Riverfront Roots

Imagine standing under a pavilion looking out on the Mississippi River. As the city noise fades into the background, the sound of lapping waves tickles your ears and the wind dances across your face. Walking onto the “lookout,” you notice a compass embedded in the sidewalk pointing north, directly toward Iowa.

Here, in Rock Island, Ill., the river takes a jog to the west on its way down to New Orleans. This is only one of many unique features in the city’s Schwiebert Riverfront Park.

A History Lesson

The city’s long history as a riverfront community dates to an era when lumber companies, steamboats and railroads dotted the landscape; in fact, the first railroad bridge across the river was built in 1854, just upstream from where the park is located today.

In 1937, an armory building was built adjacent to one of the ferry-boat docks. In 1992, a river-based casino was built next to the armory, with valet parking. Recently, the casino moved across town to a larger facility. Having owned the armory building since 1996, city officials saw an opportunity to reconnect with the city’s riverfront roots. However, this would also be a challenge because of the need for flood protection during construction.

A Blank Canvas

With the hope of giving the riverfront back to the citizens and visitors, former Mayor Mark W. Schwiebert and city council met with landscape architect Bruce Morrow of the Madison, Wis.-based firm of Schreiber/Anderson and Associates (SAA).

Early considerations were that the building could become part of a redeveloped riverfront, but the facility was badly deteriorated and dangerous. With no economically viable reuse prospects, the building was torn down, leaving the riverfront a blank canvas.

With endless possibilities, limited only by funding, officials worked with architects to develop a conceptual plan for the property. The park and recreation staff members held meetings with other city departments, the public and downtown business organizations to identify primary uses, activities and specific amenities needed to support a park.

After phase one was complete, the city staff worked with Morrow and other SAA staff and engineers to blend the facility needs with the conceptual drawings approved by council, keeping in mind a need to generate revenue when possible.

The result was a park that added a totally new demographic to the downtown area, which had hosted professional people during the day and night-clubbers in the evening. Now, families and young teens arrive mid-morning and continue activities until 10:00 p.m. when the park closes.

Attractive Amenities

To accommodate year-round use, a removable floodwall allows patrons to continue park usage even when the floodwaters overflow the banks. Modifications--such as additional sidewalks--have been made along the way to deal with cut-through traffic patterns; a higher-capacity filtration system also was added to reflect fountain usage.

The park boasts an event lawn and stage, which shadows the architectural design of the old armory building, and overlooks the lower promenade with unrestricted views of the river. An interactive, computerized playground is very popular with children, and even attracts adults as they join in the fun, attempting to figure out all of the games, and climb the structure to turn out the lights.

Possibly the most fascinating feature is the entry plaza that includes a computerized, interactive fountain, which shoots water jets from the floor and from an adjoining knee wall.

During hot summer days, the fountain is full of children splashing and running through the sprays. At night, the fountain’s chic, color-changing light display shines the way for couples walking through the park.

Additional features include two sculptures--one nature-based and the other abstract--to support local public-art initiatives. The park also hosts the American Discovery Trail and Mississippi River Trail, used by runners, bikers and skaters.

The success of the park continues to grow as community members express their thanks and a true appreciation for being connected to their roots on the riverfront.