Bridge to the Future

David Nichols loves to run. The vice president of the Greater Evansville Runners and Walkers Club (GERWC) has been hitting the pavement for 20 years — through parks, on roads, and on trails. Yet there’s one aspect of his route that he doesn’t enjoy, and that’s the dreaded run across the busy Lloyd Expressway at Vann Avenue.

He’s not alone. Runners and walkers who frequent Wesselman Park know that to get to the State Hospital Park across from the Lloyd Expressway, they have to take the bike path near the golf course, cross the parking lot that edges up against the soccer and baseball fields, round the corner to the left, and then turn right to head up a slight incline near the Evansville National Guard Armory. From there, it’s just a short walk or run down the hill to cross Division Street before they can press the pedestrian crossing button that, for less than 40 seconds, allows them to cross the Lloyd Expressway. Surrounded by whizzing cars, the wait on the sidewalk puts pedestrians at the cusp of a remarkably chaotic scene. And it stands in direct contrast to the tranquility of the park across the expressway.

“It can be a little unnerving if they’re not used to it, or if there are lots of cars, or if it’s at peak hours,” Nichols says.

There are no reports of pedestrians being hit at that intersection for the past five years, according to Susie Craig, the supervisor of the Vanderburgh County Central Dispatch. Yet it was the scene of 27 total accidents or hit-and-runs with injuries between May 1, 2008, and May 1 of this year — accidents that could have hurt pedestrians at that intersection, too. That’s why Nichols says there’s no question that a pedestrian bridge over Evansville’s busiest east-west thoroughfare would be safer for those who try to connect two of the most popular parks on the East Side.

“I think you’d get a lot more people using both parks because they’d have the link across,” Nichols says. “That way it would be a big loop for those who want to run a long distance.” He adds that it could even include several access points to allow people to enter and exit the trail.

The pedestrian bridge is in the planning phase of the design of Roberts Park, the newly named area for where Roberts Stadium once stood near the corner of Boeke Avenue and the Lloyd Expressway. The site of the former Roberts Stadium had at one time been considered as the location for a baseball/softball complex and recreation area (see the October/November 2010 issue of Evansville Business) before city and county officials decided that a green space would be a better fit for that area. The baseball/softball complex will be proposed on another, separate site later this year, says Bob Warren, executive director of the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Once this bridge is completed, you will be able to travel safely from Lincoln Avenue through the State Hospital grounds, Roberts Park, Wesselman Park, and over to Morgan Avenue,” says Denise Johnson, executive director of the Evansville Department of Parks and Recreation. She says the plan is to place the bridge in the vicinity of the ball fields at the Lloyd Expressway and Vann Avenue across the Lloyd and over to the area in front of the Armory.

Johnson is careful to add, however, that this is how the plan stands now, as of late May. Her department hopes to have more meetings with citizen groups and interested parties and will present plans to the public in the next few months.

“The presentation to the public will also include a time for citizens to respond to possible items suggested for placement in Roberts Park,” she says. “Once we have a specific plan in place, we will divide the construction into phases and will move forward with each phase in the most economical way possible.”

Now that the demolition of Roberts Stadium and the seeding of the area where it once stood — also known as Phase I — are substantially complete, the city is moving into Phase II, or design, of the project. But it will take years to convert the 26 acres of open space that was once used for concerts, graduations, and conventions into an area dedicated to health, exercise, and outdoor family activities.

Additionally, Mayor Lloyd Winnecke has said the total cost for the project will be between $6-$8 million, “which is why the construction will take place in phases over several years,” Johnson says.

“The goal is to design Roberts Park around fitness/exercise while also providing green space and areas which will appeal to all ages,” she adds.

Kevin Bain, executive director of the Welborn Baptist Foundation, says his organization is excited about what he calls a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to take full advantage (of a green space) and make something broadly available to the community.”

“Roberts Park itself is great, but if you can link it to all of these other things, then it really becomes a signature element of what we’d like to stand for for the city,” Bain adds.

The Welborn Baptist Foundation Inc. received a roughly $3 million Community Transformation Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help communities implement broad, sustainable strategies that will reduce health disparities and expand preventive and other health care services.

Bain says the $3 million grant over a two-year period is designed to tackle four things: tobacco usage, chronic disease, healthier eating, and efforts to increase physical activity.

“We were looking at best practices around the country to try to prevent or encourage those things,” he says. “We found that having an increase in green space like Roberts Park will help, particularly when it’s available to all of the community’s citizens at no charge.”

The foundation gave $150,000 of the grant money to help the city come up with a blueprint for Roberts Park. The money is not for construction, however.

“We are literally just providing the funds,” Bain says for the project that will be designed by architect Jeff Justice of Hafer Associates. Experts in landscape and park design will also be involved, Johnson adds.

Meanwhile, other ideas for Roberts Park that are also being considered in Phase II of the project include restrooms, water fountains, and trails that are either paved or made of crushed stone.

“We will be taking a hard look at the maintenance, cost, and longevity of each type” of trail, Johnson says.

She adds that a building with restrooms that could be used year-round for parties, seminars, and training; a skate park; a dog park; and a playground are also part of the Phase II planning period.

Johnson says the Department of Parks and Recreation will need to analyze its existing maintenance department staff and equipment once it has an architectural plan in place to determine future needs. As it does with a percentage of its existing property, Johnson’s department will also consider the use of mowing contractors to determine the most economically sufficient way to support the addition of a new park.

She also can be sure that many people will continue to follow the development of Roberts Park with interest. Johnson says she’s been contacted hundreds of times by individuals and groups who represent people of all ages and physical abilities and who have many different hobbies and interests. These people include representatives of running clubs, fitness club owners, personal trainers, health officials, Wesselman Park and Nature Center supporters, baseball and softball players, the Advisory Board on Disability Services, dog park supporters, future donors of trees and flowers, Master Gardeners, educators, parents, skateboard lovers, bicycle clubs and enthusiasts, “and even some of the crime prevention officers.”

Nichols himself represents about 200 members of the non-profit GERWC, and he has even more ideas for what the park could include, like a sprinkler system for children to play in, and a basketball court set up on the exact site of where the University of Evansville Aces basketball team used to play its games.

“If we can get this thing developed, we can almost put on a yearly race that would include the Wesselman Park, Roberts Park, and State Hospital Park,” Nichols says. “There would be an opportunity to help raise money for the parks … a fundraiser as an upkeep for the park.”

For more information on Roberts Park, contact Denise Johnson at the Evansville Department of Parks and Recreation at 812-435-6141.

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