenity of simply gazing out over the water that draws most visitors to the water's edge.

"For our North Embarcadero project we were provided with a ready-made trip generation in the form of the USS Midway Museum, multiple water taxis, and up to three cruise ships docking immediately adjacent to our waterfront project," he said.

"The key to our developing our design for the North Embarcadero was to provide a design that can feel comfortable and withstand the large numbers of users during peak cruise and tourist times, while providing intimate spaces that enable daily users and residents to enjoy the serenity of the waterfront experience during off-peak hours," he said.

Inherent in providing multiple spaces and experiences is something called "experiential triangulation" where users are provided opportunities to move from one experience to another, which creates the opportunity for chance encounters with other users and friends.

"While community needs, ecosystems and budgets vary widely from one project to another, experiential triangulation remains important in all for creating an inviting visitor experience, as does clearly grounding a project in its specific community and setting to create a unique sense of place," he explained. "For the North Embarcadero project, for example, we related materials and palette to colors and materials occurring in the natural environment."

"We also tied the project to a broader cultural and community context by selecting a California artist to design graphics, art and structures that add an element of fun as well as hiring local fabricators to custom-design many aspects of the project from pavers to benches to railing," Jordan said.

Conduct a Complete Evaluation

From a municipal standpoint, Romens said that conducting a comprehensive assessment of your natural resource is key.

"What is the body of water that you are working with, and what does it offer? And, what are the benefits and limitations? Understand your water depths and currents, water variation, how high it goes up and down, the bottom of the lake or your river, and where you have natural access points. [It's important to] do a very in-depth assessment of the natural resources you have," he said.

"Once you understand where the opportunities are, you can then leverage that. The waterfront is the most valuable piece of property they have. Also, when you are developing waterfronts, you get everything that's usable immediately. I say that, for example, if you put in docks or an aqua park, a kayak rental type thing, the people visiting that location get the benefit of that, and all those dollars are visible.

"With an aquatic facility you have so much money and infrastructure. You have concrete and mechanical systems, 25 percent of investment is in water features and 75 percent is in infrastructure. With a waterfront you are not redirecting [anything]. You are seeing all the money you spent. It's a good ROI because your customers are using that," he explained.

On the resort side, one case example involves Romens' company creating an aqua park on water for a client, rather than a waterpark. The client sold 22,000 day passes in 10 weeks for $10 apiece. In another case, Romens' company completed a large aqua park for a Florida client; the end result was that people are booking rooms at the resort because they have waterfront space there.

The Do's and Dont's

When planning for a waterfront development, experts also suggested keeping in mind a few do's and don'ts.

For the do's, Diserio said to:

  • Couple waterfront space with land activities when possible.
  • Study the body of water the space is in, so you know what water factors you will have to deal with.
  • First, make sure permitting will be possible in the area you are looking to develop.
  • Benchmark other facilities that you know have success, and implement that into your space.
  • Safety should always be a high priority when developing any waterfront access.

Jordan said, do:

  • Provide users with multiple ways to experience the water, whether that is through unique seating, terraced overlooks, intimate gardens or open plazas.
  • Accommodate multiple forms of transportation (peds, bikes, pedicabs, etc.).
  • Design for the long term with durable materials that hold up to heavy use and the marine environment.
  • Capitalize on the features that make a specific waterfront unique.

Romens added that you should also spend time on the front end of the planning process.

As for the don'ts, Diserio said:

  • Don't assume all waterfront access can be universal. Some applications call for special needs, such as waters that fluctuate greatly, or salt water.
  • Don't start any building process until permitting has been completed.
  • Don't put waterfront access in a limited/remote area when possible.

Jordan added: "The primary don't that is inherent in how we develop our designs for waterfronts is to avoid the temptation to try to make your design the feature attraction. Regardless of how beautiful or interesting one's design is, the overall scale and beauty inherent in most waterfronts will overpower the landscape."

