Bringing Riverside Regional Park into the 21st Century

July 6, 2018, Feature, by John D. Jackson, PLA, LEED AP

2018 July Feature Riverside Park 410

In November 2017, Indy Parks and Recreation completed a master plan for Riverside Regional Park in Indianapolis. At 862 acres, the park is larger than New York City’s Central Park and second only to local Eagle Creek Park in size. But size is only one reason the project is newsworthy.

The Indianapolis Parks System’s Historic Crown Jewel

Riverside Regional Park was established by Mayor Thomas Taggart in 1898. Originally 953 acres straddling the White River, the park’s development was initially overseen by parks superintendent J. Clyde Power. Power’s work was informed by prior comprehensive park planning efforts in Indianapolis by Olmsted, Olmsted and Elliot, George Kessler and Lawrence Sheridan. In 1913, Kessler created the only prior master plan known to exist, but this plan was only partly realized. The White River flooded in that year, resulting in loss of life and massive damage to downtown Indianapolis and the surrounding areas.

Kessler’s plan included a series of lagoons that would serve to naturally manage flood waters. However, in a short-sighted reaction to the flooding, the city elected instead to build levees that created protection from future flooding but that cut off the river visually and physically from adjacent land uses within the park. Despite this, Riverside Park was a major destination for Indianapolis residents for many decades, and news reports of the time indicated it was not unusual for the park to be filled with thousands of people on a beautiful summer afternoon in the early 1900s.

The park was filled with magnificent structures typical of the City Beautiful Era. Canoe clubs flourished and created opportunities to engage the river. Commercial recreational boats plied the river, taking passengers from Riverside to Fairbanks Park 3 miles upriver (now the campus of Butler University). Visitors enjoyed concerts, golf, tennis, picnicking, dances and trips to the city’s zoo, which was first located in the park. Unfortunately, Riverside Park experienced disinvestment over time — the level of and reasons for the disinvestment, and the social toll of these decisions, are too numerous to mention. In short, while the once grand park continued to serve the city, play an important role in the cultural life of the neighborhoods it served and was a cherished asset — by the turn of the 21st century, it lost much of the luster for which it was originally known.

A Vision for the Future

Fast-forward to 2016 when Indy Parks determined it was time for a master plan for Riverside Regional Park. The need for a plan sprung from input received through the 2016 Indy Parks Comprehensive Master Plan, as well as other related planning efforts, like the Northwest Area Quality of Life Plan. Indy Parks selected a design and planning team that set to work designing not only a park, but also a process — one that was intended to be as engaging, inclusive and collaborative as possible. Engagement was identified as a priority due to the amount of uncertainty within the community about the city’s intentions. Prior planning efforts and initiatives had resulted in distrust and suspicion on the part of residents that the city might be interested in selling portions of the park to private interests to fund improvements within the park and elsewhere.

A strong economic argument could be made for this approach, and many national precedents exist that could support this funding strategy. However, Indy Parks Director Linda Broadfoot made it clear from the beginning that the master plan would not include consideration of selling public land. Much of the public engagement process was designed to build trust, but also to create a vision compelling enough to gain the attention of entities with the ability to become partners in implementing the plan.

The input process proved to be extraordinarily successful and resulted in the plan’s rapid approval at each level of regulatory review. Dozens of community members and stakeholders were represented on Citizen’s and Technical Steering Committees, as well as participated in extensive interviews. A project website, studio and survey allowed for information sharing and input gathering across multiple platforms. The Groundwork Indy team conducted a door-to-door survey that engaged 1,400 households and resulted in input from more than 3,000 residents. Pop-up workshops and public meetings also welcomed ideas that shaped the outcome of the plan.

The result of the engagement strategy was a master plan so supported by a broad cross section of the public that it received unanimous approval upon first hearing by the Indy Parks Board and the Metropolitan Development Commission.

To Golf or not to Golf

Three of Indy Parks’ 13 golf facilities — South Grove, Riverside and Coffin — are in Riverside Regional Park. In addition, a fourth par-3 9-hole instructional course is part of the Riverside Golf Academy. The recent national decline in participation in golf meant that the team needed to take a hard look at whether golf should continue to occupy such a large portion of the park’s land-use program. Research into the revenue generated by golf — versus the cost of course maintenance and operations — also suggested that changing the golf courses to other uses could present an opportunity for more significant revenue generation. For example, one of Indy Parks’ dog parks generated $60,000 in revenue one year compared to the net revenue of $14,000 generated that same year from one of the golf courses at Riverside Park.

Two of the courses were also located in floodplains and experienced frequent damage from flooding. The design team explored more than 10 different land-use concepts that evaluated the benefits and liabilities of changing 18-hole courses to 9 holes, transitioning entire courses to other uses and connecting existing separate courses into one golf experience. Each of the concepts was generated with the input from the Steering Committees, and the public was given the opportunity to express its preferences for the various ideas.

Feedback gleaned through the online survey, stakeholder interviews and open houses, ultimately, led to the decision to transition the South Grove and Riverside golf courses to other uses. South Grove’s new uses included a pedestrian promenade, new baseball facility, tennis center, unprogrammed green space and multiuse playfields. Riverside’s new uses include an ecology-based adventure park, featuring constructed wetlands and a canopy walk, cyclocross and mountain bike courses, and a bike park, urban farm, disc golf course and nature center. The plan proposed that Coffin Golf Course remain an 18-hole course that would be improved to include a new clubhouse and other amenities, and Riverside Golf Academy remain and be improved as an instructional venue and potential home for the Indiana Golf Association.

A Long-Term Implementation Strategy

The master plan identifies a 20-year implementation strategy, consisting of four major phases of five years each, starting in 2018 and extending to 2038. The estimated value of the plan’s program of improvements, $118 million, can seem staggering given that Indy Parks’ capital budget is typically $4 million–$5 million a year. One way to consider the investment is to calculate it as a cost per acre, which equates to about $137,000 for Riverside.

The planning process included a review of precedents like the 1,300-acre Forest Park in St. Louis. A master plan for Forest Park, completed in 1995 and updated several times since, served as the basis for a $100 million restoration. Adjusted for 2017, it equates to about $114,000 per acre. The capital campaign for Forest Park secured the funding in about six years, giving hope that Riverside’s funding challenges might not be as mountainous as they seem. Clearly, creative and strategic partnerships will need to be developed to meet the needs of the plan, and several of those conversations have already started. The Indianapolis Parks Foundation, a local nonprofit that identifies and manages resources for parks and public spaces and has secured more than $60 million for Indy Parks projects and programs over the past 26 years, has identified Riverside Park as a priority.

Fortunately, the plan that resulted from the engagement process is a compelling, publicly supported vision that builds on the past while embracing ecology and recreational trends of the future. This makes it far more interesting to potential partners than a plan that appears to be more a product of a designer’s rather than the community’s imagination.

Together with NRPA, the Indianapolis Parks Foundation will host a Mobile Workshop at Riverside Park during the 2018 NRPA Annual Conference this September. Thanks to partners from Nine13 and Friends of the White River, attendees will have the opportunity to experience Riverside Park and envision its transformational future on a leisurely bike tour and paddle down the river. Each of these unique experiences will highlight catalytic elements of the master plan and its role in a larger effort to restore the White River.

John D. Jackson, PLA, LEED AP, is the Partner in charge of Landscape, Architecture, Planning and Urban Design for RATIO.