Recognizing waterfront value key for many cities

There was a time, according to Richard Beeland, when Chattanooga realized the key to its future was its waterfront on the Tennessee River.

Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The revitalized riverfront of Chattanooga, Tenn., offers a world-class aquarium brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors per year and it's surrounded by a district full of restaurants, art galleries, small businesses and shops.

The Newburyport Chamber of Commerce

The Newburyport, Mass., Merrimac River waterfront is being redone in pieces, according to Planner Geordie Vining. "We've had a combination of significant success in terms of transforming the waterfront and also a lot of unfinished business as well," Vining said.

Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The very popular Wine Over Water wine tasting fundraiser is held on the Walnut Street Bridge spanning the scenic Tennessee River on the Chattanooga, Tenn., riverfront.

Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The revitalized riverfront of Chattanooga, Tenn., offers a world-class aquarium that brings hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. It's surrounded by a district full of restaurants, art galleries, small businesses and shops.

Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The revitalized riverfront of Chattanooga, Tenn., offers a world-class aquarium brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. It is surrounded by a district full of restaurants, art galleries, small businesses and shops.

Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The very popular Wine Over Water wine tasting fundraiser is held on the Walnut Street Bridge, foreground, spanning the scenic Tennessee River on the Chattanooga, Tenn., riverfront.

The Newburyport Chamber of Commerce

The Newburyport, Mass., Merrimac River waterfront is being redone in pieces, according to Planner Geordie Vining. "We've had a combination of significant success in terms of transforming the waterfront and also a lot of unfinished business as well," Vining said.

"There was real effort to reclaim the river and make it the front porch, or the front yard, of the city," Beeland, spokesman for the Chattanooga Mayor's Office, said. "It started with building an aquarium but it continues right up to today. And what it's done is reclaim the river as an integral part of the quality of life for the citizens of Chattanooga."

The river was a vital economic organ for the city of Chattanooga — at one time. Things changed in 1969 when the city was given the label of having the worst air quality in the nation.

"That was a turning point for a lot of people," Beeland said. "There were heavy smelting industries and smokestacks belching out pollution and that all came from a time when that meant progress and jobs."

The Tennessee River was just part of that, and the land where the city and the river met was industrial and utilitarian.

"At the time, it was a bunch of old worn out warehouses down there and the only time anybody ever looked at the water was when you were crossing over a bridge," Beeland said.

Now, Chattanooga had to imagine a new future.

"We had a visioning process where we talked about what we wanted to see in 2000," Beeland said.

Today, a world-class aquarium brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. It's surrounded by a district full of restaurants, art galleries, small businesses and shops. It includes a park along the river's north shore and a renovated old bridge that had been slated to be torn down.

"People in the community came together and said it was all too important," he said. "We turned it into the largest pedestrian bridge in the country. Now, it's a part of a park going all across the river."

It's the kind of success consultant David Spillane imagines for Lewiston-Auburn's Androscoggin River waterfront. Chattanooga was one of the cities Spillane and his team at the Boston planning firm of Goody Clancy used as examples last November when they helped kick off work on Lewiston's Riverfront Island Master plan.

Now, Lewiston's plan is all but finished. It recommends creating a complete athletic walk along the Lewiston side of the Androscoggin River — a mirror to Auburn's Riverwalk on the Androscoggin's western shore.

The plan also foresees walking paths along Lewiston's canals, new businesses and housing along Lincoln Street and a redeveloped and vital district from Cedar Street north to Island Point.

Like other river cities, Lewiston's future starts at the waterline.

"All these cities, they recognized that their downtowns have the ability to be destinations," Spillane said. "When you put together the mix of a downtown and a riverfront — or waterfront or canalfront — you can create a pretty great mix."

That's been the lesson in city after city with an industrial waterfront that's been cleaned up, but left undeveloped.

"What's constant is they are trying to take advantage of the water," Spillane said. "Everybody's way of doing that is different, because the water is different."

It worked in Burlington, Vt. Development Director Larry Kupferman said his city struggled for years trying to find a way to develop the waterfront on Lake Champlain.

"The land we are talking about was filled land, reclaimed from the lake in the 1800s," Kupferman said.

It was an industrial section with rail warehouses and lumber yards.

Today, the Lake Champlain waterfront is a bustling festival space.

"We consider the waterfront part of our downtown," he said. "All of the buildings around it have been renovated, and many have been rebuilt. It really was the economic driver in the 1990s. Now, we're trying to make an even greater connectivity to the waterfront."

It's not always easy.

The Newburyport, Mass., Merrimac River waterfront is being redone in pieces, according to Planner Geordie Vining.

"We've had a combination of significant success in terms of transforming the waterfront and also a lot of unfinished business as well," Vining said.

The town has refurbished a 1970s boardwalk and extended it, added utilities to the waterfront and wharf and hired a new harbor master to manage traffic.

"We also have these clear, empty lots that were supposed to be interim parking lots," Vining said. "The community has been struggling for decades on how to transform those, what could be high value real estate. But right now, they're just gravel lots."

The community's focus has turned to the land on either side of the central waterfront, extending the boardwalk and building parks.

"The central waterfront has been the kind of place where strategic plans go to die," Vining said. "We are not a model of transforming fully. We have a complicated mixture of significant transformations and then some difficulties."

Larger waterfront projects have been stalled, but the community is still trying.

"There is actually a new initiative right now to focus on that area," Vining said. "We're looking at funding sources to help develop that waterfront park and add open space to that area."

staylor@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Michael Hobbs's picture

Well my question is WILL they

Well my question is WILL they go forward with this new plan? Plans have come up in the past regarding this section of Lewiston, but little has come of those plans. Don't get me wrong I am not knocking this plan at all, I love it. I just want the councilors to say this plan we are sticking with and moving forward with this blue print. I would love to see the river front and Little Canada come back alive.

Linda Sherwood's picture

The Waterfront in L/A

Great article, Scott! I like how you presented both the benefits and the challenges of developing the waterfront in a city. Those who have been successful at developing their waterfronts are those who have collectively come together as a community and have worked through the challenges, and there will always be challenges. I am seeing a new wave of optimism among people in L/A and a new sense of pride based on what improvements have already been made and certainly hope we can remain steadfast and make even more great changes happen for us and for our children and visitors. For me personally, I was so excited to have the chance to get out on the river in a kayak last Summer, something I would never have dreamed of as a kid growing up around the smelly, filthy river. I can hardly wait to see the kayakers out on the river again this year!

John Clement's picture

Yes, but nobody has ever

Yes, but nobody has ever heard of the Lewiston Choo-Choo. It just doesn't have the ring to it.

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