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After the Flood: The Red River Greenway, a Masterwork of Riverfront Planning

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Grand Forks, North Dakota and its Minnesota neighbor, East Grand Forks, were the site of one of the greatest floods of the late 20th century that caused the evacuation of 60,000 residents and nearly $2 billion in damage.

How can landscape architects and engineers turn a natural disaster into a natural recreation area? One recent example is the $400 million Red River Greenway in East Grand Forks, Minnesota and Grand Forks, North Dakota. Still recovering, these two prairie towns were, in 1997, the site of one of the greatest floods of the late 20th century where 60,000 residents were evacuated and nearly $2 billion in damage occurred.

The Greenway, Grand Forks / East Grand Forks

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks are located on the confluence of the Red Lake River and Red River of the North. The junction of these two rivers had long been an important rendezvous for trappers and fur traders before 1870. Prior to the railroad, riverboat, ox cart and dog sled were used for overland trade. Flowing northward and draining one of the flattest landscapes in North America, the Red River floodplain stretches for miles in all directions during 50 and 100-year spring floods.

Renderings illustrate the formed concrete floodwalls and their details derived from historical buildings in Grand Forks. The Greenway, Grand Forks / East Grand Forks

To create a lasting flood control solution, the Red River Greenway project is shaping a 2,000-acre river park that winds between the two cities. Serving as a recreation area and floodway, there are numerous interpretive sites, neighborhood parks, fishing piers, 1,500 acres of restored prairie and a significantly improved public golf course. On the functional side, there are miles of levees and floodwalls, and 19 pump stations.

In 1998, one year after the devastating spring flood that inundated both downtowns and caused the complete evacuation of East Grand Forks, Stanley consultants was chosen by the Corps as the prime contractor for the plans and specifications of the flood protection system for all four phases of the Grand Forks side of the river. Damon Farber Associates of Minneapolis served as landscape architects for 7.2 miles of trails, eight trail heads and other public amenities.

The river landscape adjacent to downtown Grand Forks will include a Community Green near the Sorlie Bridge linked to the Town Square and protected by the new levee.

Now well into Phase IV, this fast-track project that might normally take 10-20 years to complete is moving forward despite the inevitable difficulties and changes needed for a flood control effort of this scale. As with any large public project involving several federal agencies, two states, two cities and many neighborhoods, there was much early skepticism. Before any of the detailed design for the greenway could begin, DFA led the development of an overall aesthetic design palette for the entire Greenway project. A team of landscape architects, Corps representatives, city staffs and state representatives developed a list of guiding language for the palette. A vocabulary of adjectives gave verbal definition to the project character. The desired outcomes included: "safety, solidity, long-lasting, intensity, forcefulness, powerful, mighty, and strength." DFA then developed a comprehensive guide of elements to be implemented along the greenway ranging from signage and site furnishings to floodwall materials and native landscape restoration reflecting this design vocabulary.

Key "closures" (flood doors) near downtown are accented with limestone and brick.

Thanks to the public involvement efforts of the Corps and the aesthetic design palette developed by DFA, many of the early opponents have become project advocates.

"I feel much of this is due to the excellent design we have gotten from the Stanley-DFA team," says John Fisher, a landscape architect with the St. Paul District Corps of Engineers who oversaw the recreation, aesthetic, and landscape portions of the project. "Pump stations were designed to fit into their neighborhood settings...and beautiful and functional parks and trails, floodwalls and street closures highlight neighborhoods rather than excluding them."

Bronze reliefs depicting the Red River's history are inset along the floodwall near the Community Green.

Like any large, multi-agency project, the story is a complex one. Soon after the disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed to build a levee system to contain the floodplain of the river in this area. The land within the levees, over 2,000 acres, was proposed as a greenway. The Corps and the city of Grand Forks hired Greenways Inc., to complete a master plan and design for the greater Grand Forks Greenway. Working with multiple public and private sector partners from the federal government, both cities and two states, Greenways produced a plan of action, management structure, conceptual design, and an events plan for the Greenway.

The Corps then hired Stanley Consultants and DFA to develop the aesthetic design palette and implement a multiphase plan for the Grand Forks side of the river that would ultimately unite with similar efforts on the East Grand Forks side of the river. Throughout these early phases, Fisher led much of the public involvement in forums where he presented DFA's greenway, park, and trailhead designs.

A center for civic events, the Community Green will include a restored gazebo and an interpretive flood obelisk on the river side of the floodwall.

One of the greatest challenges and public concerns was to retain some connection to the Red River. In 1998, the Urban Land Institute and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent teams to help with advice for renewing the ravaged downtowns. Both groups urged the communities to reconsider the much beloved albeit dangerous Red River as a central resource for their renewal. Clearly, the need to develop massive earthen levees and gates could entirely cut off downtown areas from river vistas and recreational opportunities.

