Vision for Riverwalk is different from reality

TODD BENNETT/STAFF
The Eighth Street bulkhead serves as a gateway to Riverwalk Augusta.
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If businessman Brad Usry had looked into a crystal ball 25 years ago, he would have seen a different image of Riverwalk Augusta than he sees today.

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THEN: When it was completed in 1988, Riverwalk Augusta extended from Sixth Street to 10th Street with an 1,800-seat amphitheater.  AUGUSTA TOMORROW
AUGUSTA TOMORROW
THEN: When it was completed in 1988, Riverwalk Augusta extended from Sixth Street to 10th Street with an 1,800-seat amphitheater.

Like many city residents, Usry had a romantic vision of tourists flocking to the riverside walking esplanade where they would enjoy shops and restaurants – more so than exist nearby now. The riverwalk hugging the Savannah River banks would be a popular spot, busy with activity and a contagious energy.

That vision isn’t dead, Usry says, but the riverwalk has hit many speed bumps curtailing its potential since opening on April 1, 1988. At that time, city leaders and residents took pride in the multimillion-dollar development, the brainchild of former Mayor Ed McIntyre but promoted by his successor Mayor Charles DeVaney as the cornerstone of downtown revitalization.

“We took our Savannah River and little else and turned it into a showplace. If you like what you see today, there’s a lot more to come,” DeVaney said when it opened.

The riverwalk was viewed as the first and most important step in public and private investment to tackle the problem of downtown flight, an issue since two malls had opened in the late 1970s.

A quarter-century since lighting the spark to revive downtown Augusta, Usry and others familiar with the riverwalk since its inception say it successfully laid the cornerstone DeVaney envisioned. But, the building blocks came much slower than expected.

Jumping hurdles

The riverwalk was a key component of the 1982 Master Plan, a $116 million design developed by American Cities Corp., a firm hired by the revitalization think tank Augusta Tomorrow Inc. Originally called the Bay Street Esplanade, the riverwalk was one of 20 projects looked at as a solution to downtown’s demise.

Leaders jumped hurdles to make the riverwalk a reality. A congressional act was required to breach the levee separating the Savannah River from the city core, and extensive negotiations were needed to move a railroad line that ran on the south side of the levee.

Progress sped forward on the riverwalk, as the Augusta City Council approved funding for a second and third phase, opening in 1990 and 1993, respectively. When complete, the riverwalk extended from Sixth Street to 10th Street with an 1,800-seat amphitheater.

Some projects in the master plan never happened, including a recreation of Fort Augusta. Others, such as the Radisson Augusta Hotel and Conference Center – now the Augusta Marriott – and a visitor center inside the old Cotton Exchange, made a noticeable impact on riverfront development.

Port Royal, a $36 million retail and residential high-rise, was not in the original plan but became central to the redevelopment process – although shops in its upscale, first-floor mall began closing a year after opening.

Also paramount to riverfront development, but not without its own financial troubles, was the Augusta Riverfront Center, including the Radisson and Morris Museum of Art that opened in 1992.

Great expectations

The master plan was overly ambitious, said Dayton Sherrouse, now the director of the Augusta Canal Authority. When the riverwalk came to fruition, Sherrouse was executive vice president of Augusta Tomorrow.

“We had great expectations, perhaps, maybe unrealistic,” Sherrouse said.

Although revitalization was slow, proof of the riverwalk’s success lies on Broad Street, said Herbert Upton, the chairman of the Augusta Port Authority in the late 1980s. Broad Street bars and restaurants bustle with activity, a big difference compared to a once-abandoned downtown district.

A big stumbling block has been connecting riverfront development to downtown’s core, Sherrouse said. Streets running perpendicular to the river never saw growth that was envisioned.

Usry owned some of the first businesses that opened near the riverwalk. His restaurant, Cotton Row Cafe on Eighth Street at the levee breach, never struggled to attract customers. He also owned a gift shop and small conference center on Eighth Street.

There was a strong energy in the riverwalk’s early years, but that died off, Usry said.

Consolidation

As city leaders and private investors struggled to revive downtown during a weak economy, skepticism about downtown’s future was already brewing. Some contended downtown was dead and there was no bringing it back.

For a short time, the riverwalk became a center for downtown activity. The annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta was moved from Telfair Street to the riverwalk in 1993, drawing thousands to the river.

