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Celebrating Centennial

The Creation of a Riverfront Park

It takes courage and vision to create a riverfront park in an area subject to major floods every few years, especially when its on the site of an old dump. It takes a great knowledge and understanding for local Landscape Architects and consultants to work with the river rather than against it, preserving and protecting the area for future generations.

Centennial Park is named for Centennial Bridge, a beautiful arched bridge that connects Davenport and Rock Island, two of the famous (misnamed) Quad Cities that actually include five communities on both sides of the river. They are uniquely located in an area where the Mississippi runs east to west.

The park now known as Centennial was originally a city landfill, bordered by a seawall built in the late 1940s. The landfill was capped in the 50s, and a decade later the city made a plan for an industrial park on part of the site. There are still a few buildings left, but the expected business development never occurred. Upriver a short distance, there is a baseball stadium and the smaller LeClaire Park, which hosts concerts and other activities during the year. In an effort to enhance the riverfront, the city had added a promenade with ornamental lighting and benches along the river, but most of the area was a big open tract of land with a few stunted trees.

Riverfront development was jump-started in 1990 when the Iowa legislature approved riverboat gambling. At the same time, a task force was talking about bringing AAA baseball to town. Suddenly the riverfront was in danger of turning into a huge parking lot and the city rushed to secure open space for future use and still provide the parking needed for baseball. A plan was quickly drawn up and approved. Riverboat gambling did come, but baseball didn’t. The urgent demand for extra parking ended, and the plan sat in a drawer for six years.

Finally, a city council member who drove by the unused property every day pushed the city to make a park out of the area. The old plan was taken out of the drawer. It was a start. Greg Albansoder, Project Manager of the Centennial Park project says, "At the beginning we had very preliminary goals: to preserve the riverfront, to preserve open spaces for future generations, and to explore the possibility of a year-round boat launching facility." (Because of the nearby roller dam, part of the river has open water year round, so sport and commercial fishermen were eager to use it through the winter.)

The city wanted a park that would be "the front door to the city instead of the back door," says Albansoder. They city also wanted a lot of open space rather than athletic fields. The plan, says Albansoder, was intentionally rough looking. "A lot of projects are sold with graphics and beautifully detailed renderings, drawn up for presentation. We rendered it rough to show that it wasn’t a finished project. It is, and will continue to be, a work in progress."

These interactive children’s water parks in Europe serve as inspiration for Centennial Park’s future water plaza. A child raises a movable gate to let the water pass through.

It’s a very large work in progress. The overall footprint of the park is 50 acres, six blocks long and about five blocks wide, with room to expand beyond that. Potentially, says Albansoder, Centennial Park could be the largest riverfront park on the Mississippi. "We started at the water’s edge and worked our way out," he says. They extended the promenade, extended and improved the existing biking trail, built picnic shelters and brought the road closer to the river to create a scenic drive. They built the boat launch and the playground area, and that took just 16 acres of the 50-acre site.

Building in a Flood Plain

None of that would have been particularly complicated, but the area is part of a natural flood plain and Davenport has no floodwall. In 1984, the city council rejected the idea of a floodwall because it would disconnect the city from the river and its river views. Albansoder agrees with their decision, declaring that "the river is a natural system and it should do what it is supposed to do." And it does. The Quad Cities area expects a flood once or twice every 10 years and during the major flood in spring 2001, the entire park was six feet under water. So, says Albansoder, "when you develop a park in a floodplain, you can make it as pretty as you want it, but it cannot be delicate. It has to stand up."

The first thing Albansoder did was to order soil tests. Since the water that naturally runs through a landfill leaves few nutrients, the tests came up zero on all counts. They added six inches of topsoil to sustain plantings, and created berms to add interest to the flatness of the site. The bike trail, now four and a half miles long, winds around those berms, providing a more interesting ride and more varied views of the river.

A meandering waterform located in a pedestrian plaza emulates the movement of a river.

The river is the key factor in every decision relating to the park. Picnic structures are placed on rises, so they will stay as high as possible. The old-fashioned iron benches along the promenade are massive enough to withstand the force of the floodwaters. The electrical components on the lampposts are at the very top to avoid being compromised by the water. The

10-foot-wide promenade along the sea wall is bordered by an additional four feet in a stamped-pattern brick, with no loose materials to heave up or wash away. The restroom pavilion and playground structure are built to withstand the inevitable floods.

