By Sarah Vogelsong, The Progress-Index
PETERSBURG — On maps, the blue ribbon of the Appomattox River cleaves the Tri-Cities area in two, separating north bank from south bank, Colonial Heights and Chesterfield from Petersburg, Hopewell, Dinwiddie and Prince George.
The newly released master plan for the Appomattox River Trail would redraw that map, spanning the watery divide with a series of bridges and connecting the trails developed independently by the six municipalities to knit the region more closely together around its most valuable natural resource.
“Here we are in this amazing central location with the history and the unique nature of the river going from tidal to the rapids, and it’s scenic all the way,” said Wendy Austin, executive director of the Friends of the Lower Appomattox River, the group spearheading the development of the Appomattox River Trail.
Stretching from Lake Chesdin to Hopewell’s City Point Park, the planned Appomattox River Trail is almost 23 miles long, with different segments lying south of the river and others north, and parks, fishing piers, marinas and historical sites dotting its length.
FOLAR’s vision of stitching together those sites and stretches of trail grew out of what the master plan calls a “shared recognition” by the six Tri-Cities localities and the Crater Planning District Commission “that developing a publicly-accessible, shared-use trail along the river corridor has the potential to create tremendous benefit for the entire region.”
Those regional benefits run the gamut from encouraging tourism by attracting hikers, bikers, boaters, history buffs and other daytrippers to the Appomattox River; fostering economic development to support river-centric activities and a larger volume of tourists; improving the health of the six communities through easier access to river recreation opportunities; and supporting alternative transportation routes.
“I think everyone sees it really as win-win-win. There’s so many positive things about getting that trail in,” said Austin.
There’s also some formidable challenges, as the master plan, developed under the leadership of landscape architects Land Planning & Design Associates after months of public input, makes clear.
Besides the need to construct pedestrian bridges connecting the trails that lie on opposite banks, the 23-mile ART must also negotiate the two interstates (95 and 295) that bisect it, as well as skirt such man-made features as the Vulcan quarry in Prince George County and the prison and jail complexes that adjoin Appomattox River Park near the western edge of Hopewell. Land or easements must be acquired in numerous places to link existing trail segments, which must in many places be widened or regraded to improve and increase access.
The master plan crafted by LPDA offers one vision for navigating these difficulties while also capitalizing on the region’s extant assets and more closely tying the neighborhoods that lie along the trail to the river.
The estimated price tag: $28 million, a figure that Austin acknowledged is “a lot” but is not intended to be paid out all at once. The LPDA plan divides the 23-mile trail into 13 different sections (“Battersea Lane to University Boulevard,” for example, or “Cabin Creek Road to Route 10”) and then identifies the specific improvements needed in each section, with their associated estimated cost, an approach that allows FOLAR and the six Tri-Cities governments to “chunk” off “doable parts,” in Austin’s words.
“The idea is that we would be doing it gradually,” she said. “We could pick a section and say, let’s focus on that.”
By far the largest expense of master plan implementation is bridge construction. LPDA is recommending that six bridges be built across the river, ranging in cost from $600,000 to lay bridge decking across existing railroad piers downstream of Petersburg’s Fleet Street crossing to $3.9 million to construct a new pedestrian bridge near the Battersea neighborhood. Altogether, the six bridges would cost about $12.8 million.
By comparison, the single steel-cable pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle in Richmond cost some $2.3 million to construct over 25 years ago, a figure equal to about $4.1 million today. That structure was largely funded by contributions from the James River Corporation, as well as funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Within the Tri-Cities region, perhaps the most unique of the proposed Appomattox bridges is one that would be built using the striking stone abutments that sit just south of Virginia State University and once supported the Seaboard Air Line railroad bridge before its demolition in the 1980s.
“The idea of some of these features like bridges are important to the quality of the trail in terms of making it a vibrant catalyst for tourism,” said Austin. “Those kind of amenities — for example, a beautiful pedestrian swinging bridge — is something folks make as a destination.”
The master plan supports that view, noting, “Redeveloping the historic abutments as a part of a new bridge is a way to highlight the area’s history, as well as reduce construction costs.”
Even as such concepts aim to develop “destination-quality” sites along the river to increase tourism, much of the proposed 23-mile trail focuses on the communities that already live and work in the area.
Planned neighborhood connections, the master plan notes, “are a way for local residents to access the trail from their front door. These connections are an important way to link the surrounding communities to this resource, and to connect residents to an alternate transportation route to work, businesses, and recreation.”
Those linkages, said Austin, can further other regional goals, such as increasing walkability and improving residents’ health. Petersburg and Hopewell in particular have long struggled with the latter: the national County Health Rankings released this week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Petersburg 132nd and Hopewell 123rd of 133 Virginia counties and cities for health outcomes.
Consequently, “it is no coincidence,” the master plan notes, that the seven highest-priority projects the document identifies fall within these two cities, where “social equity” and economic development needs are most pressing.
Calculated using a 17-point rubric, these high-priority projects include the extension of Patton Park and the trail to its east toward Johnson Alley, improvements to the Pocahontas Island trailhead, the addition of a trail between Virginia State University and Appamatuck Park, the construction of the pedestrian bridge on the Campbell’s Bridge abutments, and improvements to Petersburg’s Patton Park and Hopewell’s City Park and Riverside Harbor Park.
With the master plan in hand, FOLAR will now begin meeting with the six stakeholder municipalities to identify feasible early projects and start seeking funding from external sources.
And despite the large price tag, Austin was steadfast in her belief that the master plan is clearly “achievable,” given the high level of involvement and buy-in it received during the drafting phase and the region’s growing commitment to its unique natural resource.
After all, she said, “Not every community has a gorgeous river like that to leverage.”