Northeast Bradenton’s waterfront neighborhoods are about to become part of Bradenton’s award-winning linear park as plans are now in motion to extend Riverwalk to the east.
Planning for the eastward expansion is underway and community input has begun. Realize Bradenton launched the first phase of planning with a community survey on a new addition to its website devoted to the expansion.
Realize Bradenton will take the lead in working with several agencies involved in the project, but there are obstacles to overcome to make it one complete Riverwalk instead of two separate parks.
Currently, the new Riverwalk East is shown to begin at Ninth Street East and Riverside Drive East and run to 14th Street East. But a large gap of land stretches between where the new park begins and the existing park ends at Manatee Memorial Hospital.
The gap presents significant challenges in geography because of the way the Manatee River wraps around the point. Cutting through would take the Riverwalk extension through private property — it’s the one stretch of waterfront property not owned by the city. Scott Tibbetts is listed as the owner of some of that property. Tibbetts could not be reached for comment.
While the connection may prove to be difficult, it’s not impossible. One possibility: Build a boardwalk walkover offshore and around some of the land the city may not be able to access.
The goal, however, is to make that connection happen.
“Different ideas will be explored for the connection, but there are no predetermined answers,” Realize Bradenton Executive Director Johnette Isham said, expressing confidence that city officials and the design team can work together to resolve those challenges.
The project, Isham says, is a continuation of what began with Riverwalk’s construction in 2012.
“Our motto is ‘We Bring People Together,’ and the Riverwalk expansion fits right into what happened in October of 2012,” Isham said. “Realize Bradenton worked with the city for nine months to get thousands engaged in an area with a lot of opportunities for improvements. The city has made the decision to expand the Riverwalk — and when everyone works together, a community concept is carried forward.”
The initial phase of the new planning is funded by a grant to the Manatee Community Foundation. The focus of the expansion is health and wellness — a large umbrella that Isham says can include fitness, arts and culture, nutrition and more. The city is looking to make the expansion more of a passive park while keeping those health and wellness elements in mind, as well as continuing to improve the overall walkability in and around Bradenton.
The Florida Department of Health, Manatee Memorial Hospital and the United Way Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading are all on board to help highlight the health and wellness goals.
Those challenges will be left to the city and the design firm of Kimley-Horn, which designed the original Riverwalk.
For now, the first step is community engagement.
“We are actively engaging the residents and businesses to really think positively about the future,” Isham said.
And the future is in the hands of millennials, so Realize Bradenton is encouraging the younger generation to take the lead. Isham has put together a core group of millennials to work with a millennial design team from Kimley-Horn. Out of hundreds of millennials Realize Bradenton engages, four have been selected for project leadership roles in the community engagement phase with the support of Realize Bradenton.
The survey concludes Feb. 13, and for those with interest or unable to access the survey online, a series of public engagement meetings are planned from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Jan. 13 at the Downtown Farmers’ Market and again on Jan. 20. Community meetings are scheduled for Jan. 25, Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 at the Manatee United Methodist Church, 315 15th St. E., beginning at 6 p.m.
Once public input is completed, Kimley-Horn will begin some preliminary designs for city officials to consider for approval based on design elements and cost.
Isham said it only took one year from when public engagement started on the original Riverwalk to construction, so it is possible construction on the first phase of the expansion could begin by the end of the year, if not sooner. A master plan is expected to be completed as early as May.
Studies show that quality parks have a positive economic impact on nearby property values, and public investment tends to attract private development.
“A successful park thrives by embracing the area’s ecological, cultural and historic aspects, while building financial sustainability through the investments of public, private and nonprofit sectors,” Isham said.
More than a third of tourists report they like to seek out places where they can interact with the people, history and culture of the area. High-quality public places increasingly top a city’s wish list, and Isham notes Bradenton is fortunate to have a diamond in the rough that can be polished, “with little effort at not much cost,” compared to other cities that have to spend tens of millions of dollars just to create the environment to develop that Bradenton already has.
The health benefits of expanding Riverwalk, and in turn, meeting the city’s overall goals of being pedestrian and bicycle friendly, are just as important.
“Community health improves with more opportunities for recreation, walking, biking and social connections,” Isham said.
For Randy Johnson, fishing should be part of that conversation. Johnson was braving the cold weather to get a line into the Manatee River off Riverside Drive East this week. He doesn’t live in the area, but the Manatee River at the end of Riverside Drive East is one of his favorite spots to get a line in the water.
“I’m excited to see this happen,” he said. “I’d like to see some elevation off the river like it is now on Riverwalk.”
Mayor Wayne Poston said the inclusive nature of the project no doubt will “create another world-class public space in Bradenton. The existing Riverwalk is as diverse as it is beautiful. It works for Bradenton and beyond because of that diversity. The expansion, like the original Riverwalk, will be shaped by civic involvement and reflect community and city priorities. I look forward to joining our neighborhoods together through additional public space.”
The guiding themes for the expansion include a litany of health and wellness concepts such as fitness, nutrition, literacy, arts, heritage, civic pride and social connections. Manatee Community Foundation Executive Director Susie Bowie said their long-standing relationship with the Knight Foundation has facilitated a “meaningful philanthropy that nurtures local talent and builds opportunities for informed and engaged communities where all can co-create possibilities.”
“We’re excited about this project,” Isham said. “It ties into what we are trying to do downtown, making the urban core of Manatee County a destination by bringing arts, culture, history and business together.”
Realize Bradenton is working to get the layout of the Riverwalk expansion on its walkbradenton.com interactive online tool that guides users around Bradenton to places to eat, drink and sleep, historical features and public art. The program was launched in April to overwhelming success and now includes eight newly loaded oral history videos of specific locations, including Old Main Street narrated by retired fire chief and Councilman Gene Gallo. Also online is the history of Bealls and its founding home in Manatee County.
“Working together works,” said Sue Revell, vice chair of the Realize Bradenton board of directors. “We look forward to the redevelopment and economic growth that occurs from engaging people, transforming places and realizing possibilities.”