Launching the Belle of the Bend

While Albansoder is the project manager on the overall park, he assigned the playground project to Paul Eickoff, Park Manager for the city’s Department of Leisure Facilities and Services. His assignment was to design a play structure with a river theme and position it as a focal point, one that would draw children to the river. They settled on a riverboat. Eikoff researched his subject thoroughly, consulting with well-known maritime artist Michael Blaser, who has made the old riverboats the subjects of many of his paintings.

Eickoff, a Landscape Architect, says he was "not trying to do an exact replica, but to suggest the essential shape and features" of the riverboats that were such an important part of the history of America’s premier waterway. He wanted to create something unique and appropriate to the site. The team chose Landscape Structures Inc. because the company was able to provide the standard and custom play components that he needed. Eickoff was, he says, "very picky."

"As a Landscape Architect myself, I understand how important it is to work with a manufacturer who can create a structure that truly reflects the vision of a Landscape Architect," said Steve King, LSI chairman. "At LSI, we think outside the box when it comes to customizing the play structure itself, but we also are conscious of the relationship between the structure and the larger site. For example, as we're designing custom structures, we want to make sure our design will fit both functionally and aesthetically within the surrounding environment. We also are creative when it comes to unique challenges such as potential flooding, which is the case with this project."

Centennial Park’s new riverboat play structure was created using custom and standard Landscape Structures components. The structure was dubbed "Belle of the Bend" in honor of a 1898 Mississippi riverboat.

Jennifer Pospichal, owner of Outdoor Recreation Products, LSI’s representative firm for Iowa, worked with Eickoff every step of the way. The elements were often against us, says Pospichal, but even a bitterly cold winter and a devastating spring flood could not stop this ship from being launched for the pleasure of the children of Davenport. Finally, after many delays, the new play structure was complete. Christened "Belle of the Bend" in honor of an 1898 riverboat that once plied the Mississippi, the arched climbers on each side resemble paddlewheels, and carry the name of the historic riverboat.

The new play structure incorporated elements outside beyond the usual playground components. The smoke stacks were made of corrugated drain tubes like those used in culverts, and painted with the same polyester powdercoat used by Landscape Structures on their equipment. A local metal fabrication firm made the metal crowns. The outer oval of the poured-in-place rubberized surface represents the wide ship’s deck, with small circular pods to represent mooring posts. "Getting the proportions right was of paramount importance," says Eickoff. From a distance, the Belle of the Bend even has the slightly "swayback" look of the original riverboats. It is sited so that from high in the pilot’s cabin, young captains "steer" their riverboat downriver toward the railroad trestle bridge, which swings wide to allow river traffic to pass through, and a brass ship’s bell rings in the breeze.

The rugged Landscape Structures play structure was designed to withstand flooding, and is positioned to deflect logs and other debris that comes down the river during a flood. The rubberized surface doesn’t wash away like wood chips. When the floodwaters recede, the surface can be easily washed down with a disinfectant to be prepared for the kids’ return. The restroom pavilion is reinforced to withstand the force of a flooding river and has a series of wide steps that elevate it above ground level.

The Water Plaza Proposal

One of the components of the structure is the gentle slide which carries children off of Belle’s front deck.

What else is on the drawing board? The Centennial Park Water Plaza Proposal is an innovative design sponsored by River Action, a non-profit citizens action group whose stated mission is "to strive to foster the environmental, economic and cultural vitality of the Mississippi River in the Quad City area."

River Action’s goal is to improve and preserve the river front and to educate people about the unique environmental issues surrounding the waterway. Executive Director Kathi Wine was instrumental in organizing a three-day workshop with city and area people to explore ideas and formulate a plan for the entire riverfront park.

They enlisted Jim Patchett, founder and president of Conservation Design Forum in Elmhurst, Ill., to bring his knowledge on capturing, cleansing and recirculating water to the project. Patchett, a Landscape Architect and hydrology expert, says, "We are not a society that deals with water as a resource, but rather as a nuisance and a waste product. So one of the most important things we can do for the park and the city is to be leaders in showing the nation how water can be the best managed resource on earth."

