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Park Brings Residents Back to River

By Gregory V. Harris






Waterfront Park reclaims 120 acres of derelict industrial waterfront by re-engaging Louisville and the Ohio River. The park has become a major attraction in the city, bringing millions of visitors down to the banks of the riverfront. PHOTO COURTESY OF John Gollings


Louisville, Kentucky's Waterfront Park project represents a major reclamation of land formerly used for industrial and transportation purposes and cut off for decades from the urban fabric by rail lines and an elevated expressway. Although downtown Louisville lies within close proximity to the Ohio River – approximately two blocks away – Louisville residents seldom ventured down to what is now the beautiful Waterfront Park. This is typical of some American urban waterfronts, as civic life has, over time, turned its back on their river completely. Fortunately, many cities are rediscovering the allure of a river and are actively rebuilding and revitalizing these areas.

The task of developing a master plan for revitalizing Louisville's waterfront area was given to Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass. Glenn Allen, a principal at Hargreaves, said the inspiration for the landscaping of Waterfront Park was the Ohio River.






The Waterfront Park's Overlook frames one edge of the Great Lawn with an elevated urban park setting. The surface is paved with crushed stone, and Honey Locusts provide light shade. The Overlook is 30 feet above the Ohio River and offers wide views across the river, back toward the city skyline and out over the Great Lawn (lower left) and its events.







"The design was about the river, both philosophically and functionally," Allen said. "The people wanted their riverfront back."

Waterfront Park, a $90 million, 120-acre project, has achieved the goals that Louisville residents and community leaders sought. Phase 1 construction, approximately 50 acres in size, represents a complete rebirth of Louisville's waterfront, and a renaissance of the city's public life. The energy of the early 19th century working waterfront has been recaptured here, and the city's primary focus has been returned to the river. New infill development per the Master Plan, as well as redevelopment of the neighboring historic business district, has begun in force next to the park, and demand is high for additional adjacent land.

One feature of the land that Louisville leaders thought of as a barrier to the river was actually positive for the project. An elevated highway (Interstate 64) snakes its way along the edge of the park, and city leaders assumed this highway would infringe on the design of the park.

"Actually, the highway was not an obstacle because it is elevated," Allen said. "There was an on-grade road that had to be rerouted to the park, however."






The Festival Plaza was designed around Kentucky Derby festivals as well as seasonal vendors. The plaza slips under the elevated expressway to meet the wharf and the river.

Re-routing this road helped the overall design of the park in two ways. First, the road feeds into downtown Louisville, giving park visitors easy access to the park site. Second, moving this existing road allowed Hargreaves to create a sloping plane from downtown Louisville to the river's edge, which frees up views from downtown to the riverfront.

One million square feet of residential, office and retail space will bracket the sloping centerpiece of the park: the 14-acre Great Lawn. The park includes an expansive public gathering space, festival plaza and fountain. Riverine landforms afford spectacular views of the river and the city from elevated play meadows. The rising landforms enclose more intimate spaces, opening out to inlets and riparian habitat.

History of Louisville

In the middle of the eighteenth century, America had five major cities: Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, New York and Philadelphia. Early in the nineteenth century, five major towns had begun to emerge: Cincinnati, Ohio; Lexington, Kentucky; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; St. Louis, Missouri and Louisville, the city at the Falls of the Ohio River.






The Wharf accommodates large riverboat docking, and also hosts an annual concert series.


Although explorers and surveyors had visited the site of Louisville earlier (most notably in 1773), the city began its continuous civic life in May 1778, for two very specific reasons: The River and the Revolution. The Ohio was (and remains) one of the major rivers of the continent. In its entire 981 mile length, it had only one navigational barrier: the Falls, opposite to what is now downtown Louisville.

When the city was young, the Falls represented a major barrier to boats making their way down the Ohio; it was a geographical inevitability that a town of some sort would be established at this point. Here, most river traffic needed to stop, deposit its passengers and cargo, skim over the Falls, and collect its burden once again for the trip on the river.






As the park stretches away from downtown to the east (top), it takes on a more natural character of rolling landforms and strolling paths. The water feature (bottom) is a dramatic linear element stretching nearly 1,000 feet and links the urban fabric of downtown Louisville to the Ohio River.







The second ingredient in Louisville's founding was the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson signed the first town charter of Louisville in 1780. Across the river, the land that is now southern Indiana was technically part of Canada, by action of the British government's Quebec Act of 1774. To these frontier lands, Virginia's Governor Patrick Henry dispatched George Rogers Clark, the "George Washington of the West," to break the back of British resistance in this area.

