Stavney: Eagle River Park may be done but corridor vision isn’t
This Memorial Day weekend, the Town of Eagle celebrates a significant milestone in a robust public process that began in 2014. With the grand opening of Eagle River Park on Friday, the in-stream “water park” improvements will now compliment an “upland” park.
The river was always there, but this is a patently new place that has been carved from a truck parking area. Recreationists traveling between the Front Range and the Western Slope will be attracted to the surf and the turf. Both are lovely.
Boaters and floaters may be forgiven in thinking, “mission accomplished.” Others who wanted another stand-alone park to complement the town of Eagle’s many parks and open spaces also may feel the same. For skeptics who think the project is a frivolous public overinvestment in “play,” this cold weekend may provide a confirming “meh” moment.
A long-term vision
Some who participated in the long land planning process that led to this new park hopefully see it as a project whose success will be better judged 20 years hence when other elements of the corridor plan unfold. From a community development and economic development perspective, that vision is at best 25% complete.
In 2014, staff curated a trip for the town leaders to experience similar towns that had chosen to reinvent by like-minded projects connecting them to nearby rivers. For years, towns and cities focused development around burgeoning road systems and often zoned riverside property for industrial uses, effectively turning their backs on rivers.
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Think of the junkyard that was the western entry to Eagle or the Swallow Oil property where the message board is now a decade old. In recent years, cities are regrouping around these valuable natural amenities that pioneers once traveled across the country to settle beside.
On the trip, we saw how Salida completely flipped the front door of some businesses from main street onto a new pedestrian river corridor. Salida summers are now like “Saturday in the Park” every day. The town is booming.
In Golden, improvements changed an overgrown stormwater chute into a vital pedestrian corridor that enhanced and activated adjacent properties and connected disparate parts of the city.
In Buena Vista, improvements made the old town and a new development into a coherent whole, replacing a dump that once separated the old town from the river.
Other examples of river projects refocusing business districts abound across Colorado and the West including Steamboat Springs, Vail and Confluence Park in Denver. A river is a placemaking and economic development opportunity. Enjoy the park opening this weekend, but know that the genius of the corridor vision will be fulfilled when these things happen:
- Connecting Chambers & Eagle River Parks to Broadway and the central business district with an iconic pedestrian connection. This was the No. 1 intent of the project: to provide an amenity that drew visitors off the highway to downtown (and from downtown to the river) to activate the central business district and spur redevelopment. This was a weakness of the visitors center concept which failed to put a focus on the central business district. “Connect the heart of the town with the soul of the river” is the corridor mission.
- Connecting the Eagle River Park to existing Chambers Park with a safe walkway. Continuous in-stream safety improvements from the Chambers ramp downstream connecting the two will be greater than the sum of the parts. Chambers can be seen from downtown, the new park cannot. Right now, the rip-rap shore, the river configuration itself and the pedestrians who will be walking on Fairgrounds road will each be major safety hazards because of this private inholding of otherwise useless road/river right of way. Tubing season on a busy fairgrounds weekend will be interesting.
- Improving Chambers Park. The first discussions that drove town leaders toward the river in 2013 were about the embarrassing bathroom at the visitors center, and about the very purpose of the visitors center. We opened up the park area to the river with weed whackers and chainsaws, put in an access ramp and just like that, the park behind the barn took on a new life. The Chambers Park improvement plan envisions more parking, rearrangement of the buildings, and the opportunity for a boathouse/activity center/restaurant pad instead of a gift shop. Instead of a place to pee and purchase, the park provides a “sticky” experience that should make visitors stay much longer. It also could allow a cool back patio with volleyball for the bowling alley.
- Connecting and spurring Eagle County to investment in the Fairgrounds. The new soft path along the river through the rodeo grounds is amazing. When it connects all the way through to the West end of the fairgrounds property beside relocated ballfields, past camping and whatever else the county envisions in an upcoming master plan, and when that path connects at Brush Creek Confluence park to Eagle Ranch trail system across the river, only then will the fairgrounds be activated as the multi-purpose public amenity that it should be. Loops are more energetic than dead ends. Maybe the fairgrounds facility moves west and the current location becomes a mini-Miller Ranch affordable housing development.
- The making of a 5-mile pedestrian river trail. In the other direction, soft path systems are envisioned (with some property bypasses) along the Nogal Road open space to extend two miles east of town onto the residential community being proposed by Merv Lapin. This will not be a wide recreation path, but will enable fishermen, birders and hikers to walk from one end of town to the other. It will create a nearly 4-mile riverside path.
- Attracting private investment and redevelopment of the South Bank across from the new river park. This eventual highest-best use of private property will be the most transformative of all the above. Without too many neighbors to NIMBY it, this should be a very dense, mostly residential neighborhood walkable to Broadway, to the river park and to all I-70 services and not least to the regional bus system. Add co-work, high-speed broadband, and a few riverside restaurants, and Eagle becomes the most attractive live-work town in the region and a much more viable place for a spectrum of next-generation services and businesses that will follow the people.
So, for now, enjoy the new play area. Water park aficionados will know that this is an observation year so that the rapid blocks can be installed at low water to optimize play use by expert kayakers and surfers next spring, as well as to tune it for late season use by tubers and swimmers.
I wish people could walk right from the old truck parking through a time portal into the new park to see what has improved already. Watching families gather at the magnetic riverside park as children and adults play in the warm August-September waters may further soften the skeptics. I, for one, will be envisioning how the opportunities above will someday complete a plan that is already a success.
Jon Stavney is the executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. He is also a past county commissioner, as well as having served as trustee, mayor and manager of the town of Eagle through his career.