Environment

Plans are underway to transform the banks of the Ohio River in Southern Indiana into a massive park.

The land beyond the flood wall near the border shared by Clark and Floyd counties doesn’t offer much to lovers of the outdoors in its current state. The Ohio River Greenway snakes throughout the land between New Albany and Clarksville, though the waterway itself is often out of view.

What those walking along the trail will find is a largely industrial area. Much of the land is currently occupied by scrap yards, recycling facilities and landfills.

But Scott Martin, executive director of the River Heritage Conservancy, envisions a much different future for the waterfront property. Martin and his team recently released plans for a 600-acre park that is set to extend from the K&I Bridge in New Albany to the Falls of the Ohio in Clarksville.

“It is rare to find nearly 600 acres of land in a top 50 metro area on its waterfront,” Martin said. “That’s rare, and we felt an enormous responsibility to bring forward a plan that acknowledged how rare that was, and to be quite ambitious in its view of what could be and what should be on this land.”

Courtesy of River Heritage Conservancy

The plans for origin park call for hundreds of acres of new urban green space and 75,000 trees.

The name of the space will be Origin Park. Martin said the name is multilayered, as the property has been significant at several different points throughout history.

Prior to colonization, the Falls of the Ohio played a critical role in the culture of Indigenous peoples, who crossed the river there at its shallow point. Wild animals also used this trail for migration in what Martin called a “Serengeti-like” movement, with the land being part of the Buffalo Trace.

“It’s been inhabited for about 10,000 years, so that means the First Nations, the traditional owners, have stories in this land that far out-date us that came after European colonization,” Martin said. “The story of the Underground Railroad, and folks who were seeking freedom from bondage, who would have reached freedom when they hit the shores of our project is a story that we feel needs to be played up. And then the story of industrialization and land use that’s gone on for about the last 100 years in conjunction with the growth school on the Ohio River Valley. Those all began to take front and center.”

Martin said that he hopes to create a park that will reconnect people to nature and its history. But that effort will take years of land rehabilitation. The property was farm land for generations prior to the flood walls being erected. The site became the industrial park it is today in the 1960s.

The prospect of such an endeavor doesn’t discourage park designers, though. Cindy Sanders is the CEO at OLIN, the firm behind the design of Origin Park. She says during one of her early visits to the property with Martin, they came upon a group preparing to release a previously-injured eagle back into the wild.

“And I just looked at Scott and said, ‘This may sound corny, but this really is a metaphor for us coming in and healing this site and releasing it to the community for its own morphing over time,’” she said.

Sanders was inspired by what she calls the “raw awe” of the Ohio River and its banks. For all its beauty, she knows the waterway is also a powerful force, acknowledging the history of catastrophic floods in the area along with those that continue to this day.

Rather than building around the rising waters, Sanders and her team embraced that aspect, and plan to make the park “flood-resilient.”

“We’re going to design this park in such a way that it can flood and it can be usable during the flood,” she said. “People can still use the trails, people can still come in and drive in. It is really super exciting. When [the flooding] happens today, the park gets blocked off, so you’re stuck at the perimeter.”

About 200 acres of meadow lands and 75,000 trees will be added to the landscape. The park will incorporate green spaces and event centers, with a 2.8 mile trail called the “Infinity Loop” winding throughout the land.

The park will expand the existing ecosystem by adding hundreds of acres of urban forest and “surfacing” existing waterways that have been blocked over the years. Those streams will connect the quarry pond at the center of the property with Silver Creek and the Ohio River.

Visitors will be able to kayak along the creek and the flooded plains of the park when the water is high. The River Walk Overlook will allow for unique views of the river and the Louisville skyline. The final plans call for over 20 amenities that embrace the natural elements of the land.

Courtesy of River Heritage Conservancy

The park will incorporate vast green spaces and event centers.

The most recent plans expanded what was to be a 400-acre park to 600 acres. The new land includes the area leading up to the K&I Bridge. Martin, who also worked on the Parklands at Floyds Fork, said this leaves open the possibility that it one day could be transformed into a walking bridge like the Big Four in Jeffersonville.

Origin Park, when completed, will be 50% larger than Cherokee Park in Louisville.

“Frederick Law Olmsted said make no small plans, so we said while we’re at it, ecologically and recreationally, this site wants to function bigger,” Martin said. “We wanted to at least put out the big plan and big vision, look at the landscape without any regard to jurisdictional boundaries and pose the question to the community through the plan, ‘Hey, what if we had a world class park on the north shore of the Ohio? What if we became the city in the nation on the Ohio that was known as having the greenest infrastructure?’”

Now that the plans have been released, Martin said the team will work on agreements with local municipalities and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to use government-owned land. River Heritage Conservancy has acquired about half of the land for the park. Fundraising will begin next year, with the park’s cost expected to range from $110 to $130 million.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.