Riverfront Park-1

The River Heritage Conservancy is planning a sprawling riverfront park in Southern Indiana. The planned park would extend from the George Rogers Clark homesite to Silver Creek. Submitted photo. 

CLARKSVILLE — It will be a slow process, but a local nonprofit is making significant headway in its plans and acquisition of land for the development of a riverfront park in Southern Indiana.

River Heritage Conservancy, Inc. (RHC) is planning a roughly 400-acre park along the Ohio River in Southern Indiana, which would extend downriver from the George Rogers Clark homesite in Clarksville to Silver Creek. Earlier this year, River Heritage Conservancy commissioned Philadelphia-based OLIN to design the park.

"It’s coming together," RHC Executive Director Scott Martin said. "The research took the past six months, and now the architects and designers are really starting to draw on paper and do their work."

Martin said the nonprofit has about a quarter of the land for the entire project, and its land acquisition has likely doubled since the beginning of the year. The conservancy owns 95 acres, and public agencies own about 150 acres in the planned park boundaries.

Other private owners such as businesses control land planned for the park, so RHC is negotiating with willing land owners as it proceeds. He said he holds private property rights in high regard, and RHC never wants to be the "heavy hammer or the bad guys."

"It’s a long process on the land, and that’s OK," he said. "These are family lands, these are businesses. We’re never going to condemn or force anyone out, so we just meet people where they are and just work from there."

Martin said OLIN is on track to have the initial park design complete by the end of the year, and they have spent about 400 to 500 hours studying the site over the past six months, he said. The master plan should be ready this fall, he said, and it will likely be revealed to the public at the end of the year or in early 2020. RHC would then begin its fundraising campaign for the project.

Although the entire plan could take decades to complete, the planners have their "pedal to the metal" working on the initial design, according to Martin. Parks of this size would normally take at least two years to plan, but they are moving forward with designs at a quick pace, he said. RHC is working with a number of community organizations and local municipalities to plan the park's development, including the Town of Clarksville, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Jeffersonville Flood Control District.

"We haven’t had to start at first base," he said. "We probably started on second and running toward third because of [our partners]."

A TRANSFORMATIVE PROJECT

The Town of Clarksville and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worked with the nonprofit to clean up the former Graveyard Auto, a 10-acre piece of land at Emory Crossing that once held scrapped cars and buses. The EPA started a massive cleanup of the planned park land in May and found arsenic and lead in soil, drums and car batteries, and the cleanup effort ended just last week.

Dylan Fisher, redevelopment director for the Town of Clarksville, said he is impressed with the efficiency of those involved in the park project, and he looks forward to seeing the designs for the park. He is confident the project will come to fruition, saying over time it will become the world-class park system RHC is proposing.

"It's truly a transformative project," he said. "It will provide quality of life, quality of place and a destination. It will be known not just regionally, but across the state, the Midwest."

Fisher said once the master plan is complete, it will help the town add what infrastructure is needed to create connectivity and access to the park. The project will also be an opportunity for economic development to complement the park, he said.

Kevin Baity, town manager for the Town of Clarksville, said the town looks forward to continuing its collaboration with RHC and OLIN as they create the longterm master plan for the park.

"The creation of a park of this size and magnitude will greatly enhance quality of life and the opportunities for diverse recreation in this area," he said. "It will serve as an additional marketing tool, not only for Louisville, but for the entire Southern Indiana region, and it will be another amenity to draw new residents to Clarksville."

The planners want to create a park in the vein of Frederick Law Olmsted's parks, including Cherokee and Iroquois Parks in Louisville, according to Martin. The planned riverfront park would "fill the last gap" in the Louisville Metro area by providing a quality urban park in Southern Indiana, he said.

"There’s a lot of interesting things that we’ve learned, but I can tell you, what’s just absolutely run home for us — and it’s not an overstatement — is just the profound responsibility to get this design right," he said.

Martin said the planners have been researching the rich natural and cultural history of the site, including the trade communities that came together around the Ohio River. This understanding is "shaping our approach to the landscape," he said.

Flooding along the Ohio River will present a challenge, but the plan is to create a "climate-resilient" park designed specifically for changing flooding patterns. Portions of the Ohio River basin are projected to see additional rain and stream flows increasing up to 50 percent in upcoming decades due to climate change, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"So that has some really fun design challenges in terms of elevations and where you build roads, pathways or overlooks," Martin said. "What landscape features do you design to flood frequently, and what features do you design not to? Water is undefeated, and we acknowledge that, so we’re working with it, and not against it. It’s a new space, and in the architecture world, it’s all post-Sandy lessons after Hurricane Sandy."

He said he wants the project to turn the Ohio River into "Main Street" for the region and to provide connections across communities in Southern Indiana and Louisville.

"This is our region’s project," Martin said. "It can serve a role by cinching all of those communities together on the river with Waterfront Park across the way and the Greenway, which has been enormously well received. Our backs have been to the river, and now we can face it forward, and we really see that as a profound move and a big move on the landscape."