New Developments

Washington County Parks in Washington, Pa., has developed a waterfront access that serves fishermen, recreational boaters and kayakers, by offering a floating dock system that can suit the different needs of the people using the dock.

"Kayakers prefer a lower dock height, while boaters normally prefer a higher dock height," Diserio said. "Washington County Parks installed a dock system to cater to the different types of boats being used on the water. Along with being able to suit many types of powerboats, and non-powered boats, the dock is also in an area with a playground, camping area, party shelters and restrooms. The combination of all the amenities offered at the location increases the use of the waterfront access."

He added that the location still is being completed, but the location of the facility allows visitors from the other side of the lake access to the water and amenities.

"The new facility and location should prove successful in allowing more people the ability to access the lake," he said.

In another example, Romens said his company is working on completing a waterfront development in Indiana at YMCA Camp Crosley on a public lake. Originally, the camp wanted an aquatic facility, but it was decided that a three-acre lake and large pond would be better for the area.

The waterfront area at the YMCA camp will include a beach area, camping area, wake board course, water recreation features and walking path. Also, the area will have a welcome center, observation zone and parking; land recreation zone; pedal track; and trees/landscaping.

The recreation pond has been reshaped and modified to accommodate a variety of recreational activities, including a shallow water recreation zone that has been included at the north beach. The shallow zone will include inflatable features that are designed specifically for shallow depths. The area will be ideal for campers new to swimming and for water sports, such as water volleyball, and will also feature a floating climbing wall and a floating dock.

"It was dug out and programmed … and the whole area [was designed] much with the same methodology of a waterpark, with both deep water zones and shallow water zones for activities. The whole area is six acres with a three-acre body of water. That whole area becomes the center of attraction for that camp. They will still use the lake with activities. There is a zero-entry beach that will be at a new pond area," Romens said.

The development is scheduled to open in the spring.

"It gives it that back to the old swimming hole, back to nature, sustainable recreation … that ecosystem and back to nature feel," Romens added.

On a completely different scale on the West Coast, in San Diego, the new $31 million North Embarcadero Waterfront Esplanade was unveiled in November of last year.

Jordan explained that the planning for the North Embarcadero project has been ongoing for the past 30-plus years, with the current incarnation that Civitas was involved in designing and implementing forged back in 2000 when the team of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects of New York and Spurlock Poirer Landscape Architects of San Diego developed a schematic design for more than two miles of San Diego's waterfront. In 2007 a team comprised of Civitas, Project Design Consultants and Spurlock Poirer was selected to refine and implement the first phase of the North Embarcadero.

"Since its completion, the North Embarcadero has been well received by users and tourists," he said. "The questions that we hear most often are, "What took so long?" and "When will the next phase be completed?"

But, "Overall, people are most excited about finally having a world-class waterfront. For so many years their waterfront was a series of roadways and parking lots. They finally have a waterfront that they can be proud of and bring their friends and family down to enjoy the amazing views," Jordan said.

San Diego's new waterfront development forms part of a revitalized gateway to the city's downtown center and establishes an energized destination within a rapidly developing area of the city. Civitas helped come up with an existing master plan to develop an urban promenade and a series of parks alongside a working waterfront that is home to cruise ships, fishing operations and museums.

The Civitas design reclaims space that was occupied previously by streets and parking lots by reordering the hierarchy of functions so that the first 108 feet of land that is adjacent to the bay is devoted to pedestrian activity, including a 30-foot-wide promenade, soft-surface running trail and series of formal garden rooms with native jacaranda groves to buffer against the relocated Harbor Drive. In addition, an 8-foot-wide water quality band interlaces with the landscape and provides visible conveyance and treatment of storm water to the harbor's edge.

The development also boasts a landscape of trees, paths and plazas, as well as ticket kiosks, shade pavilions, restrooms and a café, which was designed by artist Pae White. To boot, custom lighting, graphics and furnishings that recall the "craft and heft of the maritime industries" represent the site's past and the city's plans for an enduring future.

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