Everything about the park is part of the overall rainwater collection and use plan, including parking areas with porous surfaces designed to keep water on site instead of running off into the river and adding to the flood level. Patchett passionately asserts that "there is nothing natural about the degree, severity and regularity of the flooding that we see today." He sees it as the result of the way we have mismanaged this important resource, collecting it in pipes and drains and spewing it into the river.

A hope for the future is to make this park a demonstration project that both entertains and educates the public on how to use water effectively. Says Patchett, "We want to capture every drop of water that falls on that site— to use it, cleanse it, absorb it, recirculate it, and allow it to be seen, touched, smelled, heard, played with and appreciated." To fulfill that last wish, Patchett and River Action partnered with Herbert Dreisetl, a German designer whose firm has created a number of imaginative water parks in Europe. One of their proposals is a terraced water plaza under the Centennial Bridge, featuring a number of wide, shallow steps down to the river. Another is an interactive children’s water park that meanders like a river and has movable gates, allowing children to raise and lower them, to understand how the river really works. There are proposals for a Central Gathering Area with long views of the river, plus other ideas not yet finalized. The proposal has gone to the city and they have approved the concept if not the specific details.

The Elements are in Place

The Quad Cities area expects a flood once or twice every 10 years. During the major flood in spring 2001, the entire park was six feet under water.

The one-time landfill is now a beautiful park. The boat launch is in place and highly successful. The playground, shelters, bike trail and promenade are already popular with locals and visitors. The new Quad City Sports Center, developed by the private sector, currently hosts ice skating and indoor soccer. An in-line skating facility is being built and there are proposals for adding other facilities, like an outdoor ice arena and aquatic center so children and their families can enjoy the park year round.

The crack of a baseball bat connecting with a ball can still be heard in the John O’Donnell Stadium on a warm summer day, and concerts are still being performed in the 1920s bandshell at LeClaire Park. The open green space at Centennial Park will now be used be for larger concerts and events, with areas for stages and electrical hookups already in place. And the proposed water features will add a stunning new dimension to an area that was once a city dump.

A Few Challenges, But Many Rewards

Since Centennial Park is part of a natural flood plain, the design of the revitalization had to be strong enough to withstand future floods. In 1984, the city council rejected the idea of creating a floodwall because it would disconnect the city from the river and its river views.

When asked what the main challenges were in making this park a reality, Gregory Albansoder says without hesitation: drought, flood, wind, sun and the need for low maintenance. "The greatest complication was building on a landfill, in a flood plain—which can put us under five feet of water at anytime— and dealing with issues which affect the appearance as well as the functional and structural qualities of the park."

Plans for a park like this, says Albansoder, are not typical plans from a typical book. "It is easy to take a piece of property with good soil and great terrain that is ready for development, and build a great park that you know is going to stay that way." This project had to be thought through carefully from the bottom of the landfill to every component on top.

For Albansoder, the rewards are visual and immediate. "When the sun is setting and you see the light across the water, the panoramic view of the river and the bridges is just incredible." It is rewarding for him and for his team to see all the activities in the park—the kids playing, the symphony concerts, and downtown business people strolling along the promenade at lunchtime. He talks with pleasure of sitting in the baseball stadium, where you can watch a game and see the boats go by on the river.

Albansoder’s supervisor, Clayton Lloyd, Director of Community and Economic Development, remembers coming across the bridge from Rock Island when he was a boy, and seeing an ugly dump that was always burning. Now he sees a beautiful park that celebrates the river and accommodates it in every aspect of its design.

Landscape Architect Paul Eickoff worked with Landscape Structures Inc. to create a unique riverboat playstructure along the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa. From high in the pilot’s cabin, young pilots steer the riverboat downriver toward the trestle bridge in the distance. The oval surfacing suggests a riverboat’s wide deck and can be hosed clean after flooding.

When will the park be finished? The sports center will be expanded, the water features have not been finalized and the porous parking lots are not yet in place. There is no absolute completion date for Centennial Park, and Albansoder thinks there never will be. "When we get it where we think it should be," he says, "we’ll just start moving west." Fortunately, they have plenty of room.

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October 23, 2019, 10:04 pm PDT

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