Friday, March 28

A new Clark Fork river

Today is a pivotal day for the Clark Fork river. The largest EPA superfund site ever, right up the road from me, reached a point in the clean-up process when they were ready to breach the Milltown dam. At about 11:30 today the Clark Fork river ran freely for the first time in over 100 years. A couple of us went up to the bluffs overlooking the project to watch the new stream carve its way through the mud around the dam.

It may take a few years, but the cleaner and unobstructed nature of the Clark Fork could profoundly change how we view its use within the urban landscape. In the past the river was seen primarily as a vehicle for industry, either for transport or waste disposal. It's hard to imagine now, but a downtown butcher reportedly used to simply throw his leftover carcasses into the river and let them wash away. In recent years, probably through both a loss of industry in general and an enhanced environmental awareness, we are much more careful in how we use our rivers. After some restoration they could become again a wonderful place for humans to be, and they could provide that essential connection with nature even in the heart of the city.

Here's an example right near where I live: the Eastgate shopping center.

This strip mall occupies about 85,000 square feet right along the Clark Fork, about a two minute walk to the university campus and a 10 minute walk to downtown. It's essentially a gateway into downtown Missoula, coming in from I-90 through the Hellgate canyon. Instead of utilizing this amazing location, the developers opted to construct a standard strip mall facing Broadway and put an empty brick wall with dumpsters along the waterfront. What a waste? But it does give some insight into the older view of industrial rivers. They weren't exactly a community focal point.

Now imagine if the Eastgate center kept its existing retail, but also opened up another strip of shops and restaurants or cafes along the river. A small nicely landscaped walkway could be extended out from the pedestrian bridge to serve these locations, and perhaps a terrace could be built with stairs down to the river to provide public access. Instead of wasting all of this valuable land with a single-story building, two or three more stories of residential units could be put on top. They would be very desirable places to live and provide more vibrancy and safety to the riverfront life. If this were legal in a zoning sense and I had a few million to throw around, I would be all over this. The time is right for a renewed waterfront.

Parks and recreation areas are a wonderful way to use the waterfront areas, but that can't be the only goal we pursue. urban areas can also make use of the clean natural amenity with dense, mixed-use, and publicly accessible development.


J.W. said...

Ugh, the butcher factoid is disgusting. Being downstream in general is disgusting. I'm about to post on my wife's blog about TX's water problem, and one of the notable issues is that Houston can't really rely on groundwater (as it's built on a swamp and sinks a little farther into the earth when it does) and so instead it uses a great deal of water from the Trinity River. But the Trinity river by the time it reaches Houston's faucets and drinking fountains is about 90% treated effluent from Dallas/Ft. Worth and other semi-urbanized areas along the way. Not that this water isn't clean--it obviously is--but it's still disgusting to think about drinking from what was formerly the excrement of others.

Daniel Nairn said...

Drinking water was a major motivation here too. Milltown, just outside of Missoula, had all of its wells shut down because dangerous metals from the polluted river were seeping. They have had to have all of their water trucked in ever since. After clean up is done, they should be able to go back to the river for their water.

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