In response, the river landscape adjacent to downtown Grand Forks will include a Community Green near the Sorlie Bridge linked to the Town Square behind the new levee. The Community Green is the primary gathering place on the river for Grand Forks. It contains a park and gazebo donated by the local Rotary Club, an obelisk and overlook that interprets the history of flooding on the river and access through the flood protection system that creates a gateway to the city.

Constructed of molded concrete, the interpretive obelisk shows historic flood levels. Its tip expresses the crest of the 1997 flood.

The Community Green is connected by a river promenade that runs parallel to the river. Decorative railings, lighting, site furnishings and concrete pavers create a consistent character of visual elements that link the Community Green to the downtown streetscape. Prior to the flood, there were few such access points on either side of the river.

Melanie Parvey-Biby, the Grand Forks Greenway coordinator explains that people today are increasingly "drawn to water for all sorts of activities." "Some people enjoy just sitting by Riverside Dam and the Riverside Rapids," a favorite kayaking and canoeing site. Multipurpose trails will provide access for hikers, cyclists, runners, and in-line skaters. The landscape east of the Chamber of Commerce Building is slated to become a festival park to host a variety of community events throughout the year. A riverfront amphitheater will seat 500 and 1,000. Parking areas adjacent to the floodwall will be used for farmers markets, craft shows, and vendor spaces during summertime events.

To be completed in 2004, the Rotary Gardens and gazebo will offer a strong connection between the river and downtown.

With DFA's help, the Grand Forks Park District has pledged to work in partnership with Grand Forks and the Corps of Engineers to reconfigure Riverside, Lincoln and Central parks. They will become Greenway trailheads and will include restrooms with a warming house component, skating rinks, ball fields, playgrounds, interpretive plazas, picnic areas, and public parking areas. Riverside may continue to host community events and festivals. A new system of multipurpose trails will be installed throughout the Greenway to improve access for summer cyclists, and fisherman. The trails also provide access for winter activities, such as sledding and cross-country skiing, making the greenway a year-round recreation asset for both communities.

Near the north and south limits of the new greenway trail system, pedestrian bridges across the Red River will connect both cities' trails, providing an unbroken loop of about 15-miles. DFA also converted the Lincoln Park Golf Course from 18-holes to 9-holes. Tee boxes and greens were integrated into the levee system and native prairie restored in rough areas to further integrate the design into the Greenway system. Additionally, the Corps of Engineers worked in partnership with Minnesota and North Dakota to redevelop the dam on the Red River to improve boater safety and provide new fish passages.

During the 1997 flood, video of water-soaked Grand Forks buildings burning in a snowstorm was broadcast nationwide. The Discovery Channel produced "Flood of the Millennium," an hour-long program of the disaster, Downtown Grand Forks ultimately lost eight blocks of its historic core. Yet, thanks to the Stanley/DFA's innovative floodwall design, remaining historic buildings on the river will be saved. The most prominent example is the former neoclassical styled St. Anne's Hospital. Once thought to be hopelessly unprotectable, the hospital, now renovated as apartments, stands as a proud landmark along the river's west bank.

South of downtown, Lincoln Park brings new green space to the site of a flooded-out neighborhood that is now removed.

Proving that function can also be elegant, DFA designed a historically-appropriate floodwall in front of the building that resembles an elegant belvedere. The team worked closely with the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office to integrate a historically appropriate solution. To further enhance the landscape preservation a historic 'granitoid' roadway in front of St. Anne's was preserved for use as a fire-lane on the wet side of the floodwall. An interpretive plaza is located adjacent to the site to provide visitors with more information on the importance of this site. The Stanley/DFA team was awarded with a certificate of appreciation from the Corps for this creative solution that preserved a piece of Grand Forks history at a fraction of the cost to demolish it.

Rarely do an engineering and landscape architecture firm team so effectively to blend technical excellence with urban and park design at a regional scale. As the Corps' John Fisher claims, "This partnership has designed an outstanding greenway system that ties into the Grand Forks area parks and neighborhoods... it will set the standard for future projects in the Corps of Engineers."

For more information on this project and facts about the 1997 flood:

Damon Farber Associates, Inc

Damon Farber Associates, Inc., was established in 1981 to provide landscape architecture, site planning and urban design. The firm's design and product reflects professional expertise based upon aesthetic sensitivity, current technology, function, logic, and fiscal responsibility.

Damon Farber Associates has a broad based background in the areas of:

  • landscape architectural design
  • visual assessment
  • site and land planning
  • regional resource management
  • downtown redevelopment
  • comprehensive planning
  • environmental planning
  • recreational planning
  • parks and open space development


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