St. Charles aldermen give green light to white water on riverfront

 
 
Updated 9/15/2015 5:46 PM
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  • Aldermen embraced the pending St. Charles Riverpark this week, but unknown costs and unproven science remain major obstacles.

    Aldermen embraced the pending St. Charles Riverpark this week, but unknown costs and unproven science remain major obstacles. Rendering Courtesy of River Corridor Foundation of St. Charles

St. Charles aldermen have given preliminary approval to a plan that envisions a white water version of Naperville's Riverwalk becoming the centerpiece of St. Charles' downtown.

But the "yes" votes came with more anxiety than recent displays of support by local officials.

All the St. Charles officials who've seen the project plans, from aldermen to park district commissioners, have embraced it as a game-changer for the downtown. The idea is to create a half-mile, looping river walk extending from the Main Street Bridge to Prairie Street. The walk would feature multiple gathering spaces, but the path itself would be a type of stage to the action envisioned for the portion of the Fox River it follows. Kayaking, white water rafting and other aquatic activities would combine with an in-the-river children's splash pad to be the main attraction.

It's that idea of transforming St. Charles into an outdoor destination that fuels enthusiasm from aldermen such as Steve Gaugel.

"If we want long-term, sustainable growth, tenants attracted downtown, a diverse retail base, then this will serve to foster all of that," Gaugel said. "I think we should very much get behind this and make it a priority."

But it's the 62-item to-do list with costs and funding sources "to be decided" now fueling the anxiety.

"I don't know where we're going to get the money, but it's a nice plan," said Alderman William Turner.

Rick Hitchcock, a consultant for the project, said the plan is achievable in incremental steps over many years.

"In Naperville, we did the chipping away strategy, and, 35 years later, we've got something that we think is pretty cool," said Hitchcock, who helped design Naperville's vaunted path along the DuPage River.

Indications are some private investors may finance some aspects of the project. But for residents and businesses already located on the riverfront, there's still the missing proof that the plan is even possible.

The idea for creating the white water passage hinges on removing the existing dam by the Main Street Bridge. Even if that's possible, the engineering proof of how to regulate the flow coming from upstream, without impacting the existing pool of water, is still on the drawing board.

Hitchcock said he is well aware there are several interested parties who have not yet bought into the plan.

"There are some anxieties, particularly with the science," Hitchcock said. "Is this going to be a mess? Or is this going to be an attraction? There's a lot of process to go. We think that the private investors, private property owners, would benefit greatly from this kind of investment in the riverfront. We've seen it happen across the country. But we do appreciate their concern."

With all the unknowns as a given, Alderman Todd Bancroft urged his colleagues to move the plan forward and think about the money and the science later.

"Those concerns are real; they exist, and they are out there," Bancroft said. "That's not the purpose of this exercise. The money is going to be a hard task. It's a challenge that we'll just have to overcome."

The full city council will vote on the plan next week.

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