published Friday, April 20th, 2012

Extending the Riverwalk

Thirty years ago, Chattanoogans from all walks of life began work on a plan to build a lengthy and scenic Tennessee Riverpark that would stretch from the Chickamauga Dam to Lookout Mountain. When the master plan for the linear park was completed in 1985, even the most optimistic of the planners thought it might take years to complete the project. That's proved the case, but public enthusiasm and support for the project has never waned despite some formidable obstacles. Work on what is now commonly called the Riverwalk goes on. Another major step toward completion occurred Wednesday.

Members of the Hamilton County Commission approved then a property agreement with Vulcan Lands that grants the county the right to build a walkway across Vulcan's property along the river. That agreement, though one of many required to extend the existing walkway, is one of the most vital for the three-mile section that will run from Ross's Landing to the base of Lookout Mountain. The Vulcan property is about midway between Ross's Landing and the west end of Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The land use agreement, brokered and funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, is a welcome milestone. It validates not just the vision of the Riverpark advocates who labor to make the park a reality; it also reflects the broad range of cooperation with land owners that is needed to complete the park.

Though no start date for construction has been set, a combination of local foundation, federal and state grants will pay the bulk of the costs for the extension, currently budgeted at $15 million. County government will oversee construction of the extension, and the city will maintain once it is completed. Inexplicably, however, neither Hamilton County nor Chattanooga has appropriated significant funds to help complete the project. That's short-sighted.

Both governments should be more willing to assume a larger financial role in extending parks like the Riverwalk, and to build other greenways and parks. Chattanooga's greenspace remains at a lower percentage than greenspace in comparable cities, and that should change. Parks and walkways collectively improve the community's quality of life, and contribute substantially to local governments' pursuit of economic development.

The pending Riverwalk extension crosses land that is important to Chattanooga's past and present. The riverbank there was, and in some cases still is, home to the heavy industry that continues to be part of Chattanooga's economic base. The extension traverses, as well, an area rich in Native American and Civil War history, and will provide presently inaccessible views of Moccasin Bend, Lookout Mountain and the river.

In addition, the extension will include several green parks or plazas, display areas for public art, extensive landscaping and lighting, and a wide walkway along a scenic route that ultimately will tie downtown to St. Elmo and to the myriad trails that crisscross Lookout Mountain.

The generosity of local foundations and the award of state and federal grants notwithstanding, there remains a shortfall in funds required to fully fiance the extension. City and county governments need to step up their funding for the Riverwalk and other greenway projects. Given the community's long-standing approval of this amenity, most citizens would support such a move.

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