Feasibility study encouraging for River Arts District whitewater park

Whitewater fun: an in-stream design, similar to the one proposed for Asheville, was created by S20 Design and Engineering on the San Marcos River in Texas. Photo from S20 Design and Engineering.

A feasibility study report delivered this week indicates that a whitewater park could conceivably be built in Asheville’s River Arts District within four years time.

Colorado based Scott Shipley’s firm, S20 Design and Engineering, delivered plans for the park on the French Broad River, which is an “in-stream” concept, having multiple channels for enthusiasts of all skill levels, from tubers to expert kayakers. The riverbed would have to be reconfigured to accommodate the changes.

The informal group making the push for the park consists of area outfitters, property owners in the river district, river enthusiasts, and civic leaders. They raised the $13,000 to fund the study conducted by Shipley and his firm, which designed both the U.S. National Whitewater Center near Charlotte and the whitewater venue for the 2012 London Olympics.

“Asheville is the whitewater town of the South already, and the park would just take us to an incredible new level. I love what I am hearing about the design concept,” said Pat Keller, who grew up in Woodfin and is an internationally known whitewater paddler. “Including the planned novice channel would be important too. Kids, families and beginning paddlers would love that feature.”

Three possible locations have been scouted: near the Haywood Road bridge and Jean Webb Park, near the Bowen Bridge, and near the Pearson Street Bridge. The Bowen Bridge site is preferred, due to its suitable riverbed configuration, better proximity to parking, greenways and other amenities, and less conflict with other uses.

The project’s cost is estimated to be $1.78 million, with a low dam-like structure using natural rocks, concrete, and mechanical metal gates to direct water through multiple side by side drops. It could also feature at least one standing wave for advanced users.

The next steps for the group are working with local government to see how planning and design would further fit into the river district redevelopment effort.

“I think this project does have great potential, and I am glad interest for it is stirring,” said Vice-mayor Marc Hunt, who is involved in the planning discussions. “Because the whitewater venue would ultimately be part of our parks system, I am urging the advocates to work closely with our staff, our advisory boards and within the established framework of planning. And infrastructure planning is moving fast in the river district, so there is some urgency there. Given the city’s other pressing financial priorities though, an effective fundraising campaign would be key. I think my colleagues on City Council would agree with that point.”

 

Here’s the full press release:

Has the time finally come for a long-awaited whitewater park in Asheville’s French Broad River? A consortium of local advocates hopes so. The group engaged Colorado-based expert Scott Shipley and his firm, S2O Design and Engineering, to conduct a conceptual design and feasibility study for such a park. Shipley’s report was delivered earlier this week. Indications are positive as to feasibility, and the report defines a path forward.

The idea of a whitewater park on the French Broad is nothing new to thecommunity. Riverlink convened discussion of such a project at various times in the 90’s, but it might be that the idea was just too new and to different in those days. The vision and hope stuck though as the community embraced the concept in the finalization of the Wilma Dykeman Riverway Master Plan in 1994. That master plan was formally adopted by the City of Asheville that year. It has since been the guiding inspiration which has led to an acceleration of redevelopment projects — both public and private — in the river district.

The “in-stream” park concept would involve reconfiguring the riverbed to create multiple side-by-side whitewater channels or rapids that would add to the fun for river-runners of all skill and interest levels, from inner-tubers to novice canoeists to expert kayakers, according to the report. Over twenty other towns across the US have developed such parks, and several others are in various phases of development. According to Shipley, the science of designing these parks has come a long way just recently as their popularity has risen. “While there are certainly challenges to getting a project done, a park in the French Board in Asheville could be a great fit. Because Asheville is already such an outdoor recreation ‘place to be’, a park there could really be a boon.”

Rick Lutovsky, former Ashville Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, and now an active civic volunteer, has been helping organize the proponents. “Asheville’s culture and identity is very much tied to outdoor recreation and the environment, and that is what this project represents. Until now, there was uncertainty about whether such a project could even be feasible. Now that we know there is real potential, the discussion should open up. In addition to deepening our conversation with city government, we will be actively meeting with and hearing from stakeholders and community members. We also know that this will require a serious private fundraising effort, but it is achievable.”

