The New Community Waterfront

Boost Recreation, Revenues, Social Equity & Sustainability

By Chris Gelbach

Across the nation, waterfronts from lakes to rivers to quarries and beyond are being transformed. These efforts are successfully turning underutilized, neglected and formerly industrial areas into cherished public spaces that are enhancing the recreation, culture, health and aesthetics of the communities they serve. And many of the most successful share common attributes that can be replicated and adapted to the unique needs and waterfronts of communities nationwide.

Start With a Bold Vision

A growing roster of successful waterfront transformations nationwide are making more and more communities realize that in some cases, an ambitious waterfront vision is not only possible, but often preferable.

For example, the City of Seattle is currently executing an epic, multi-year $724 million waterfront transformation that began as a community vision to remove the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a double-decker freeway on the waterfront, and reconnect the downtown corridor to the waterfront area.

Since beginning the public process in 2010, more than 10,000 community members have participated in visioning sessions, community meetings, walking tours and environmental reviews to ensure that the project meets community needs. "It was probably the largest public process we've ever had in Seattle, at least in anyone's memory," said Marshall Foster, director of Seattle's Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects.

But the early process also involved a strategic early debut of an extensive concept design from the design firm James Corner Field Operations. "Like a lot of cities, Seattle has a healthy record of planning where we have public process after public process and it can lead to stalemate or paralysis," Foster said. "We wanted to avoid that by having a team that would really bring the public together around a set of strong design ideas for the waterfront, and that's what James Corner's team did."

During the public process, the city learned that what residents want from city parks has changed. This has accompanied Seattle's demographic transformation, as an influx of young professionals over the past decade has also resulted in more of the population living in smaller households and renting versus owning.

"We're becoming more urban, and with that people's attitudes toward parks changed," Foster said. "People used to see parks as the Olmstedian ideal—a pastoral park as a contemplative place to rest and to take in nature," Foster said. "What we heard in this process is that what people really wanted was a dynamic, urban, more cultural park. A place for music. A place where I could get really good food and drink. Where I can enjoy the water and views and can bring my friends and family. I can have this kind of urban experience with parks and culture as opposed to this more traditional idea about parks as a passive open space."

As a result, the final design incorporates spaces that will be used for farmers' markets, festivals, music and culture. Seattleites also said they wanted spaces for biking and running—desires that dovetailed nicely with the planned linear waterfront park's configuration.

Focus on Equity

When preserved or recaptured as public amenities, waterfronts also can provide a potent opportunity to provide increased recreational opportunities to all citizens, often at little or no cost.

When planning the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park for the City of Tampa, Fla., Civitas Principal Mark Johnson had an instructive conversation with an elderly man in his 90s who many decades ago used to go out fishing and crabbing on a boat as a child, and even sell what he caught to local markets.

"Then he mentioned that there was nowhere in the City of Tampa today where you could put a boat in the water without paying," Johnson said. "Which I thought couldn't be possible in a city like Tampa, surrounded by water on all sides. And yet, it turned out to be true."

In a later conversation, the city's mayor, a boat owner himself, was also stunned to learn the fact. "He was shocked when he realized the inequity that the city had created by essentially allowing the privatization of all the waterfront, and not allowing access on a public waterfront," Johnson said. "He got committed and raised a tremendous amount of money and convinced the parks department that they were suddenly in the new business of aquatic recreation management, which they had never been in before."

Today, the new waterfront park along the Hillsborough River has revitalized a 25-acre park that had fallen into disrepair. It is part of the new InVision Tampa plan to regenerate the riverfront of west Tampa and its historic African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

The design provides public access to the waterfront along with amenities that include fitness trails, picnic sites and an events lawn, as well as a boating center for crew boats, kayaks, standup paddleboards, canoes and dragon boats, all supported by the local parks department. "You can check them out and take classes, which are all either free or very inexpensive, so that for the first time the African-American community has equal access to water play and water recreation that they have not had for probably 70 years," Johnson said.

For many of these waterfront projects, a growing focus is also on providing access to bike trails, shuttles and other transportation opportunities. These efforts not only help create more dynamic, natural and walkable waterfronts by deprioritizing parking lots, but also contribute to greater social equity by making a keystone natural attraction more accessible to all users.

Johnson is seeing this focus on social equity as one of the top three things that continue to rise in importance in new waterfront projects at all scales. The other two are a related focus on public health and an effort to mitigate stresses related to climate change, including rising water levels and erosion.

