Fresh off its grand opening weekend, there's still work to be done to complete Aurora's RiverEdge Park.
The next step for the facility designed to revitalize the city's downtown and Fox River shorelines will be a pedestrian bridge linking park land on both sides of the river.
The park's Music Garden -- which debuted Friday and is the first of five distinct areas to be developed -- can hold 8,500 concertgoers for major musical acts on the stage, and its seating lawn and pathways can accommodate large community festivals.
But leaders of Illinois' second-largest city say the $18.5 million RiverEdge Park will do even more to spur economic development and promote connectivity when it's complete. The next step, they say, is building a bridge to carry walkers and bikers between the historic neighborhoods on the west side of the river and the concert venue and transportation hub on the east.
"We know the next big thing is the bridge," said Charlie Zine, a member of the RiverEdge Park committee, which has met monthly since 2007 as the first phase of the park developed.
Plans also include a wetland environmental center, a children's playground and market space, and a redeveloped Wilder Park gathering place on the west side of the river.
"I'm anxious to see it when it's in full bloom," Alderman Abby Schuler said.
As Aurora begins using its new riverfront centerpiece for leisure time and shows, Mayor Tom Weisner says RiverEdge Park's ability to connect both sides of the river will be just as significant as its role as a regional concert venue.
The bridge giving west side Aurora residents park access by foot or bicycle will add a stunning visual element to the south side of the site, Weisner said, "but just as important, it will allow residents from our near west side, particularly the historic district, to access our train station on a daily basis."
Connecting a region
RiverEdge Park sits on or near several regional bike trails, including the Fox River Trail, the Illinois Prairie Path, the Virgil Gilman Trail and the Great Western Trail, Zine says, meaning the park serves dual purposes of recreation and transportation.
With the $13.2 million Music Garden now open for its first season, the city can shift its focus to transportation.
More fundraising and grant-seeking remains to be done before the city can build the pedestrian bridge and other elements of the park, said Stephane Phifer, Aurora's director of planning and zoning.
The city is finishing designs on the bridge using $2 million in grant funding from the Forest Preserve District of Kane County -- the last chunk to be spent from $15 million in grants received so far.
The structure will cross over Blues Island in between two groups of trees, but it won't touch down on the island. It will connect at the south side of the park near the boat dock and Jake's Bagels & Deli.
Phifer said the bridge's role in bringing commuters to PACE buses and Metra trains at the Aurora Transportation Center may make the project eligible for transit-oriented grants.
Bridge designs are expected to be complete by the end of the year, Phifer said, so once sufficient funding is found, the business of selecting contractors and overseeing construction can begin anew.
Completing a vision
Aside from the bridge, a wetland environmental center to be built on the north side of the park will help complete the vision for a public space driven by the Fox, the waterway that bisects Aurora. RiverEdge aims to become, as its tagline says, "A park that is a river. A river that is a park."
"Phase 2 will include an expansion of this park along Indian Creek," where an environmental education center will be built at the creek's confluence with the river, Weisner says. "Over time, we want to enlarge our vista from here and allow more events, park events, perhaps our farmers market going forward."
Phifer said donor support figures to be high for the environmental center, making it a likely next step after the pedestrian bridge.
Bob Vaughan, executive director of the Dunham Fund, which gave $2 million to Music Garden construction and funded the John C. Dunham pavilion stage, said the nonprofit group he leads may be interested in contributing more to the park in the future.
Like Weisner, Vaughan said he thinks RiverEdge Park will promote downtown revitalization and introduce more people to Aurora as it settles into its place in the city for years to come.
"We want to get more people into Aurora," he said, "to experience it and enjoy it."