The informal group of proponents, made up of area outfitters, property owners in the river district, river enthusiasts, and civic leaders, passed the hat in the fall to raise the $13,000 study cost under the auspices of the Asheville Parks and Greenways Foundation. The study and final report was delivered earlier this week.

Scott Shipley and his S2O firm designed both the US National Whitewater Center near Charlotte and the whitewater venue for the 2012 London Olympics. The firm has also designed numerous community-scale parks like the one proposed for Asheville including projects in Durango, CO, San Marcos, TX, and Wanaka, NZ. There are two types of whitewater parks. Some, like the ones in Charlotte and London, are completely man-made and very costly; they involve creating a completely manufactured riverbed and rely on huge pumps to recirculate water back upstream. Most parks though are designed and built into natural riverbeds. They are much simpler and much less costly, as is the concept for Asheville.

The region within a couple or so hours around Asheville is the most popular part of the US for whitewater adventure with the French Broad, the Nantahala, Pigeon, Chattooga, Ocoee, Green, and Nolichucky rivers all attracting lots of activity. Pat Keller, 28, of Woodfin is an internationally famous whitewater paddler and grew up kayaking on all those rivers and now travels the world as a competitor and adventurer. “Asheville is the whitewater town of the south already, and the park would just take us to an incredible new level. I love what I am hearing about the design concept. Including the planned novice channel would be important too. Kids, families, and beginning paddlers would love that feature.” said Keller about the project.

The study indicates three possible locations for the in-stream park — near the Haywood Road Bridge and Jean Webb Park, near the Bowen (Interstate 240) Bridges, and near the Pearson Street Bridge. The report identifies the Bowen Bridges site as the “preferred alternative” due to its suitable riverbed configuration, better proximity to planned parking, greenways, and other park amenities, less conflict with other uses, and a likely better integration with floodway management. The park in that scenario is located midway between the Bowen (I-240) Bridges and Craven Street Bridge, near the northern end of the River Arts District. The report highlights that new flood mapping and permitting would be required from FEMA and the US Army Corps of Engineers under federal regulations, a routine but sometimes challenging step for whitewater park projects.

Hartwell Carson is the French Broad Riverkeeper and a lead advocate for environmental stewardship of the river. According to Carson, “ A project like this has been contemplated for years by the community. We’ve watched as similar projects have gone into rivers elsewhere in a safe and environmentally sound manner. The real environmental benefit comes with increased public attention to the river. I spend a great deal of time trying to build awareness locally about the French Broad, and I think this project could really help. The more that people tune into their river, the more they will care for it.”

The report estimates that the costs of design and construction would be in the range of $ 1.78 million. As has been reported, nearly $40 million – mostly funded from external grants – is to be expended over the next 5 years on the city’s RADTIP project and other planned redevelopment efforts in the river district. That is in addition to other private and public investments totaling many tens of millions of dollars into projects like Delphi Development’s RAD Lofts, New Belgium Brewery, Pink Dog Creative, and the Glen Rock mixed use development.

One recently created whitewater park is on the Nantahala River in Swain County. According to Jay Curwen, a life-long Asheville resident and Vice President of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the Nantahala venue was built for two key reasons – to host the 2013 World Whitewater Freestyle Championships and to enhance the everyday experiences of the thousands of river users that visit the Nantahala every year. “The 2013 Worlds was a huge success. We hosted over 200 athletes from 30 different countries and attracted almost 50,000 visitors to Swain County plus a national and international television audience that gave our region immeasurable marketing exposure. More importantly, the park has become a centerpiece of the Nantahala paddling experience, with on-shore spectators being the biggest part of that.” according to Curwen.

Regarding the potential for a French Broad whitewater park someday hosting a World Championship event, “It would of course be up to the community, but there is no reason that it could not happen.” according to the project consultant, Scott Shipley. Shipley himself is a three-time Olympian and World Cup Champion in the sport. Shipley spent several years living and training in Western North Carolina in the ’80s and ’90s.

