Finding Middleground

Six miles upstream from Lake Erie, Toledo’s “Middlegrounds” once buzzed as a hub of 19th-century Ohio commerce. Wharves and warehouses crowded onto a wedge of low-lying land between a creek and the Maumee River, which was busy with canal boats, rail cars, and Great Lakes vessels. 

Yet, for much of the 20th century, the Middlegrounds hardly seemed in the middle of anything. A destructive 1880s flood and transportation changes put an end to its role as a commercial crossroads. Its aging rail lines and increasingly abandoned warehouses isolated the area from the nearby downtown. The Middlegrounds fell into disuse and misuse, a scrubby dumping ground littered with industrial debris.

“The only thing this site had going for it was the river,” suggests Jon Zvanovec, project manager for Toledo Metroparks, which acquired the Middlegrounds site in 2006. The 28-acre parcel was “a bit of a stretch” for Metroparks, far smaller and far more degraded than the regional park district’s other properties. “But 28 acres on the Maumee River is hard to come by,” he adds. “We saw this as an opportunity to get people down to the river, give them a place to recreate, and maybe get them thinking about why Toledo grew up here.” 

That idea became the vision for Middlegrounds Metropark: A site that once connected people and goods from the river to the land would now connect people back to Toledo’s waterfront, forging new connections between the community and its Maumee River heritage.

Reclaiming Nature

Metroparks knew from the beginning it couldn’t hope to restore the parcel to its natural state. “This whole area was historically floodplain, which had been drained and filled decades ago,” explains Zvanovec. “So it gave us the opportunity to really think about what we wanted to do with the site.”

First came the cleanup. Though the site had “nothing sinister,” says Zvanovec, it took more than $400,000 and the better part of a construction season to remove more than 8,000 tons ofbroken asphalt, old tires, and other refuse. Invasive species had long ago replaced most of the native vegetation, leaving a blank canvas for the new park. 

In 2010, Metroparks teamed with SmithGroupJJR, a multi-disciplinary firm based in nearby Detroit, with a strong portfolio of waterfront projects, including “some really nice work on the Detroit River,” says Zvanovec, himself a landscape architect. “Their landscape architects and civil engineers just understand parks. It was a very inventive process. We would think outside the box—real pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff—and then just chip away at it until we could make it fit within the budget. It was a great way to work.” 

The resulting master plan evokes the region’s historic wetlands, woodlands, and upland prairie, and vastly improves the ecological health of the area. An upland zone of woods and oak savannah/oak barrens transitions into a prairie/meadow area of grasses and forbs. A riverfront zone of wet meadow and emergent wetland reestablishes a much-needed riparian habitat.

New, undulating topography adds visual interest to the relatively flat existing site, while incorporating a unique stormwater “treatment train” system. Stormwater troughs, trenches, bioswales, and created wetlands filter and store rainwater, including substantial runoff from the adjacent Anthony Wayne suspension bridge that spans the site. The stormwater-treatment system was designed to improve water quality from the site, as well as adjacent roads, while also creating a visual and educational experience for park users.

Recreation And Reconnection

Along with re-creating these natural systems, one of the biggest challenges was creating urban recreational opportunities within those systems. The design team really focused on providing ways for residents to engage with the water.

A key example is the kayak cove, an excavated basin that offers easy launching and river access for small watercraft, like kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. A riverside walk runs the length of the property, leading to fishing platforms and overlooks with views up and down the river. Stepping stones let visitors get right to the water’s edge, connecting them to the river at the most intimate level. 

In addition to providing valuable interactions with water, the new park will also provide numerous community-connection opportunities within the central pavilion and lawn area. Traditional gathering spaces, including an open lawn, picnic areas, a covered pavilion, and a playground, provide for informal group use and special-event rentals, as well as typical programming areas. 

While the park’s size doesn’t allow for an extensive trail network, nearly 1 1/2 miles of paths and promenades loop through the various ecosystems, lawns, and plazas. Meanwhile, the city of Toledo has plans to extend a multi-use trail past the Middlegrounds Metropark entrance, creating a non-motorized link to nearby neighborhoods, the city’s riverfront Promenade Park, and, eventually, downtown Toledo. 

In keeping with the park’s vision to reconnect residents with their regional heritage, interpretive elements abound. Park users can learn about historic habitats and other aspects of the area’s pre-settlement history, ecological restoration, and the region’s prominence as a shipping and rail center. “At one time, all railroads led to Toledo because of our location on the Great Lakes,” notes Zvanovec. The design of the park’s picnic pavilion and circular event lawn is a nod to the railroad roundhouses that once operated here.

The Funding Formula

While Metroparks had been successful acquiring various land areas, it lacked the revenue stream for developing and operating them. Middlegrounds was no different; the project sat undeveloped for years. That changed with the arrival of new Metroparks Executive Director Steve Madewell in 2012, who immediately pushed for a 10-year, 0.9-mill levy on the November 2012 ballot. “It passed with flying colors—near 70 percent,” recalls Zvanovec. “Suddenly, we had the money to turn a lot of dreams into reality.”

From the beginning, the Middlegrounds project enjoyed wide public support. What was not to like? Middlegrounds Metropark would provide new greenspace, river access, trails, and even a dog park on a neglected piece of land. A grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Estuarine Land Conservation Program covered the purchase price of $1.25 million. The levy would generate the funds for design and development. Citizen groups contributed even more, including a $300,000 donation from the Rotary Club of Toledo, the club’s largest gift to date. 

But then construction costs tripped up the project’s momentum in autumn of 2015. “It was just bad timing—all the bids came back too high,” says Zvanovec. The team went back to the plan sets to look for ways to trim costs. The team chipped away a few details and changed a few materials, such as eliminating some masonry work from the pavilion. “In the big picture, it was nothing anyone would notice,” he remarks.

A Metroparks video shows the progress made in 2015: the main entry drive taking shape alongside the Anthony Wayne Bridge and the depressions that will be transformed into reestablished wetlands rich with duckweed and water lily. Zvanovec can see even more. “I can picture people coming here from work with their lunches, looking out at the water and up at what I think is just a beautiful bridge.” Weekends will bring more bicyclists, boaters, fishermen, and other recreationalists. “I think it will do just what we envisioned—give people a chance to reconnect with the river, right here in the middle of the city.”

There’s already a stir of activity in the nearby industrial area, too, where new condominiums, galleries, and other small businesses are popping up in some of the warehouse buildings. “It’s on the uptick, and this park can only help,” Zvanovec adds. “What a wonderful thing if this can be a catalyst for this whole area.” Due for completion in December 2016, Middlegrounds could once again be in the middle of it all.

Emily McKinnon, PE, is a Principal and Senior Civil Engineer for SmithGroupJJR in Detroit, Mich. Reach her at