Waterfront Redevelopment Often a Long-Term Project

Waterfront redevelopment is near and dear to me. All of our lakefronts and riverfronts should have a wonderful place to walk, run, or simply watch the world go by. After all, when you go to Miami Beach, Baltimore, Boston, San Antonio, Portland, or Minneapolis, don't you like to hang out by those waterfronts? And don't you spend some money while you're there?

Waterways should be the focal points of our communities, instead of forgotten liabilities. Make them magnets for development instead of hangouts for bad behavior.

Even a small stream can attract investment, so don't underestimate that brook, creek, canal, coulee, bayou, or wash. It needs to be part of your place making strategy as a community.

So why is your city so much less capable of allowing a waterfront to inspire you to create a real sense of place? Did you know the San Antonio River, which forms the basis for the Riverwalk shown above, really is a dinky little river? But what a great place to have dinner on a boat!

If you need to clean up your river, lake, or stream, and it's in your power to begin to do so, get that rolling. Depending on its size and depth of pollution or debris, that may be a process requiring many years, or a relatively orderly project.

Realize that the people upstream have a vote in whether your water is clean, so do what you can, but then begin to concentrate on the landward side of waterfront redevelopment.

Next tackle vacant and abandoned properties on the waterfront in exactly the same way a dog worries a bone. If the eyesore were next door to you, you'd be motivated. Along the way, you'll have to learn something about brownfields.

Try to find a few people who will adopt the really nasty industrial sites that still line some major riverfronts. After all, it's easier to clean up after abandoned industrial sites than to figure out how to keep a working business operational while giving its exterior a facelift.

Railroads may own a good chunk of your riverfront or lakefront. If they aren't using them, consider claiming the lines as trails. If you have abandoned yards, try working closely with the railroad to turn those areas into parkland.

If you have a prosperous industrial use that doesn't look any worse than others in its class, you have a more delicate problem. But here you need to work intensively with economic development officials to see what can be done.

If your prosperous industrial use relies on outdoor storage of mounds of supplies or ground-up materials for recycling, get it relocated or get rid of it, but get going. A few cities are exceptions to this rule, because their industrial processing on the riverfront is still so extensive that it's a decades-long project to clean up the look.

In that case, it's still worth engaging in a planning process so that a transition to a higher use is made as opportunities present themselves to relocate businesses or purchase properties when particular uses cease. Study our suggestions for adaptive re-use. Even if it takes 40 years, waterfront redevelopment is worth it.

Trails and Corridors along the Water

Meanwhile, you need to start reclaiming access for the public to its waterfront. If an active industry actually uses the river or lake in some phase of its process, how can you go around it while you're creating a great waterfront redevelopment? Can a part of its campus be opened to public use as a trail?

Speaking of trails, waterfronts were made for them. OK, the other way around, but you get the point. If there's no trail system along your river or lake, start on that idea today, using any available public right-of-way. It will be a wonderful benchmark on the way to being a walkable community and a bikeable community as well.

If the nearby buildings are ugly, maybe you can fence them off, screen them with trees, paint a mural on one, simply paint them. Even with these measures, it's essential that the waterfront between the industrial plant and the river or lake feel safe and accessible to the public as much as possible. Your waterfront redevelopment likely will occur in several major chunks, so make the old development as pretty as possible.

This isn't simply my aesthetic sensibility speaking here. Trails and promenades are a real benefit to a community. They add to the quality of life that the "creative class" of young people seek and that many healthy older folks seek. In addition, there's a more direct economic benefit.

Waterfront Views Should Create Prime Real Estate

This direct economic benefit begins to be possible when you figure out how to create long views of your river or lake. I think people are wired to appreciate a view out over the water, just as there seems to be an innate positive response to viewing the horizon. Therefore, it follows that people will pay a premium for an office, condo, or restaurant meal in a waterfront redevelopment.

Is there a high point offering a view of your river or lake or ocean? Where is it? Is it accessible to the public? Can you make it a viewing platform? Can you make it a green space? Does your market allow you to build a tall building? If so, make the strongest rules you can to assure that it takes advantage of the waterfront vista.

Changes in zoning regulations may make it possible to require buildings near the water to take advantage of the view. You might create a waterfront zoning district, or a waterfront redevelopment overlay zoning district that adds regulations to a mapped portion of an existing zoning district. This could require a percentage of the building front looking over the water to be transparent.

A Unified Theme along the Waterfront

Lastly, your goal is to create a strong sense of place for your waterfront redevelopment project. Although absolutely every waterfront has plenty of potential in this regard, it's up to you to see that the potential becomes a reality.

Attempt visual continuity of some type along the waterfront. Do this with special pavers, sidewalks, wayfinding signage, banners, and an easy-to-follow street pattern that leads directly to the heart of your town or city.

Keep the street interesting and colorful, even celebratory. No reason to be somber along a glorious stretch of river. The principles are the same as good streetscape. Like any space that should be pedestrian-friendly, try to energize any long stretches where there are no pedestrian destinations (stores, restaurants, and so forth) with public plazas, seating areas, kiosks, street vendors or performers, or something else of interest.

Keep parking lots away from the riverfront itself, but make sure there is ample parking and/or transit. Take advantage of the waterfront for summer festivals, which means that you need an outdoor gathering space of considerable proportion in comparison with the size of your community. Start preparing one, and the programming usually will follow, especially if you make the rental rules and procedures easy.

But don't leave it to chance. The municipal government itself probably needs to start the ball rolling with some programming, by which we mean concerts, runs, walks, boat parades, a street or trail painting contest, a community picnic, water festival, or whatever else your physical space will allow.

It seems as though this page should be longer, but actually your task is deceptively simple:

• Start directing people's attention to your waterfront, not away from it. Even if your "waterfront" is a minor stream.

• Do a long-range plan for the waterfront redevelopment area, unless almost all property already is abandoned.

• Clean up your waterfront.

• Screen what you can't clean.

• What Mother Nature has created belongs to all of us. Don't fence it off from the public.

To dig in more, see the Waterfront Center site.

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