Lead With Sustainability

As water levels continue to rise, communities across the United States are making combating this threat an important part of their waterfront development plans.

In building Seattle's new waterfront, one of the first completed portions was the reconstruction of the seawall in the main section of the project. According to Foster, this was done both because the seawall was seismically unsafe and needed replacement, and because it provided the opportunity for significant habitat enhancements.

"We basically wanted to soften the shore to protect some really important salmon migration that takes place along our downtown waterfront, and also to make sure that we were prepared and protected from major storm events—essentially protecting the asset that we were about to build above it," Foster said.

In addition to habitat restoration and flood mitigation, many waterfront projects are also reclaiming beaches and shorelines that have been diminished by erosion. In Post Falls, Idaho, the design for Black Bay Park along the Spokane River will include a boardwalk that will mitigate wave action and counteract the erosion from recreational boat traffic that is causing the loss of land that people have been using for generations. "The boardwalk is going to reduce the wake action, but it's also going to create a protective area where kids can swim within the bay and doesn't allow boat traffic beyond it, so it's serving two purposes," said Scott Jordan, principal at Civitas.

Like many new waterfront projects, it also builds upon and highlights the distinctive natural assets of the area, giving people access to a rocky landscape forged by Ice Age floods through the connecting boardwalks that are placed both along the river and 60 feet above. The wooden boardwalk's look also references the town's logging heritage.

Serve the Multitudes

The most successful new waterfronts are attracting users and visitors by providing amenities that appeal to a wide range of users as opposed to highly skilled and specialized groups. This is the case even in projects more traditionally associated with extreme sports, such as designs incorporating whitewater elements.

Gary Lacy, president and founder of Recreation Engineering & Planning in Boulder, Colo., has worked on a multitude of whitewater projects and recommends that communities opt for ones that cast a wide net in appealing to the broadest range of users.

This was an important element of a new river park in Grand Junction, Colo., that's currently under construction. "In that case it's just two whitewater features and quite a long lazy river, so it's certainly not challenging, dynamic, heavy whitewater," Lacy said. "But it doesn't take much, and it's really conducive to novices and the general public for floating, tubing, duckies and standup boards, so it's really geared toward a general population."

According to Lacy, a constructed drop in water across a river of 14 to 18 inches can create a wave that can be used by users on surfboards, boogie boards, standup boards, inner tubes and more. "It's fun and you don't have to be very advanced to hop on a boogie board and jump in there versus intimidating whitewater, which, unless you're an advanced paddler, you look at it and think, 'I'm going to drown out there,'" Lacy said.

These kinds of water features can also serve multiple types of users. "The identical wave could have a high-end surfer on it and then the next person comes down in an inner tube," Lacy said. "Same feature, same everything, they're just used differently."

In addition to whitewater features, Lacy is seeing more projects include elements such as beaches, paths for river access, bank terracing where people can sit and watch others use the river, and private partnerships to develop nearby old historic buildings into brewpubs or other similar offerings. Even projects with higher-skill features are trying to include amenities that make them appealing to spectators, hikers, kids, foodies and others.

The best waterfronts are also providing a healthy mix of both passive and active options, as well. And when projects do include higher-skill features, they are being complemented with other amenities that appeal to a broader range of users. Ron Romens, president of a Verona, Wis.-based provider and designer of recreation products and services with a specialty in waterfront projects, noted the example of Shark Wake Park at the North Myrtle Beach Sports Complex in South Carolina. It features a wakeboard cable park near a more family-oriented inflatable floating playground with monkey bars, climbing towers, slides and more.

"So you have a high-throughput, low-skill event paired with a high-skill, low-throughput event," Romens said. "The cable park is really sexy, they have competitions, it's cool and cutting-edge, but the inflatables in the sports park are low-skill and it goes to all demographics."

That being said, as Romens installs these inflatable water features into more settings, they are often put in as part of a larger family-based entertainment center that develops a water and land environment that may have been previously underutilized. And since the inflatable parks generally are for those 7 years or older (49 inches or taller), they are often complemented by features such as splash pads or large sandbox environments designed for even younger patrons.

By creating numerous fun activities for various user groups, all connected in a cohesive and accessible way, these projects are turning underutilized waterways into local and regional destinations.

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



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