SUNDAY EDITION: Vision for Waterfront Park expansion underway - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION: Vision for Waterfront Park expansion underway

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The first steps in the westward expansion of Waterfront Park will occur this week, when the design firm creating the project's master plan meets with Waterfront executives, downtown leaders and city officials to discuss their work for the coming months.

Metro government has committed $40,000 to develop a blueprint for the fourth phase of Waterfront Park, but the vision remains a long way from reality.

There's no overall budget or funding source for turning a swath of vacant, overgrown land just west of Ninth Street into a vibrant green space along the Ohio River, and more than half of the 25 parcels envisioned for the park currently are under private control, according to data from the Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator.

But Waterfront and city officials are optimistic that the time is right to embark on the project, which has its origins in a redevelopment strategy for the river's edge that dates back almost 30 years, and lies between Waterfront Park and Shawnee, Chickasaw and several smaller parks in western Louisville.

"There's this wonderful continuum of parks all the way along the riverfront, and this just kind of completes the missing piece," said David Karem, president of the Waterfront Development Corp., which is guiding the master plan by MKSK of Lexington, Ky.

The Shippingport Centre Business Association had recommended a park on the site in a plan for the area it completed about 15 years ago, said David Baughman, an association board member.

"I think it's huge," Baughman said. "What we need is a conduit from downtown to Portland."

Initially called Waterfront Park West, the park proposal has been mentioned in meetings of Vision Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer's long-term wish list for the city and would be ideal for the mayor's sales tax proposal, said Chris Poynter, a Fischer spokesman.

Since a master plan for Waterfront Park was approved in 1991, Louisville has added 85 acres of nationally acclaimed parklands where scrap yards, shipping terminals and other industry once dotted the river's shoreline.

Karem estimates that as much as 70 percent of that land was still under private control – and in active use – when work on the park's plan started.  

The land envisioned as Waterfront Park's next phase is a fraction of the larger park, sits in a floodplain and isn't currently in use. A cost estimate for building the park will be part of the master plan, which Karem hopes will be done within six months.

MKSK, which also is completing an update to downtown Louisville's master plan, will work with the waterfront agency to develop the park's proposed amenities, landscape and access to surrounding neighborhoods, along with a project schedule.

But some aspects can't be changed. The floodwall is likely to remain, Karem said, and a portion of the proposed park lies under an elevated section of Interstate 64.

"Initially those may be perceived as constraints," said Andy Knight, senior associate with MKSK. "But we're approaching them as opportunities. That's what makes this site unique. They've got these urban components that a park in the suburb might not have."

The 22-acre park would stretch between the Ohio River and Rowan Street, bounded roughly by 10th Street to the east and 14th Street to the west.

The site played a prominent role in the city's early days, historian Rick Bell wrote in an overview prepared for the waterfront agency. Not long after France allied with the fledging United States in the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark ordered settlers to leave their outpost on Corn Island for a location near the river's edge and what is now 12th Street, according to Bell.

It was the first settlement in Louisville, and the area later marked the city's western boundary and was home in the early 1800s to the short-lived, steam-powered Hope Distillery, which sought to use steam engines in the production of bourbon, Bell wrote. The distillery site was subsequently used as a racetrack.

The area also was home to a tobacco market, a train depot and the first permanent home of Actors Theatre, according to Bell.

Today the land is an abandoned patchwork of concrete slabs and wild grasses. But a parks project similar in caliber to Waterfront Park could induce private investment similar to what followed the first three phases to the east, Poynter said.

"You've seen all of the development that's happened at the edge of the park, and you can easily envision that happening on the edge of the western park," he said.

The funds for the master plan were secured by Metro Council member Cheri Bryant Hamilton, whose western Louisville district abuts the proposed parklands. The money includes $30,000 in neighborhood development funds and $10,000 from the city's general fund. 

Hamilton said Waterfront Park has been developed "as far east as we can go," and she noted that the waterfront redevelopment plan created in the 1980s also called for parks to the west.

"I'm excited because that bridges the Ninth Street divide. It makes people want to come west," she said.

Hamilton said bridging that divide would be made easier if the city extends River Road to the west from where it currently jogs south at 7th Street. A plan Metro government unveiled about a decade ago to align the road to ultimately connect with Rowan Street west of 9th Street has stalled.

"We don't have any money right now to do it. But one day it will get done," Poynter said.

Extending River Road would lead to easier access to the proposed park. With the road now curling away from the river, drivers would have to head several blocks south and take surface streets to get to Rowan Street.

But the biggest obstacle to completing the new parks project will be funding, Karem said.

The $115 million cost of Waterfront Park was paid for over more than 25 years with a mix of federal, state, local and private funds, including about $40 million in appropriations from the Kentucky General Assembly, said Karem, a former state Senator.

The project would be a "potential candidate" for Fischer's sales tax plan, which is expected to generate as much as $135 million a year, Poynter said.

Once the master plan is finished, Karem said "it then becomes an issue for the community."

"What does the community want to do, and what does Metro government want to do?"

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