Whether rivers, lakes, or oceans, America’s waterways have long been the lifeblood of its cities. Urban centers owed much of their success to how favorable their locations were for trade and transportation—and how effectively they utilized their waterfronts. Today, cities all across the country are once again looking to their docks as avenues for economic development. This time, however, it’s less about making outward connections than it is about bringing together their own communities. Projects such as Chicago’s Navy Pier and the redevelopment of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor have shown how a regenerated waterfront can draw new residents, businesses, and visitors. Here are five U.S. cities, each with distinct challenges, advantages, and approaches, that have set out to remake their waterfronts—and, in turn, perceptions of their cities writ large.
The Boston Tea Party forever cemented Boston Harbor’s place in American history, but by the end of the 20th century, the area found itself in decline. Cut off from downtown by I-93, the neighborhood was a patchwork of parking lots and warehouses that reaped few benefits from the city’s emergence as a knowledge capital.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the story couldn’t be more different. Today, Boston’s waterfront is a diverse and dynamic place, home to Fortune 500 corporate offices, world-class public art installations, standout retail and dining experiences, and one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation.
This success is the result of one of the most challenging and expensive infrastructure projects the U.S. has ever seen. Completed in 2007, the Big Dig was a gargantuan decades-long effort to replace an elevated section of the highway with a state-of-the-art underground tunnel, among other additions. While the havoc wreaked by the construction became infamous, the project’s completion opened access to the waterfront for the first time in generations. The attractive natural setting and underutilized land drew urban planners, such as WS Development, which transformed 20 city blocks into a 21st-century mixed-use neighborhood called Boston Seaport.
“The whole city has reoriented itself to face the harbor,” says Yanni Tsipis, senior vice president at WS Development. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the city and the region to embrace the beautiful natural resource that Boston Harbor presents—all of the recreational opportunities and amenities, but also a lot of the new economic opportunity that’s taking place along the water’s edge.”
As Tsipis notes, the approach to building up the area has been multifaceted, with the addition of public parks and plazas and what will ultimately be more than 1.1 million square feet of retail, plus the relocation of the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston to a new waterfront setting. This mixed-use focus even extends to the forthcoming One Boston Wharf Road office tower, which will feature a community dog park and performing arts center when it opens in 2024.
At the same time, more than 350 companies now call Seaport home. There’s a thriving startup scene, and global corporations such as Reebok and GE have made lab and office commitments here. In January, Amazon unveiled plans to bring 3,000 additional workers to the district, on top of the 2,000-plus jobs it promised in 2018. “Seaport,” Tsipis says, “is the place where the most forward-thinking people, companies, and cultural organizations come to innovate and create, and together weave the civic fabric of Boston’s next 400 years.”
Perched on a bluff just upriver from the Mississippi Delta, Memphis was one of the South’s foremost commercial centers during the 19th century. The city served as a hub for steamboats headed up and down the river, and as late as the 1920s it was one of the world’s largest markets for cotton and lumber.
As Memphis grew, suburban settlements formed to the east, away from the Mississippi, but the city’s connection with the river was never lost. In recent decades, billions of dollars have been spent on the revitalization of its historic downtown, just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge, and now attention is turning to the riverfront and its six miles of connected public parks.
“I’d like for the riverfront to be the thing that comes to mind when people think of Memphis,” says George Abbott, director of external affairs for the Memphis River Parks Partnership. “Today, you’ve got Elvis, you’ve got FedEx, and you’ve got barbecue, and I want the river to be right there with them.”
At the center of this vision is the Memphis Riverfront Concept, which the architecture firm Studio Gang produced in 2017, with input from more than 4,000 Memphians. The proposal called for a series of investments in an existing network of public spaces to increase the area’s vibrancy and economic potential. Two major projects have already been completed: the five-mile River Line walking and biking trail and the $1.6 million River Garden. Work is now underway to transform the 30-acre Tom Lee Park into what Abbott says will be “the best river park in the country.” It will have basketball courts and an adventure playground, as well as outdoor classrooms and a signature canopy walk that leads visitors along an elevated path through a biodiverse forest.
Above all, the updated riverfront is meant to appeal to people of all generations, incomes, and backgrounds. (River Garden, for example, was formerly Jefferson Davis Park; aside from being renamed, it saw the removal of its Confederate monuments.) “Beautiful design, beautiful spaces, and engaging programming,” Abbott describes it, “without a barrier to entry, maintaining free and equitable access, thereby being a place of mixing for our entire community.”