Clark set up his base of operations near the Falls, in May of 1778. With his hardy band of men, Clark helped to gain the area that was to become the nation's Midwest for the American cause. In quick succession, three forts were constructed here to house Clark's troops and their families, the last being Fort Nelson in 1781. With the end of the Revolutionary War, settlers tentatively moved out of the protective stockade, and the rough young town began to rise.






The fountain at Waterfront Park features a series of water cannons (top and bottom) that shoot 60-foot arcs of water. This feature is designed to reinforce the symbolic city-to-river connection. The fountain also has an interactive changing display of jets at its "source." Water cascades toward the river through a series of five fountain rooms defined by four bridges that cross the channel to connect the Festival Plaza with the Great Lawn.







Louisville, which had been named for King Louis XVI of France in gratitude for French aid in the Revolution, grew very slowly at first. It suffered through occasional floods, malarial-type infections, and the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. Not until 1828 (with a population of nearly 10,000) did Louisville get around to its official incorporation as a city. From its inception, the town knew social stratifications: working class and shopkeepers living "downtown," while the more affluent settled along the Beargrass Creek to the east in plantations and estates. To this day, Louisville and Jefferson's County's complex street pattern on the east side gives testimony to the importance of this smaller stream on the city's geography and history.

The arrival of the first steamboat in Louisville in 1811 signaled a new age of growth. With river traffic greatly improved, the opening of the Portland Canal in 1830, and the large inflow of German and Irish immigrants in the 1840's, the city population began to explode, reaching 43,000 in 1850, placing Louisville among the top twelve cities in size in America, larger than either Washington or Chicago. In that same year of 1850, Indiana's largest city was New Albany, just across the river from Louisville.

Staples of economic life in these years included tobacco, hemp, livestock, distilling, commercial sales and warehousing. In the personage of James Guthrie, the city found not only one of its first businessmen, but also a civic leader who would be involved in establishing the University of Louisville in 1837 and the mighty L & N Railroad, which opened to Nashville in 1859, making the city the rail-head for the entire South.






Waterfront Park is home to many festivals and concerts during the spring and summer, and is heavily used for day-to-day recreation. The park sits in the 100-year flood zone and as a result, the lawn is reinforced to survive annual flooding. In addition, the lawn is engineered to drain very quickly, allowing for immediate use after a rainstorm.


In the 1870 census, Louisville passed the 100,000 mark for the first time. As if to celebrate its new southern dominance after the war, it completed its grandiose new City Hall in 1873. The opening of Macauley's Theater in 1873 provided yet another landmark of theatrical significance.

During these years, many of the distinctive institutions of Louisville began to appear: Churchill Downs, and its Derby (1875); the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1877); the Filson Club (1884) and the Olmstead park system (1890)(see page 90). In 1876, Louisville had been among the first eight teams in baseball's new National League. It remained essentially in the major leagues until the turn of the century. Along Main Street, commercial palaces continued to rise, providing the city in our own time with some of the finest Victorian commercial architecture left in America.

When the twentieth century began, Louisville's population had passed the 200,000 mark, a doubling in a single generation. In 1900, Louisville was still among the nation's twenty largest cities, twice as large as Los Angeles and Atlanta, and four times bigger than Dallas or Houston. The year 1937 brought on the city an epochal Flood. Over 200,000 had to evacuate their homes; some 200 died. Thoroughfares became canals as heat, light and drinking water failed across the area. The city showed remarkable calm, courage and solidarity in those darkest of days, and recovery was achieved in record time. The next year, President Roosevelt stopped by the city to congratulate the people on their accomplishment.






The natural character of the park features rolling landforms and strolling paths. This gives Louisville residents a retreat from the hustle and bustle of nearby downtown.


In post World War II Louisville, the urban landscape changed, pulling the city outward from its old center: the ever-expanding suburbs, expressways, shopping centers, and General Electric's massive new Appliance Park. In this one generation alone, the number of automobiles in Louisville tripled. Louisville found itself in the 1970's becoming increasingly aware of the value of its many distinctive neighborhoods. Ethnic festivals drew as many as 100,000 to downtown weekends. One of the largest preservation movements in American emerged in the city, and historical consciousness and publishing grew apace.

The recent renaissance of Louisville's downtown has impressed itself mightily on citizens and visitors alike, and some 60-70 thousand people work daily in the rejuvenated downtown.

Allen described Louisville's history on the Ohio as one of the underpinnings of Waterfront Park project.

"With the dam and locks area, the whole story is the river. The river is the asset," he said. "The people of Louisville had lost a connection to the waterfront, but that is coming back."

