Water Wise

Waterfront Development Ideas for Your Community

By Joseph Bush

There's so much to consider when a waterfront development or redevelopment opportunity arises for a community.

How much of the development should be devoted to public use and how much to private? Mixed-use or single? What blend of recreational and commercial? How to please as many groups as possible?

The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces encourages placemaking as the first step in the waterfront development process. Placemaking, according to PPS, inspires a collective approach to public spaces "as the heart of every community."


Placemaking seeks to promote better urban design and creative patterns of space use through attention to details of a community's physical, cultural and social identity. PPS has strong thoughts on waterfronts, as they have been development targets for the past few decades.

According to the Waterfronts page on its website, "As cities have reinvented shipping and industrial areas on their seafronts, riverfronts and lakefronts, too often have they replaced them with exclusive residential enclaves or dull 'scenic' walkways. But it's never too late to transform these prime locations into destinations for local culture, commerce and conviviality."

PPS Senior Vice President Ethan Kent said the best start to waterfront development is to reach out to the citizens who will benefit from it.

"Lead planning and implementation with defining key public space opportunities with programming and more informal public use," he said. "Then support these spaces with design and development as needed. Waterfronts are no longer the backwater of a city, but their new face to the world."

Many waterfront developments turn ugly and abandoned tracts of land into centers for revitalization, and recreation is a key part of what is,

ideally, an area with many parts that mesh. A decade ago Kent wrote an article titled "Nine Steps to Creating a Great Waterfront," and while recreational use wasn't the focus, he did address its role directly and indirectly.

Since public goals should be the priority of a waterfront development, according to PPS, the space should be safe and convenient for pedestrians; no streets or parking lots is the ideal. Similar to a master plan, a "community visioning process" should identify 10 destinations on a waterfront, and at those destinations, 10 activities.

There should of course be plenty of park space, but PPS recommends it as connecting area, so as not to make a waterfront one-dimensional. Green space should interact with residential and commercial and cultural features, said Kent.

"We're finding that (cities) can best do this by focusing first on creating the more layered destinations, and active edge promenades, that draw people to and along a waterfront," said Kent. "These multi-use public spaces are what can best drive use, and investment, for an entire waterfront."

Many waterfront developments turn ugly and abandoned tracts of land into centers for revitalization, and recreation is a key part of what is, ideally, an area with many parts that mesh.

He added, "Most importantly, the process defining these more culturally creative spaces reinvents how a city is perceived locally and globally, differentiating its identity and supporting place attachment for a city."

To the extent possible, don't interrupt public access to the development, says PPS—whether by water or land, continuous access increases the popularity of the area. Finally, the article suggests environmental responsibility by way of using natural areas for public interaction through boardwalks, interpretive displays and themed playgrounds.

In another article around the same time, Kent addressed recreation directly, suggesting that there can be too much open space devoted to athletic fields or simply to walking or sitting.

"Recreational activities that use up a large amount of space are especially difficult to integrate into a waterfront if you want to have a lively setting throughout different times of day and different seasons," he wrote. "Natural areas and recreational areas work best when mixed with other sorts of destinations."

Kent said since he wrote those, momentum to transform waterfronts into public spaces has grown. They are increasingly not just oases to pause from urban environments but as ways to spark an area's overall improvement.

"Anchoring waterfront transformations around public destinations defined for and by the residents of the whole city, not just wealthy residents with waterfront views or other exclusive user groups, can best attract and integrate a broad range of uses and user groups to the water's edge," Kent said.

Around the country—in the northeastern Great Lakes area, Tennessee and Washington State—completed and ongoing waterfront work illustrates the PPS ideas.

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.

His suggestion to anyone undertaking such a project is to hold regular meetings.

"There was a lot of manipulating of everyone's schedules, and there were some tense moments because time is money and if you make me wait a week that costs me money, but somehow we got through it," said Snyder. "An important piece was we held monthly all-construction meetings. All general contractors together.

"Nobody likes (meetings), but they do help. Keep the communication open and be flexible. If our contractors weren't flexible, it was going to fail. I kept reminding them to focus on the vision: 'We have issues today, but look where we're headed with this thing, we're all going to look back and say 'Wow.'"

Indeed, Snyder said that residents were kept interested with regular updates by the city's TV station and local paper, but sightlines were limited by construction fencing. The grand opening was worth the trouble, he said.

"It was interesting back in September and October when we had some really nice warm evenings, and we lit the whole park and it was so new and everybody wanted to come and see it and experience it," he said. "I could hear people saying 'This is really cool.' Even the news people said, 'Wow, Vancouver, you did it right.'

"It felt surreal, like 'Is this Vancouver, Washington, and not some big resort community where you go on vacation and experience this sort of thing?' It was neat seeing people interact with it, taking pictures and nothing but positive comments about the project. Total success."

Smaller Projects

John Howlett is general manager of a Grand Island, N.Y. based company that installs 25 to 30 kayak launches per year, and can adapt them to the growing use of paddle boards.

If a client has a beach and wants off-shore structures to swim to, sit on, jump off, slide down or bounce on, his company uses dock and other waterfront products. If a client doesn't have a beach, there are products to help launch and anchor all types of craft. Waterparks and marinas and everything in between is what his company installs, and since the work is across Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, it includes lots of types of water and all four seasons. He's been in the business long enough to see trends.

"In the 13 years I've been doing it, I've seen a migration from pressure to build docks for power boats into pressure from the community and members of local governments to create an area on the water for people to gather at and be on the water but not necessarily using any kind of power equipment," said Howlett.

"The move has gone from power boats to paddle boards, kayaks, rowboats and water bikes. We're not building docks anymore for power boats, we're now building what we call 'waterfront solutions.' We're building docks to get people to the water to simply enjoy it and spend time."

Howlett said because climate is as much of a factor as budget when clients want waterfront development, his company does research, takes pictures, visits sites and has questionnaires.

"The No. 1 thing they need to do is they need to understand their purpose for being on the water," said Howlett. "What is it your people have told you they want to do? Are they kayakers, are they boaters, are they rowers, do they want us to just build a swim area?"

He said important questions include, "Do you fully understand the water that you have? Is your water, your waterfront, your access to it, appropriate for what you want to do? What is it you want to do and can we effectively do it where you are?"

Lakes and rivers, old quarries and more can be converted into water destinations with the addition of docks, as well as with inflatable elements that create a more active experience for visitors. Dry-side amenities will matter here, too, including shade and shelters, and maybe even a playground or splash park.

Mother Nature is one of the biggest factors to consider for four-season clients when they are mulling a waterfront project. She must be not be fooled with, Howlett said. He's done work in places in Pennsylvania where between the spring and summer the water falls 28 feet. Those conditions dictate whether anchoring systems are permanent or not, he said, which matters to planning and work time and budget.

"If you don't get what you build out of the water, the water from the mountains of West Virginia will rip anything that's there out of the water," he said. "We don't want to build something Mother Nature will tear down. We tell clients, 'As much as we'd like to build this for you, this won't work, here are some options.'"



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