Some say the preliminary concept report for riverfront development submitted to the City of St. Joseph by SWT Design should result in a severe case of ‘buyer’s remorse’. We hope not.
This newspaper did express our opposition on-line and in print to spending public dollars ($150,000) on a study pushed by the planning and community development director that appeared unlikely to yield any new benefit or insight for citizens and taxpayers. Our opposition is not against improving the riverfront and enhancing its accessibility to all citizens and visitors. We view the riverfront as an essential component of our world-class parks and parkway system. In our view the necessary studies, concepts, reports and plans have already been done – starting with Charles Mulford Robinson’s complete parks and parkways concept released in 1910 – refined by George Edward Kessler in 1912 – enhanced by John Charles Olmsted in 1916 and shepherded to its fruition in the ensuing decade by George Elberton Burnap. Not familiar with the names? Google them. Review their collective portfolios of achievements. These are the giants of landscape architecture responsible for much of our nation’s most enduring purpose-built greenspaces.
119 years later, however, the parkway system is not complete – and it is falling into disrepair. The study concept released by SWT is glossy but misses the mark in three critical ways. First, it presumes infrastructure such as an RV park, mini golf, tennis courts and other small ball ideas are components to providing Saint Joseph an enjoyable and accessible riverfront. Second, it does not address the growing blight in the area. Open dumping, as well as worrisome and derelict properties, make what should be viewed beautiful feel very sketchy. Third and finally, the SWT concept creates the wrong impression that the land, most of which is in a flood way, is suitable for major infrastructure development. The result is creating a food fight among property owners and other speculative ventures thinking they have hit pay dirt.
Less Is More
Tuning Fork remains hopeful because the SWT concepts may prompt City leaders to seek guidance from the comprehensive vision of Robinson, Kessler, Olmsted and Burnap. Focused observation of our parks and parkway system reveals a plan for creating a pastoral chain of green spaces, rich in arboreous landscape, meandering roads with expansive rights-ofway, water features, vistas both wide and narrow. The riverfront and bluffs stretching from downtown above McArthur Drive and past Waterworks Road were long-envisioned to be an integral component of our parks and parkway system.
SWT Design submitted a preview of their report in the form of two concept overviews to a select ‘sample’ audience at the Remington Nature Center in December. The City Council was to receive an update from SWT at their February 21 work session, but the event was cancelled. Presumably the council will continue to consider SWT’s suggestions in the coming days and weeks and opportunities for public comment and scrutiny will be made available. Tuning Fork can’t see any reason to ‘adopt’ these study results as any type of master plan. Would a marina be desirable along the riverfront? Probably yes, and plenty of groups and individuals have advocated for such an amenity for years. Let’s look to the private sector for a viable engineered plan for building a marina, identify the resources necessary to build it and conduct a market study that proves it will be economically sustainable.
Are there viable proposals on the table from the private sector to develop other amenities along the riverfront that are compatible with the natural beauty and the flood-prone conditions of the area? If so, entertain the ideas in a thoughtful, professional and expeditious manner – but respectful to the parks and parkway plan.
Are there numerous land owners ready to sell their property throughout the riverfront area covered in the SWT study? Great. The City should buy the land, consolidate it for future park development, appropriately zone the land for such use, actively work to remove blighted industrial operations in the area and undertake such beautification projects that are compatible with parkland in a floodplain.