Park Characteristics

Waterfront Park is a series of varied, flexible and programmable spaces. The Wharf accommodates off-loading of big touring riverboats. The Festival Plaza is designed specifically around festivals, particularly the Chow Wagon, associated with the Kentucky Derby. The Wharf and Festival Plaza represent the most urban components of the park where it directly contacts downtown Louisville. The Wharf accommodates large riverboat docking, and also hosts an annual concert series. Festival Plaza slips under the elevated highway to meet the Wharf and the river. This strong linear design focuses attention from the city toward the Ohio river.

The Overlook is a contemplative urban space and art garden. This space frames one edge of the Great Lawn with an elevated urban park setting. The surface is paved with crushed stone, and Honey Locusts provide light shade. The Overlook is 30 feet above the Ohio and offers wide views across the river, back toward the city skyline and out over the Great Lawn and its events.






Phase 1 of the Waterfront Park (top and bottom) project has been a rousing success. The 30-acre Phase 2 project continues to reinforce connections to the Ohio River. This phase (middle) also provides a series of river-related spaces for play and causal and passive recreation; accommodates and slows flood waters; and re-establishes lush riverside plantings drawn on a palette of native species. The centerpiece of Phase 2 is the Big Four Bridge. Phase 2 also includes a new Children’s Play Area; a fun area for water play; a plaza for an informal cafe; and an amphitheater.


The Great Lawn is the centerpiece of the entire park, designed to host very large events and provide large open play space. It is an eight-acre plane, gently sloping over 1,000 feet from the urban fabric to the river's edge. It is heavily programmed throughout the spring and summer with festivals and concerts, and is heavily used for day-to-day recreation. The lawn is engineered to drain very quickly to be available for use immediately following a rain, and is reinforced to survive annual flooding. Allen said the Great Lawn's drainage system is somewhat reminiscent of the natural turf surfaces found on athletic fields. Hargreaves uses a high sand content in the soil and soil reinforcing on the Great Lawn. In addition, the 3 1/2-percent slope in the grade of the Great Lawn aids drainage.

Eighty acres of environmentally sensitive parkland stretches to the east to provide strolling trails, native riparian plantings and wetland development. The entire project is graded to break down visual barriers between the city and the river while simultaneously providing flood protection without the need for floodwalls. The character of the park transitions from paved plazas to formal lawns to native riparian plantings and meandering pathways as the park extends east, away from downtown, toward residential areas.

As the park stretches away from downtown to the east to embrace the natural riverbanks of the residential areas beyond, the park takes on a more natural character of rolling landforms and strolling paths. Riverbanks are laid back to a gentle slope, armored against flooding and wave action with bank stabilization techniques, and planted with native riparian plant species. The inlet provides for the gradual development of naturalized wetland habitat, as well as direct access to the river.

The parks water feature is a dramatic linear element stretching nearly 1000 feet and links the urban fabric of downtown Louisville to the Ohio River. From an interactive changing display of jets at the fountain's "source," water cascades toward the river through a series of five fountain rooms defined by four bridges that cross the channel to connect the Festival Plaza with the Great Lawn. A series of water canons shoot 60-foot arcs of water – reinforcing the symbolic city to river connection.






CP Phase 1


The children's playground and picnic area occupy a plateau above the river overlooking the harbor, the Great Lawn, and the river. Play equipment is zoned for different age groups; with areas separated by earthworks that also become part of the overall play experience.

Technical Complexity

The urban shoreline edges of the Wharf, the Overlook and the Great Lawn are composed of one of two types of construction, detailed by Moffatt & Nichol Engineers, depending on whether the new shoreline extends into the river beyond the existing shoreline, or whether it cuts into the existing shoreline. A sheet-pile seawall with a concrete or stone cap retains the edges of the Wharf and the fountain out-fall, while the battered stone walls of the Overlook and Great Lawn are suspended from the pile-supported concrete slabs that extend over approximately 2.5 acres of the river. These architectural treatments represent about half of the park's shoreline. The remaining riverbanks, while appearing 'natural' are in fact heavily armored with rock-filled gabion mattresses, geo-grid and geo-textile fabrics, all inter-planted with native riparian species.

The entire park is subject to periodic flooding, and has already withstood several flood events. Allen noted that the park was designed to withstand a 100-year flood event, two of which have occurred since the park was completed. In both cases, the integrity of the park remained. The amount of silt and debris deposited after flooding and the duration of inundation created a unique set of technical challenges to the design team. River barge traffic was also a major concern, both in terms of designing urban edges that can survive a barge collision, and also creating green "natural" shoreline to withstand the near constant pounding wave-action from barge wake. Plaza paving selections were evaluated with regard to periodic flooding and heavy festival use to ensure durability and flexibility while minimizing costs. Cut and fill of earthwork was entirely balanced on site, eliminating any off haul charges.