The plan suggest a very low dam-like structure, using natural rocks, concrete, and some mechanical metal gates to direct water through multiple side-by-side drops to create whitewater of a quality that does not currently exist near town. The project could feature at least one “primary” wave that would provide a splashy thrill for those passing through on their river trips and also a surfing or “whitewater play” experience for more advanced users. A separate channel with a milder but still-fun rapid could be available for those not interested in the primary channels. The mechanical gate elements of the project would ensure mitigation of flood impacts, would allow for flow management at various water levels in the river, and would ensure a pathway for migration up and downstream for fish and other aquatic life.

According to Shipley, it is the utilization of the mechanical gates in recent years that has helped drive the feasibility and success of many of the projects. An existing project with many similarities to the Asheville concept is the Boise River Park in Idaho (boiseriverpark.com). Completed in 2012, it features multiple channels and mechanical gates. The park has seen tremendous success in its first two years — so much so that planning and fundraising is now underway for a $7.4 million expansion.

Harry Pilos of Delphi Management Group helped fund the study, and he is now beginning the development of the 209-unit mixed use RAD Lofts in the River District. “The recent announcements of funding for rebuilding of the roads, parks, and other amenities in the river district are all great news of course, but I think this one element – a whitewater park – has the potential to be a very important game changer in terms of ramping up the interest down here. We need to ensure a variety of experiences for residents and visitors. The price tag is very reasonable when it comes to bang-for-the-buck. Even though the site is some distance from my project, I really hope this will happen.”

Dr. Gordon Grant is principal of Hall Fletcher Elementary School, and has led families and students on numerous rafting and canoeing trips on the French Broad through Asheville.  According to Grant, “At Hall Fletcher, we are teaching children from a young age the lifelong understanding that nature is not separate from the city; it flows right through us and around us, and we want them to experience it in a variety of ways.  We are lucky to have the French Broad in the heart of our community, and the addition of the park could provide an element of fun and excitement that would make the river even more appealing to the young. What they grow to love they will know to protect.”

Marc Hunt is a member of Asheville City Council, spent earlier parts of his career in the whitewater outfitting business, and has been involved in the planning discussions. “I think this project does have great potential, and I am glad interest for it is stirring. Because the whitewater venue would ultimately be part of our parks system, I am urging the advocates to work closely with our staff, our advisory boards, and within the established framework of planning. And infrastructure planning is moving fast in the river district, so there is some urgency there. Given the City’s other pressing financial priorities though, an effective fundraising campaign would be key. I think my colleagues on City Council would agree with that point.”

Derek Turno is the principal owner of Asheville Adventure Rentals, one of the entities that funded the study, and one of the 4 outfitting companies established now along the river in Asheville. In addition to retail sales, he rents tubes, paddleboards, and other boats to river recreationists.  According to Turno, “The story of the last five years for the French Broad has been one of the community falling in love with its river.  Estimates are that about 50,000 floated the river though town in 2014 — mostly locals — and that is up from only a few hundred annually just a few years ago.  Peak days this past summer saw about 2,000 users. Our business is doubling each year. A whitewater park would add to the experience and get more people out and in touch with the river. I am all for that.”

Matt Raker is Vice President at the regional economic development agency AdvantageWest and an organizer of the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC group.

According to Raker, “A recent study we conducted found that WNC is now home to over 25 outdoor products manufacturers, many focused on whitewater sports. The suggested whitewater park could certainly help us further brand our region and support quality jobs in the fast growing outdoor industry. ”  The Asheville region is home to several prominent outdoor industry manufacturers including Legacy Paddlesports and its Liqidlogic kayaks brand, Astral Designs which manufacturers lifejackets and clothing, Pyrhana Mouldings, a British company with North American distribution headquarters here, and Watershed, which manufactures waterproof bags for river use.

According to Lutovsky, the next steps would be to work with local governments including the city to see how planning and further design might fit into the river district redevelopment effort. “Assuming a fit there, we’d need to gather initial funding to get detailed designing and permitting accomplished over the next couple years, with major fundraising and construction to follow that. With luck, we could have the park available in a 4-year timeframe.”

Click here to read the full design study: S2O Conceptual Design Study – Final

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About Pat Barcas
Pat is a photojournalist and writer who moved to Asheville in 2014. He previously worked for a labor and social rights advocacy newspaper in Chicago. Email him at pbarcas@gmail.com. Follow me @pbarcas

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