An increasing number of waterfronts have undergone makeovers in recent years and helping to revitalize commercial corridors along the way. They’ve been usually touted as reclamation projects: These rivers run through the heart of their cities and their waterfronts have been blocked by the presence of major structures once dedicated to manufacturing and shipping. Big cities have been working the river angle to their advantage for some time. A few cities, like Providence and San Antonio have become destinations because of the opportunities created by their rivers.
But it’s not just big cities. A growing number of small to medium-size cities are embracing their once industrial waterfronts and transforming them into a destination for residents, businesses and visitors. Increasingly, local economic development officials and authorities are recognizing the potential of integrating these waterfronts into their cities’ urban fabric and in many cases using them as a complementing destination enriching downtowns with additional activities and amenities.
To be successful, however, waterfront revitalization schemes need to go beyond cleaning and activating these areas; they need to be able to integrate them with surrounding neighborhoods (residential and commercial alike) through walkable streetscape improvements, clear visual and physical connections and enhance their sense of place through meaningful public spaces. Furthermore, as the examples below reveal, they require committed leadership at multiple government levels as well as a strong organization with the capacity and drive to carry out these efforts.
This city of fifty eight thousand residents, the 4th largest in Kentucky, has seen tremendous growth since its riverfront revitalization took place. Thanks to an initial public investment of $80 million, obtained through a doubling of the local tax on insurance premiums from 4 to 8 percent, Owenboro’s city administration spearheaded the process. Like any proposed tax increase, it was hotly debated and controversial but the commitment of tax dollars sent a powerful message that prompted the private sector to get on board. As key Owensboro leaders understood early on, the river, which gave the town its past, could also provide it a brighter future. And it did.
The first catalytic project was Smothers Park and Promenade: a nearly six-acre park that fronts the river and includes a sprawling playground, a veterans memorial, promenades, three fountains with water shows every 15 minutes, a cascading waterfall, and seating where residents and visitors can enjoy the Ohio River and its views.
After the completion of Smothers Park, RiverPark Center, a performing arts center, was built adjacent to it, followed by a 169,000SF convention center, two hotels and a number of businesses that were attracted to the area’s increased visibility. The riverfront transformation was so catalytic (generating approximately $1 billion in combined public and private investments) that brought Owensboro feature article coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Port Huron, MI
Once a busy industrial hub, Port Huron’s tired waterfront languished as commercial tonnage through the port decayed since the 1970s. Like many Midwest communities that were once very dependent on heavy industry, Port Huron needed to change to survive.
In the last few years Port Huron positioned itself as a tourist destination by promoting its waterfront location and history. Proclaimed as the “Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes,” Port Huron now hosts community events including Coast Guard Days and the annual Port Huron to Mackinac yacht race. Maritime museums showcase historical lighthouses and turn of the century ships.
Port Huron’s waterfront renaissance is the result of a long-range waterfront redevelopment planning process. The “Southside Summit”, co-hosted by the city and a private developer, Acheson Ventures, provided a forum for community exchange of information, concerns, and visions for the most important piece of waterfront real estate in Port Huron.
One of the early catalytic projects was Desmond Landing, a mixed-use redevelopment at the confluence of Black River and St. Clair River that includes fishing access and a promenade. Desmond Landing has been carefully planned and developed in a configuration that re-establishes the linkage between the automobile and pedestrian environment of Main Street with the boating and pedestrian environment of the waterfront. Municipally-funded projects also complement the project and reinforce this linkage by extending the traditional street and sidewalk grid from Main Street toward the river.
Most recently, at the north end of the Desmond Landing project, the privately owned Black River Marina has been refurbished and named Desmond Marine. The marina adds a full-service boat dealership to several other riverfront marinas and businesses leading up the river through the Main Street district. Together with new public sidewalks, a mile-long promenade and a new 35,000 SF convention center these developments have brought new life and vibrancy to the area.
In addition to larger catalytic projects, smaller initiatives that complement these waterfront revitalization efforts are making a difference. For example, in order to prevent a “second downtown” in Port Huron and disperse economic activities, the Port Huron Main Street program has worked closely with private developers to remove visual and physical barriers between the historic Main Street and new waterfront developments and thus create a cohesive and accessible Main Street connected to the water.
Wheeling, West Virginia
Like many American cities, the community of Wheeling was long disconnected from its river by a layer of flood protection infrastructure along with underutilized building structures. Recognizing the potential of its waterfront heritage, the city devised a long-term plan to redevelop the port and encourage activity along the waterfront. The Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation (WNHAC) was thus established to lead the process. Its first step was the demolition of the Wharf Garage, an old parking structure blocking the city’s connection to the waterfront, and its replacement by a waterfront park with trails, events spaces and river access. Heritage Port opened in 2002 and since then has become a local and regional destination that attracts between 250,000 – 300,000 visitors annually to the festivals and events held there.
In addition to re-establishing Wheeling’s access to the waterfront, WNHAC brought to the area the Wheeling Artisan Center, an adaptive mixed use industrial structure, consisting of three buildings with a three-story atrium and skylight. Originally housing a grocery business and dating back to 1868, the building had several uses in the intervening years. WNHAC rehabilitated the building, which is currently functioning as office space, a large restaurant incorporating Wheeling’s heritage, an arts and craft floor, an art space, and a 7,500 square foot special events hall used for conferences, wedding receptions and banquets.
After years of economic decline, Buffalo New York is in the midst of significant redevelopment activity along its long forgotten waterfront. Spearheading the process is the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), a state-run agency created to manage the rehabilitation of Buffalo’s waterfront through projects funded through a combination of money from New York State and the New York Power Authority.
At the core of Buffalo’s revitalization process is Canalside, a nautical-themed public park that transformed Buffalo’s inner harbor. Open to the public since May 2008, Canalside features several restored components of the original Erie Canal Harbor, including the Commercial Slip, Boardwalk, and the Historic Replica Canals. A regional attraction, Canalside offers thousands of events, concerts, festivals, family activities, historical and cultural programming, art, food, and tours. In addition, the Historic Replica Canals are frozen in the winter months to become New York State’s largest outdoor ice skating rink.
With these infrastructure investments and a new organization tasked with development in place, developers began to see what had been blight as an opportunity. In 2014, an office building that had been empty for 20 years reopened as One Canalside, with a hotel and law firm as tenants. That same year, an ice hockey-themed mixed-use development called HarborCenter opened its doors on land that had been a surface parking lot.
According to local and state authorities, the public investments initially made to revitalize the waterfront were a necessary component in making the waterfront more attractive and more accessible to residents, but also to private sector investment. In fact, progress can already be seen and experienced. Last year Canalside received nearly 1.5 million visitors, and local planning officials report thousands of construction jobs and over a thousand permanent jobs created. Thanks to its revamped waterfront, Buffalo is becoming the go-to place for visitors of all ages to play, dine and relax.