Public Participation

In 1986, the Waterfront Development Corporation – an agency comprised of representatives from the city, county and state governments – was formed to determine the best use for the land that has since become Waterfront Park. Allen said the land was a combination of city, state and privately owned land. The WDC held 13 public forums, during which it became obvious that the people of Louisville wanted the riverfront to contain public places for leisure activities, and not commercial development.






Phase 2


The public planning process included over thirty workshops and presentations with community members, as well as coordination and review with numerous city, state, county, and federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Large public presentations were hosted by the performing arts center, and broadcast on local television. Relocating existing public artwork and siting newly commissioned works within the Park was an important element in the final design. The firm worked with the client, public art consultants and donors to develop a siting program for new work and to relocate an existing monumental sculpture to the park's Overlook.

Hargreaves was hired in 1991 to do the master plan for the waterfront – which entailed a schematic design for the park – and an urban framework design study for new development and rerouting roads around the park. The master plan calls for the park to be completed in three phases. The park was dedicated on July 4, 1999 and since has hosted hundreds of events with an estimated total attendance of more than a million people.

Building on the successes and lessons of both the Master Plan and the Phase 1 of the Park, the 30.52 acres of Phase 2 continues to reinforce connections to the Ohio. This phase also provides a series of river-related spaces for play and causal and passive recreation; accommodates and slows flood waters; and re-establishes lush riverside plantings drawn on a palette of native species.






The interactive changing display of jets featured in the Waterfront Park's fountains (bottom) is beautiful by day, and spectacular at night. The water and lights combine to mimic the glow of the skyline in nearby downtown Louisville.


Phase 2 implementation of the master plan is currently underway. Allen said the Phase 2 of the project has been split into halves, with part one of Phase 2 (Phase 2A) underway. Part two of Phase 2 (Phase 2B) tentatively has a 2005 start date.

The Phase 2A construction area covers all areas from the eastern end of the park to just west of the Big Four Bridge, and includes the most active areas of Phase 2, including: a new Children's Play Area, which will be significantly larger than the playground in the first phase of the park; a fun area for water play; a plaza for an informal cafe; an amphitheater; docks for pleasure boaters; an area for a school and community rowing center; and additional picnic and lawn areas, tree groves, and walking paths.

The centerpiece of the second phase, the Big Four Bridge as a walkway across the river, will be included in Phase 2B also includes a continuation of the tree groves, meadows, picnic areas and walking paths of Linear Park.

Louisville Waterfront Park's design has been noticed both nationally and internationally and has won a number of prestigious awards, including several from the American Society of Landscape Architects. The park is a source of pride for the citizens of Louisville and the project can be described as an overwhelming success.

Additional information provided by Hargreaves Associates and Spirited City: Essays in Louisville History” by Clyde F. Crews.



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Olmsted Park System Thrives in Louisville

For more than 100 years, Louisville's Olmsted Parks and Parkways have helped this Kentucky city on the banks of the Ohio River thrive.

Composed of 2,000 parkland acres and 15 parkway miles, these green oases define the city's form and character. They preserve our rich native landscape, and strengthen neighborhood ties. For thousands of daily visitors, our parks are havens for relaxing, having fun and reducing the stress of busy lives.

The great master landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, and his firm designed the 18 parks and six parkways that comprise the Olmsted Park System over a 50-year period – from 1891 to 1940. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this system of parks and parkways is one of only five Olmsted systems in existence.

Since the early 1980's, the Louisville community has mobilized to restore and preserve the parks' legacy. In 1989, the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Inc. was created to help the City of Louisville preserve and enhance these masterpieces for all generations to come.

The Olmsted Parks and Parkways are unique. Frederick Law Olmsted was invited to Louisville in 1891 to help develop a park system. Olmsted was famous for his designs of Central Park in New York City, the Biltmore Estate and the U.S. Capital Grounds. His idea was to create a system of parkways and three major parks – Iroquois, Shawnee and Cherokee. Each park anchors a region of the city, with the parkways extending the benefits of green space.

Olmsted designed these parks for many purposes: as a place for quiet reflection and relaxation away from crowded city life, as well as for active recreation, and socializing where all people could enjoy themselves.

Considered the ultimate park system of Olmsted's career, renowned Olmsted scholar Dr. Charles E. Beveridge considers the Willow Avenue entrance into Cherokee Park to be the most beautiful park entrance of Olmsted's career.

Olmsted, his sons Frederick Jr. and John Charles, and his firm, had a great influence on the form and character of the entire city of Louisville. Besides designing the 18 Olmsted Parks and six Parkways, the Olmsted firm worked on more than 150 projects in the Louisville area. These include the Brown-Forman and University of Louisville campuses, Gardencourt, and Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.

Information courtesy of the Louisville Olmstead Parks Conservancy


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