Following a June 22 public presentation on the next phase of the Riverfront Master Plan, this column (“Special Bulletin”) was circulated electronically to various foundation lists of citizens who may have a keen interest in this issue. Readers were invited to respond. Those received by June 30 follow the column.
Since the initiation of the Riverfront Master Plan in 2000, it appears to me that there has been a good faith effort to engage the entire community, including the riverfront property owners, in dialogue regarding the improvement options. Numerous meetings, hearings and workshops have been held. These were advertised and the public was welcomed.
Were certain people (opponents) or constituencies always contacted personally about every meeting? I doubt it. Perhaps we could all have been more deliberate in communicating with the parties potentially directly affected by the project.
Would it have been better if more people were involved? Of course. Do some people still feel disconnected from the process of community decision making? Unfortunately, yes. We still have work to do to bring more people into the process. But one would be hard-pressed to find any comparable community project that has come close to generating the same level of public interest and participation.
Of course, until just recently, the focus of the design efforts has been on the Smother’s Park area. As the EDSA consultants stressed during the June 22 public hearing, the firm is still focused on the conceptual design phase of the portion of the master plan from downtown to English Park. It seems as if the opposition mobilized before any proposals were presented or understood.
I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theories. It is ridiculous to suggest that “gambling money” is behind the riverfront master plan. Community leaders, downtown advocates and others have been promoting riverfront improvements for decades.
Notwithstanding legitimate concerns over the federal budget deficit and the earmarking of community projects in the recent federal transportation bill, it would not make sense to return the money. Owensboro-Daviess County typically has not received its fair share of federal dollars; a refund would only shift our allocation elsewhere. This is a unique opportunity that our community should maximize.
Private property owners do not have much of a case in suggesting that government does not have the right to acquire their property for this purpose. Whether city government purchases the property at fair market value (the average of three independent appraisals) or acquires an easement, the walkway essentially will be a public sidewalk to a city park – hardly an unprecedented action by a governmental body.
Improvements proposed for First Street between the Executive Inn and English Park would be a nice complement to the riverfront improvements. However, this should not supplant the riverfront connection. The aesthetic appeal of using First Street, however enhanced, pales in comparison to the experience of walking, jogging or biking along the riverfront.
Strong public support
I have attended most every meeting or workshop since 2000, and my recollection is that no feature was more consistently supported by the public than the connection between English Park and downtown through some sort of walkway.
Legitimate questions and concerns
All that being said, riverfront homeowners between the Executive Inn and English Park have legitimate questions and concerns: view obstruction, security, safety, structural capacity, erosion and other issues. The general public and riverwalk proponents should empathize and appreciate these homeowners who have made important and valuable investments in the area.
Who has it right?
At this point, many of us do not know who to believe: city officials and EDSA presented sightline perspectives that indicate homeowner views would not be obstructed; opponents counter with their own experts and images that conclude otherwise. Let’s resolve this right away.
Design reactions, options and considerations
I am not wild about the proposals so far. I would like to see further consideration given to some sort of modest floating walkway or natural path along the water’s edge. In hearings and workshops, the public expressed interest in being close to the water, and that is a shortcoming of the Smother’s Park plan. Moreover, a waters edge walkway toward English Park would not obstruct homeowner’s views.
There are two potential complications: 1) Last night during the hearing, the EDSA designer said a floating walkway would be too costly to maintain. That could be, but there would also be significant savings in not having to build the extensive structure required to support the proposed elevated walkway. That structure would also collect an enormous amount of driftwood. 2) If a floating walkway is too difficult to engineer or maintain, a fixed natural path near the water’s edge would be underwater for much of the year. There would be an annual cleanup required once the water levels drop, but the walkway would be open much of the warm weather months when the path would most likely be used.
I do not understand why a floating walkway system could not be designed that is comparable to that which is used for the many restaurants along the Covington and Newport riverfront. Those floating barges move up and down with an attached beam and wheel that shifts with the water levels.
I find the prominence of the Executive Inn’s Showroom Lounge an unsettling aspect of the plan. While an important dimension of the hotel and community nightlife, the facility is nearly 30 years old, has needed some structural support from settlement, and is not architecturally significant. How would costs compare if the walkway did not have to be wrapped around it? What kind of design would EDSA propose if the Showroom Lounge were not there? What are the long-term uses and prospects for the Showroom Lounge? Would the hotel be better off building a new, larger venue connected with a possible future addition: arena, convention center expansion or casino?
Are there other options for the area between the hotel and English Park? Could a retaining wall (shorter than what is proposed for Smother’s Park) be installed along that stretch that would allow for angled infill soil in order to create a grassy slope from the top of the bank? This would be easier to clean and provide a natural base for a path or walkway. This would also end continuing erosion problems that the homeowners are facing.
The importance of private investment
A key issue that did not surface during the June 22 forum: How do we stimulate private sector investment along this $45 million taxpayer investment? How do we ensure that it is appropriate and substantially complements the master plan? Some say that once the public sector makes the investment, the private sector improvements will follow. They point to the condominiums near English Park already announced by homebuilder Benny Clark.
Others are not so sure that substantial private sector development will occur unless it is packaged by the public sector or a public-private partnership. They claim that private investments (in retail, restaurants, hotels, housing, offices, etc.) are what will make the area come alive and justify the public investment. Should we request that some of the $45 million be used to stimulate private investment?
A Riverfront Master Plan Steering Committee is in place. If the committee does not have a representative of the riverfront property owners or Northwest Neighborhood Alliance, one should be added. It is also important for a point person to be clearly identified so that the public knows who to contact with a question or concern.
Toward the greater good
During the forum, Laura Morris, one of our community’s most active volunteers and community boosters, challenged all of us – as a community – to find the balance between respecting personal interests while we strive for the greater good.
A gentle and wise voice amidst the emotional debate of the forum. Thank you, Laura.
To review the EDSA Master Plan:
To review the information prepared by those opposing the
To share reactions to this column: