The next Riverpark leg

The next Riverpark leg

October 23rd, 2011 in Opinion Times

Chattanoogans' expansive vision in 1982 for a 22-mile Tennessee Riverpark was never meant to be easy, nor quickly achieved. Like the Tennessee River itself, the building of this unique linear park was always destined to mark the flow of time across obstacles. It was bound to encounter difficult currents and restraining eddies -- gaps in financing, in access to sections of shoreline and right-of-way easements, and in slack periods of commitment and leadership.

But the publicly supported vision of the Riverpark, more commonly known now as the Riverwalk, has not only remained intact since the master plan was completed in 1985; it has thrived through all seasons since the first section, the Fishing Park near Chickamauga Dam, opened in 1989.

Indeed, the Riverpark's public popularity and persistent patronage has measurably increased as each new section, park and plaza has opened. Its diverse and steady throngs of walkers and bicyclists, skaters and fishermen, picnickers and the sauntering souls who simply seek the solace of being outdoors by flowing waters, have anchored the community together to the Riverpark like nothing else in this city's history.

Now, perhaps the toughest section to build lies ahead: construction of a three-mile segment from the Riverwalk's current terminus at Ross' Landing to South Board Street's nexus with St. Elmo. Yet the factors that make it both difficult and expensive to build may also make it one of the most intriguing and useful sections of the Riverpark in terms of the city's history -- most recently as a once-solid industrial town, before then as the site of punishing Civil War battles, and, ages before all that, as a Native American stronghold.

The trail through these interesting eras lies in the plan's pathway around and through the grounds of the some of the city's most significant industrial sites, both active and defunct, and its constant surrounding views over the river of Lookout Mountain and Moccasin Bend. Both were focal points in major Civil War battles; the Bend is also the site of two fortified Native American towns and dozens of archaeological sites spanning 14,000 years of human habitation.

In keeping with the Riverpark's master plan, it will be richly used for interpretive displays of all this history, along with continuous landscaping and lighting, embellishing public art and four major green plazas with varying amenities. The costly work of remediating and prepping some former industrial sites, of course, will first have to be completed.

Plans for the new Riverwalk section include a wider paved trail, up to 12-feet wide, to accommodate the steady mix of wheeled devices, runners and walkers. It will be narrower in some stages, however. Heading south from the plaza at the new terminus of Martin Luther King Boulevard at the river, users will quickly encounter an industrial squeeze point as they pass through a section of Alstom's giant shoreline overhead crane assembly. An ardent supporter of the greenway, Alstom has committed to tear down a building adjacent to the waterfront crane where it loads its power-plant turbines onto river barges, and to restrict movement of the crane, all in order to facilitate a riverside path for the new Riverwalk.

South of Alstom, Riverwalk users will also get to briefly see the nitty-gritty of recycling metals at the rim of PSC Metals' plant, one of the nation's largest recyclers of used iron and steel. Just past that plant, the Riverwalk will suddenly turn into a quiet, idyllic pocket forest that affords views of Moccasin Bend and Lookout Mountain at a point that dramatizes the angles of cannon fire exchanged from both points in fierce Civil War battles over control of the mountain.

The greenway continues south across now-forlorn acres of concrete where U.S. Pipe and Foundry once stood. The work to turn this stretch of industrial skeleton, and its tunnel under Interstate 24, into a beautified, green riverpark seems overwhelming. Yet this plan is also the beacon of civic rebirth of this important site, which parallels the Interstate until the river turns at the toe of Moccasin Bend toward Tiftonia.

The path across the U.S. Pipe grounds would feature a small green plaza at 26th Street, a canoe launch to Chattanooga Creek, and a more spacious park at the terminus to South Broad Street. Depending on funding, the Riverpark would continue to St. Elmo Boulevard at South Broad, providing close access to the miles of trails that traverse the side of Lookout Mountain, the evergreen legacy of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Battlefield parklands.

County officials and the design team at Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, Inc., estimate the costs of the proposed Riverpark addition at approximately $15 million. Around $9 million in federal and state transportation enhancement grants already have been awarded, and another grant of about $2.65 million is pending. City and county leaders are requesting additional funds from foundations, but neither government has itself committed significant funding through local tax revenue, nor have they yet funded or begun work on to secure the right-of-way easements and purchases that would make the park possible.

Planners say construction work could begin next spring or summer on the proposed Riverpark addition if funding is available. That uncertainty, however, should compel city and county government leaders to increase their own financial commitment, or to trim the per-mile cost of design work and amenities if they and taxpayers are unwilling to participate more seriously in the costs. Given the strong public support for previous Riverpark work, there's a good chance the public would favor a larger commitment by local governments.