From Venice’s Muscle Beach to Malibu’s surf breaks, Los Angeles County is home to some of the most iconic oceanfront settings on the planet—but there’s always room for more. Specifically, Wilmington and San Pedro, 25 miles south of Downtown LA, have been the beneficiaries of a long-running series of investments from the Port of Los Angeles to create not only a 400-acre destination for visitors with landscaped public spaces, shopping, and dining, but also to increase opportunity for residents of the community.
“As much as we want to be a visitor attraction that brings people in to enjoy the port, to enjoy the water’s edge, and to enjoy the infrastructure and development from a recreational and entertainment perspective, we want there to be significant job growth as well,” says Michael Galvin, director of waterfront and commercial real estate at the Port of Los Angeles. “I’m talking about quality jobs that relate to advancing technology and jobs that relate to creating new industries out of the ocean.”
The last 15 years have seen the building of new pedestrian promenades, plazas, and marinas, along with the arrival of the Battleship USS Iowa Museum—the only battleship on the West Coast that serves as a museum—and the opening of the Crafted makers marketplace and Brouwerij West beer garden. Construction shows no sign of slowing, either. Wilmington is set to get a “window on the waterfront,” in the form of a nine acre, $71 million park and promenade, while a $33 million town square and promenade are in the works for San Pedro. The $150 million West Harbor retail and entertainment district, which will feature 42 acres of restaurants, offices, and public markets, as well as an open-air amphitheater, is set to debut in 2022.
Perhaps most exciting is the creation of AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles, where a historic dock is being reborn as a 35-acre marine research and innovation campus. Boeing, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Southern California Marine Institute are among the partners in the project, which aims to expand our understanding of the ocean, incubate ocean-related businesses, and advance ocean-related education programs.
For much of the 19th century, Buffalo’s Erie Canal Harbor served as a gateway for canal and rail traffic traveling between the Atlantic seaboard and the Great Lakes. Now, after decades of blight, the upstate New York city is attempting to recapture the feel of those glory days by reviving its harbor.
Opened in 2008, the master-planned Canalside neighborhood has helped the lakefront recover from years of disinvestment and pollution to become a hub of activity. Led by the specially created Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, the city and state cleaned up the waterfront and oversaw the demolition of the vacant Memorial Auditorium, clearing the way for the restoration of cobblestone streets and a canal system that in winter becomes New York’s largest outdoor skating rink.
Private investors, meanwhile, have introduced new hotels, restaurants, and the $200 million LECOM Harbor center, a hockey-centric mixed use facility funded by Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and NFL’s Buffalo Bills. An interactive children’s museum opened in 2019, while other projects of note include the upcoming installation of a restored antique carousel and the opening of the Longshed Building, where a replica 1825 packet boat will pay homage to the city’s shipbuilding history.
Work is also scheduled on a land-use improvement project at Buffalo’s Outer Harbor that will include the creation of new and enhanced open spaces on the Lake Erie shoreline.
“It’s been really exciting to see the evolving nature of our waterfront and what it’s become,” says Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara. “People often have a perception of what Buffalo is. The last few years, the canal has changed our downtown and given us a new story to be able to tell—that we have become a year-round destination.”
Nebraska’s largest city has recently seen a slew of construction and revitalization projects across its downtown. Included in those efforts is the reestablishment of a seamless connection between the city’s core and the Missouri River.
“Omaha is fortunate to have a downtown with enormous riverfront potential,” says David G. Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber. “An investment in our riverfront means an investment in community engagement and inclusion, which, in turn, catalyzes new opportunities for education, events, public gatherings, and business growth.”
This isn’t the first time the river has been the focus of attention. The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to Council Bluffs, Iowa, opened in 2008 and has become one of the city’s preeminent landmarks. But The RiverFront, as the latest development is known, is the first project to be so largescale and interconnected. It focuses on the redesign of three neighboring parks: Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park, and Lewis and Clark Landing which is being undertaken with input from the public in Omaha and Council Bluffs. Among the features are a skate ribbon, a performance pavilion, a sculpture garden, and a beach. Additionally, previously sunken areas will be filled in to create street-level lawns able to host large events and holiday markets. The parks are opening in phases over the next three years, and the work has already spurred additional development.
Part of the nearby Conagra Brands corporate campus is being reimagined as a mixed-use destination called The Mercantile, and a Marriott boutique hotel is in the works. Ground has also been broken on Kiewit Luminarium, a $101 million science center with views across the river. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The RiverFront is how it’s being funded. Approximately $250 million of the total $300 million investment is coming from private donations, with the remaining $50 million being contributed by the city. “This type of public-private partnership is not necessarily common in other cities, and it wouldn’t even be possible without the trust and generosity of our local philanthropists,” says Roger Dixon, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority, which is managing the project. “We believe this park already sits upon valuable city property. We want to see the area preserved and reactivated for generations of people to enjoy.”
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