The Elkhart River District: Vision in motion
Mayor Neese’s vision of the River District Revitalization Project is to develop a vibrant urban space that complements existing Main Street assets and creates a destination where people want to live.
ELKHART (September 21, 2018) – The Elkhart Common Council recently approved the second appropriation of the City’s commitment to the River District Revitalization Project. This overall public investment of $30 million is expected to leverage approximately $300 million in private investment over the next 10 years. With that will come growth to the City’s tax base, allowing for needed investments to continue throughout the City, as well as numerous construction, retail and hospitality jobs. Yet with nearly 9,000 job openings countywide, the vision behind the River District is about much more than diversified job creation. It is the beginning of a new approach to economic development, one that prioritizes attracting people.
To facilitate our needed population growth, the City looked at housing trends. Studies clearly indicate that both millennials and seniors prefer to live in urban, walkable communities. These two generations, representing our country and city’s largest populated demographics, prefer to live where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices. In response, the River District plan calls for mixed-use spaces that complement existing Main Street assets and create a destination where people want to live.
The renowned Zimmerman Volk and Associates completed an Elkhart housing market study for the River District Plan. The study indicates that a concentrated critical mass of walkable, urban housing will fuel the River District’s revitalization. The analysis projects, over a five-year timeframe, 680 to 880 rental and for-sale housing units could be supported. Assuming this rate of absorption continues for the next decade, there is enough existing market potential to fill the River District, as well as Main Street and the near downtown neighborhoods, with dense urban housing to welcome enough new residents to truly bring the city center to life.
As the City begins to pave the way for these private investment opportunities, residents can already see the primary streetscapes coming together. Jackson Boulevard reopened to vehicle and pedestrian traffic in August as a new divided boulevard lined with on-street parallel parking and ADA compliant sidewalks. The planting of trees along the sidewalks and in the medians on Jackson Boulevard is expected to be completed by year end.
While the new 10.5-foot lane width is different from what suburban motorists are used to on Jackson Boulevard, similar lane widths exist throughout the City where speeds must be reduced for residential living. Reducing the speed on Jackson Boulevard will increase safety for those walking, dining, and shopping in the River District and downtown, while still providing through-traffic and east-west connectivity via primary roads such as Johnson/Prairie Street, Beardsley Avenue, and Middlebury Street.
This year, additional placemaking projects include the Elkhart Avenue streetscape and a Riverwalk extension from INOVA Federal Credit Union to Junior Achievement Drive. Work will continue in 2019 with streetscape projects along Junior Achievement Drive and Lexington Avenue. The intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Junior Achievement Drive will be reconfigured so that the two are perpendicular, achieving a true grid structure. As a result, residents can anticipate Jackson Boulevard, from Easy Shopping Drive east to Johnson Street, to be temporarily closed again next spring. The reconfiguration will allow for a public green space to be developed on the southeast corner of the intersection and increase pedestrian safety.
When the initial planning began, the River District Implementation Team (RDIT) knew they had to have a bold vision to win over residents for future growth. Yet, they also knew that Elkhart is far from the first community to take this leap. Peer communities were identified, and they have helped to inform the important design decisions that have been made thus far. One of these peer cities was Greenville, SC, a location that Mayor Tim Neese and the RDIT toured and met with local leaders about their success.
As the project expeditiously moves forward, property owners continue to approach the RDIT with interest in selling and redeveloping their properties. With construction well underway, the core infrastructure needed to develop this signature destination is becoming a reality and the positive energy is ramping up. Next summer, the completion of both the Elkhart Health Fitness and Aquatics Center and Stonewater at the Riverwalk will be upon us. In addition to the 205 housing units at Stonewater at the Riverwalk, the City anticipates an additional 300 will be under construction in 2019 - 500 of the plan’s targeted 1,000 housing units.
With this vision now in motion, public feedback continues to be encouraged. For more information on the Elkhart River District and redesign of Jackson Boulevard, visit www.elkhartriverdistrict.com.