TERRE HAUTE —
The community has to want it.
There’s an entrenched list of reasons why Terre Haute can’t create a safe, continuous, scenic walkway that connects its two most famous physical landmarks — Wabash Avenue and its namesake, the Wabash River. “It would cost too much money” tops that chart, followed closely by “such a thing isn’t practical in an Indiana town this size.”
That first obstacle is real, but not insurmountable. If there is a will, ways and means can be found, just as Terre Haute did in the 1920s when it paid $155,000 for 167 wooded acres that became Deming Park and spent $425,000 to build Memorial Stadium. (Those two expenditures combined would amount to $8,014,616 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. Money wisely spent, most would say now.)
That second obstacle is imaginary. A similarly sized Hoosier city, Lafayette, actively directs residents and visitors toward its bustling Wabash riverfront. Even little Bluffton — population 9,897 — maintains a beautiful, heavily used River Greenway that starts a block from its city hall and meanders along the Wabash’s banks for 21⁄2 miles until it links with the trails at Ouabache State Park.
By contrast, a walk, jog or bike ride from downtown Terre Haute to the Wabash is disjointed, unmarked, bland and risky.
The Turn to the River project aims to improve that shortcoming. Organizers unveiled a draft of that plan, 18 months in the making, at an open house Tuesday afternoon in the downtown offices of Wabash Valley Art Spaces Inc. Art Spaces, consulting firm J3 Concepts and the City of Terre Haute coordinated the study, which involved interviews of 100 participants at public-input meetings and surveys of 300 other folks. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with matching funds from the city, paid for the research, Art Spaces Executive Director Mary Kramer explained. They’ll continue to field public comments until presenting the final draft to city and county officials in June for use as a non-binding resource for planning.
The organizers sought ideas and priorities from people on using urban design and public art to reconnect downtown Terre Haute to the Wabash River, blending in the city and county government campus in the process. (City Hall, the Vigo County Courthouse and the jail stand between the western end of Wabash Avenue — downtown’s main artery — and the Wabash River.)
The Turn to the River draft features fascinating concepts, such as converting the east-bank foundation of the old U.S. 40 river bridge — currently covered with weeds, rocks and scrub brush and owned by the city — into a “Wabash Lookout,” a landscaped overlook of the waterway. A pedestrian promenade (a path lined with water-related art and plants) would run from Wabash Avenue through the government campus to the overlook. From there, extensions of the National Heritage Trail would take walkers, joggers and bikers along the banks of the Wabash, either to the south through Fairbanks Park or north toward Indiana State University.
Somehow, those pedestrians will need a more secure way to cross six lanes of busy traffic on Third Street at Wabash Avenue. An average of 40,000 vehicles per day pass through the 1.5-mile section of U.S. 41 known as Third Street in Terre Haute, according to 2009 statistics. The intersection of Third and Wabash reflects that heavy traffic.
“It feels unsafe,” said Jason Saavedra of J3 Concepts, “and as a pedestrian, it feels as if you’re not supposed to be there.”
The Turn to the River draft suggests a feasibility study on building a pedestrian bridge over Third Street. Such a structure wouldn’t be inexpensive. Pat Martin, the city’s chief planner, couldn’t speculate on its cost. Though a pedestrian crossing over Third Street has been discussed in the past, it never went beyond that because of the high cost, said Ron Hisenkamp, executive director of the West Central Indiana Economic Development District, when contacted Wednesday.
Mayor Duke Bennett emphasized Wednesday that no plans are under way for a Third Street pedestrian bridge.
Still, some separate improvements to create a gateway appearance on Third Street and beautify the stretch between Cherry and Poplar streets are planned for this summer, the mayor said. Those changes — sidewalks, curbs, handicapped ramps, resurfacing, plantings, an island in the median, and signs directing people toward landmarks (including the river) — could make crossing Third Street somewhat easier. “It will help,” Bennett said. “It won’t solve everything.”
ISU included a Third Street crossing around the Chestnut Street area in its 2009 university master plan. That crossing — which could be either an above-grade bridge or a less costly street-level crossing — was placed in the long-range plan because ISU intended to move several athletic facilities to the west side of Third Street, along the riverbank, and students could walk from campus to the fields. The university’s commitment was a boost to the big-picture vision by the local Riverscape organization. Last week, ISU broke ground on its riverside track-and-field complex, expected to be completed by fall.
So the Third Street crossing has moved up the priority list. “It was almost waiting for us to create the need,” said Kevin Runion, ISU associate vice president of facilities management. “And that need has been created.”
The city would have to sponsor a Chestnut and Third pedestrian crossing, but ISU would have to fund it, the mayor said. When asked if pedestrian crossings over Third Street could eventually be in place at both Chestnut and Wabash, Bennett said, “Right now, I’d say that’s undetermined.”
Someday, the funding concerns could change. The value of all the Turn to the River elements is that it puts ideas for local progress on the table, both the simpler, near-future plans and the tougher, long-range concepts.
“If you don’t get it on the docket, if you don’t look at what it will do and plan for it, then of course, it will never happen,” Kramer said.
The Wabash — and accessibility to scenic sights along its shores — makes Terre Haute a better place.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.