Details still are being determined, but this much is clear about the pending riverfront renovation in Downtown Evansville: The area will have a whole new look when it’s done.
Sasaki, a worldwide architectural firm steering the project, says residents are speaking loud and clear about wanting a livelier, more inviting space facing the Ohio River.
Some of the most common desires include trees and park features, restaurants, shops, and performance stages. Another frequently heard request is a slower and safer experience on Riverside Drive for pedestrians.
Residents are calling for an area that’s event-friendly and pleasing for the youngest children, the oldest adults, and everyone in between — and pets, too.
“We’re looking beyond Dress Plaza in trying to be really big and really bold,” says Anna Cawrse, principal landscape architect with Sasaki.
The Ohio River Vision & Strategic Plan project also includes Ohio River settings in Newburgh and Mount Vernon, Indiana, although no images have been presented yet for those communities.
Cawrse says the outcome “will showcase not just Downtown Evansville and the riverfront, but also the whole region.”
So, what might it look like?
Cawrse says Sasaki — using resident feedback collected to this point — has winnowed the project to two potential concepts for Riverside Drive, and the outcome could incorporate some elements of each.
The so-called Ripple Park concept turns Riverside Drive into a two-lane, tree-lined avenue equipped for walking and biking.
This design pulls the park back into the city and creates a continuous riverfront green space experience with multi-level spaces for gathering and diverse activities, according to Sasaki. The park would connect the city level and water’s edge through slopes and terraces linked by meandering paths, shade, and greenery.
Sasaki’s other concept is called Urban Wilderness. This one, according to the firm, makes Riverside Drive “a shared street” with slowed vehicular traffic and an emphasis on a safe, comfortable, and curbless pedestrian experience at the central Downtown intersections.
This plan pushes the city’s edge closer to the river and creates a new urban frontage for waterfront retail and other mixed uses. The new urban edge offers what Sasaki calls “rooms” for different programs, activities, and experiences along the river while unlocking new development sites that could help fund and support the envisioned improvements.
Both scenarios call for major changes to Riverside Drive, but Cawrse says no decisions have been made on future Downtown traffic flow patterns.
“We want to get people’s responses to these two concepts first, and then we’ll look at those strategies,” Cawrse says. “But ultimately, you still want people coming into Downtown, driving, parking, getting out.”
For those who currently walk or bike the paved Pigeon Creek Greenway path lining Evansville’s riverfront, Cawrse says not to fret. Pedestrian usage will remain, but it will look different.
“The purpose of it will definitely stay, but we’ll look at ways that it could be reconfigured and made more interesting,” she says. “We’ve heard people wanting it to sort of have more of a meandering experience.”
Sasaki was hired in May as the lead consultant for the Ohio Riverfront Visioning and Strategic Plan. The firm is being paid from $900,000 in grants for Southwest Indiana projects secured by the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership.
E-REP officials cite a widespread desire in Evansville to upgrade Dress Plaza, which has seen little change since the 1990s. Officials say the inclusion of Newburgh and Mount Vernon reflects a shared, regional approach to improving the riverfront.
Feedback in Mount Vernon points toward a reimagined site on the riverfront that’s currently an office building, as well as more comfortable and accessible connections to nearby amenities such as Brittlebank Park, according to Sasaki.
In Newburgh, Sasaki representatives say public comment is more varied, but there seems to be consensus around building upon the popular Rivertown trial — extending it further and connecting to amenities such as Lou Dennis Community Park.
As for next steps in the planning process, Cawrse says area residents still can comment until Oct. 29 on the riverfront concepts Sasaki has presented. Cawrse anticipates Sasaki will have a final design for the Downtown Evansville portion as well as the final strategic plan for the region by February, when it will be publicly shared.
Cawrse says that during her visits to the Evansville region, residents have shown passion for a reimagined riverfront, as well as strong opinions on what it should involve.
“This is an incredibly engaged and enthusiastic community,” she says. “I think it’s a community that has a lot of aspirations.”