Riverfront revitalization has become somewhat of a silver bullet for cities looking to pump life back into their downtown districts. From Minneapolis to Spokane — and thousands of miles in between — communities are returning to their riverfront roots and investing in grand waterfront developments designed to lure businesses, shoppers, tourists and adventurists back to the heart of their urban centers.
When it works like it should, the ripple effect can be tremendous. Riverfront revitalization in cities has been known to transform downtowns from wastelands into profitable pools that perpetuate more investment, revenue and jobs, higher property values and endless opportunities for tourism, retail, entertainment, recreation and more.
Take Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, which revamped its image from being one of America’s most polluted cities to one of its coolest (and greenest) by virtue of its riverfront. Efforts to clean up the factory-laden waterfront began as an initiative to improve the quality of life for local residents, but two decades later, it has evolved into a $900 tourism engine that averages more than a million visitors a year. Chattanooga’s riverfront is also a key selling point for companies like Volkswagen, Amazon.com, Alstom and others that have brought jobs and investment to the city.
Not all cities that have attempted riverfront revitalization have been as lucky. On the surface, it might seem like a simple “If you build it, they will come” strategy, but that wasn’t the case for Tampa, Toledo and other cities that sunk millions into festival marketplaces by their riverfronts — all of which ultimately flopped.
What makes riverfront developments work? Soapbox Cincinnati heralds The Banks, an 18-acre mixed-use development along the city’s riverfront, as an example of how to do it right.
The project has already created quite a stir, drawing commitments from a diverse mix of upscale restaurants, bars, live music venues, hotels, condos and commercial businesses. Adding to its appeal is its collaboration with Cincinnati’s 45-acre Riverfront Park, where both the Paul Brown Stadium and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center are located. Other strategies that have added to its success include:
Leadership from the private sector. Support of city and county officials is important, planners say, but efforts like these work best when spearheaded by a separate entity. Whether led by a private or publicly funded group, it allows for more collaboration and keeps the project from getting buried in bureaucracy.
A pedestrian-friendly design. Creating a space that encourages people to explore and congregate is just as important as giving them places to shop, dine, listen to music, etc. Cincinnati’s Purple People Bridge connects The Banks with another development, Newport on the Levee, which has office space, restaurants, bars, a movie theater and access to Northern Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium.
A new spin on the old. When Newport on the Levee opened, it captured the attention of locals who knew the area, but were intrigued by its new look and eager to find out what the fuss was about. “I think it put a new face on the city, and it brought a lot of people from the region back to Newport to experience some of the good things that were happening — that maybe they were reluctant to do prior,” Newport’s business development officer Ryan Wyrick told the Soapbox.
Cincinnatti’s riverfront developers took their inspiration from other successful developments in Pittsburg and Louisville. Walking trails and greenspace for concerts and festivals are defining characteristics of Louisville’s 85-acre Waterfront Park — and soon there will be another. The city is constructing a pedestrian bridge spanning the Ohio River that will connect the park to Jeffersonville, Ind. and its historic sites. Smaller cities like Pueblo, Colo. and Waco, Texas have also drawn people back to their riverfronts with successful waterfront projects.
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