Missy DeSouza worked in the city office that planned special events at the riverwalk in the early 1990s. Despite regular concerts, boat races and family events, she said it was always difficult to get people to come to the riverwalk.

“I don’t think it ever caught on like it could have,” said DeSouza, who now lives in Concord, N.C. planning special events and fundraising for Motor Racing Outreach. “People still don’t realize what a great place it is.”

When DeSouza left the special events office for the Greater Augusta Arts Council, she watched funding drop for the riverwalk. Then, the Augusta Common opened on the 800 block between Broad and Reynolds streets in 2002, giving groups a new, preferred venue.

And eventually, the riverwalk lost the initial players who had pushed for its success. DeVaney served as mayor until Augusta’s consolidation with Richmond County on Jan. 1, 1996, another factor that some say hurt the riverwalk and downtown.

After consolidation, there was no legal body with a single focus on downtown’s core as the old city council had, Sherrouse said. No one kept their eyes on riverwalk maintenance and safety.

Upton agrees consolidation was a distraction from reviving downtown. Now, city leaders must balance attention among all areas of the county, he said.

From the beginning, the riverwalk faced problems with maintenance and safety. DeVaney added walking police patrols in 1990 in response to complaints about vandalism.

“Charles (DeVaney) was big on it being first class and being well-maintained. It had to be safe,” Upton said. “If Charles was still here, he would particularly not be happy with that.”

‘Limitless’ potential

Most recently, two people were brutally beaten on the riverwalk on May 3 about 11 p.m. Following the attack, city leaders started formulating a plan to improveit.

The plan, not yet approved by the city commission, includes trimming trees to improve visibility at a cost of $183,000 and cleaning and repairing lightposts. Additionally, the proposal seeks to increase events and activities at the riverwalk by 50 percent beginning in 2014.

Recreation, parks and facilities director Bob Levine said his department will work with arts groups and event promoters to have street musicians, art shows and family-friendly attractions.

“The more positive activity we have down there the more it will attract people going down there to enjoy themselves,” Levine said.

Levine said the riverwalk has not been significantly neglected and the maintenance problems are similar to what other municipalities face with public parks. The riverwalk has also experienced normal effects of aging and needs upgrades, but it hasn’t gotten out of control with problems such as litter and graffiti.

“Generally speaking, I think it has been maintained at a reasonable level,” he said.

Levine said his budget includes funds for regular maintenance of the riverwalk in addition to about $20,000 special purpose local option sales tax monies. He is seeking some capital funds to eventually upgrade lighting to an energy-efficient LED system.

There’s new momentum as well along the riverfront. Momentum with the possibility to give the riverwalk a rebirth, Usry said. The expansion of the Augusta Convention Center will bring the tourists that have been lacking for decades.

“I still think the potential for Riverwalk is limitless,” Usry said. “It’s too much of an asset to just die.”

Upton said what has been lost at the riverwalk in recent years must be regained. The riverwalk and surrounding development are critical to the city’s economy and tourism.

“It’s still a good thing. It could just be better,” he said. “It’s still something we have that other cities don’t have.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT RIVERWALK AUGUSTA

• “Flowers need replanting and we need more activities for the kids out here … (Riverwalk) used to be better than this. Now, people just don’t care. The city could do more by keeping it clean.” – Cantrell Brown, of Augusta

• “The park itself is very nice. It’s better than the one in Louisville, Ky.” – Benjamin Ellis, of Louisville, Ky.

• “It definitely needs to be a safer environment … To me, it’s gone downhill. It’s not what it used to be.” – Samantha Hall, of Thomson

• “When I come down here, it’s always what I expect it to be – a serene place.” – Angelique Pedraza, of Grovetown

• “There were lots of plans for (downtown development). There were some good things like Fort Discovery but that’s gone … At this point, we didn’t have the follow through with development we were hoping for.” – Jeanne Stroebel, of Augusta

Comments (9) Add comment
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Riverman1
87157
Points
Riverman1 07/28/13 - 08:56 am
6
0
In a Nutshell

If I had to describe the problem in a nutshell it's trying to create demand in an area by throwing public money at it instead of letting the market forces determine where growth occurs.

TrukinRanger
1748
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TrukinRanger 07/28/13 - 09:10 am
0
0
I've enjoyed going to
Unpublished

I've enjoyed going to Riverwalk in the past, but it's not a "destination" on my list of things to do. We Have all this empty land along the river that is tied up in who-knows-what that is being completely wasted. Instead of gardens, hall of fames, put something that locals and tourists will want to visit and bring them to the area. If Riverwalk links these areas then it will be used more. Then there's the safety.... put officers out there.

corgimom
34239
Points
corgimom 07/28/13 - 10:03 am
2
1
"If we build it, they will

"If we build it, they will come"

And it's been proven to fail over, and over, and over

Not enough money to develop it fully. And that was during the good years.

GiantsAllDay
9865
Points
GiantsAllDay 07/28/13 - 10:25 am
2
1
Corgi mom, you are so correct

Corgi mom, you are so correct about the if we build it they will come theory. The MOX facility at SRS has believed this from day one. They are spending gazillions af dollars out there and still not one committed customer for their product.

charlie marlow
115
Points
charlie marlow 07/28/13 - 12:07 pm
2
3
Reynold's Street is part of the problem

Part of the issue, in my opinion, is that Reynold's Street splits River Walk from Broad Street. The speed limit on Reynold's is 35, but dump trucks and other traffic tear through there at 45+.

Also, not only is crossing Reynold's hazardous in any of the crosswalks, there is nothing to draw people from Broad Street to River Walk or vice versa. It would be really nice if the Augusta Common worked as a sort of conduit between the two, but, as it stands, the only thing to greet people who cross Reynold's is gravel parking lots and a view of the levy. There needs to be a pedestrian overpass there and signage directing people to the 8th Street or 9th Street entrances if there can't be something more attractive right there.

Just my thoughts as someone who works Downtown, though.

Shinedou
8
Points
Shinedou 07/28/13 - 01:18 pm
4
2
Change reynold's street to a two lane road

Change reynold's street to a two lane road, Plant trees along the road and create several very visible pedestrian crossings. This is simiar to what Greenville, SC did to their main street in the 80's to slow traffic and make it pedestrain friendly. Then Find a way to extend the Augusta Commons across the street to the river with a gateway to the river at the end of the commons. I think this would go a long way and successfully connect broad and the river.

Bradley S
4
Points
Bradley S 07/28/13 - 03:18 pm
2
2
What's the Appeal?

The Augusta Riverwalk is utterly worthless. I can't believe that's it mentioned among the top destinations for Augusta. Being originally from Pittsburgh, there are some basic riverside municipal parks up there that have longer boardwalks, placards which showcase the area wildlife, much more vegetation and flowers than this so-called "Garden City". Where is the vegetation and flowers? Why does the Riverwalk abrubtly dead end, make the tourist turn around, or walk on an unimproved dirt path? Embarrassing! The Savannah has diverse wildlife-why not put fish or turtle food dispensers out and make an extra coin to boot? And on the southern end I park my car to be greeted by the smell of pot in the air. Welcome to Augusta! A Top-5 attraction, huh? Where are the police patrols? Bottom line is that the Riverwalk could be better, just needs a little more thought put into it.

Pops
10605
Points
Pops 07/28/13 - 08:18 pm
4
0
I agree....

What's the big draw there?? Back in the eighties there were to be shops, bars and lots of restaurants. That all gradually fizzled out. Now, with activities such as "Operation Rolling Thunder" and other assorted Nazi style police actions, who in their right minds want to go in that area and have a couple of drinks and hit the road.

mosovich
826
Points
mosovich 07/28/13 - 09:15 pm
0
3
Yeah, blame it...

on the cops who are trying to make our streets safe.. I bet you think there should be no speed limits either..

gargoyle
18677
Points
gargoyle 07/28/13 - 10:52 pm
2
0
What Pops said is true, it

What Pops said is true, it seems that Downtown has the reputation of pulling over patrons while ignoring the folks breaking into cars outside the clubs and eatery's. I've even heard people planning a way home from a non alcohol serving establishment to avoid Operation Rolling Revenue.

David Parker
7923
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David Parker 07/29/13 - 11:11 am
0
0
Had good momentum at the

Had good momentum at the beginning and steadily declining since then. There is not one, not even ONE, place on the levee that one could sit and sip a mint julep and watch the water. Who's big idea was it to ignore the absolute best asset that the levee provides? Protecting the city is covered, but the cost is having to be creative to bridge the river back with the city itself. POOR planning and implementation from almost top to bottom. Get it straight or it'll be more and more just a vision and never a reality. Believe me when I say, it's not too big to fail.

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