You’re in the Glass City Metropark, an urban green space with a modern glass pavilion, a rooftop plaza and a boardwalk that extends over the water, all accompanying a panoramic view of the Toledo city skyline. As you walk northeast along the adjacent trail, greenery surrounds you on three sides with the mighty Maumee River on your left. A majestic ship catches your eye as you pass the National Museum of the Great Lakes.
After you cross the iconic Veterans Glass City Skyway bridge, you make your way down the river’s west side, past Imagination Station and other veteran Toledo establishments. You cross the river again, this time via the historic Anthony Wayne Bridge, and, because all this walking has made you hungry, you make your way to the restaurants at the Docks in International Park. Stomach satisfied, you take a short walk across a pedestrian bridge and find yourself back where you started.
In a 5-mile loop, you’ve seen some of the best Toledo has to offer — nature, architecture, institutions and restaurants alike. And that’s exactly what the Glass City Riverwalk aims to provide its wayfarers as it looks to revitalize the city’s riverfront by restoring natural areas, providing green space for recreation, promoting economic growth and creating trails and bike paths that will connect both sides of the river.
The idea behind the Riverwalk emerged from downtown revitalization plans and input from the city, businesses, neighborhoods and local people. The Toledo City Council approved the Downtown Toledo Master Plan in 2017, and community feedback recommended focusing on the river.
Several cities in the U.S., including many in the Midwest, have turned to riverfront revitalization in recent years. Des Moines, Grand Rapids and Omaha have focused on developing their waterfronts to not only make themselves attractive locations for job seekers, but also to allow residents and visitors to enjoy nature and recreation, promote community connectivity and enhance economic growth.
A hub for trade on land and water, Toledo has long been a destination for industries and a port for freighters traversing the Great Lakes and the Maumee River. In the 1800s and 1900s, both the east and west sides of Toledo’s riverfront were crowded with factories. The Manhattan Iron Company built a furnace on the river in 1863 and soon after, other industrial developments appeared on the riverfront, including coke plants, oil refining and iron works. The shores of the Maumee also hosted shipyards, a casting plant and a flour mill. What is now the Glass City Metropark used to be a steel mill and a power plant.
While most of these industrial plants were abandoned in the latter half of the 20th century, there were few developments on this riverside land in subsequent decades. Newer endeavors on the riverfront, like healthcare company ProMedica’s renovation of the Water Street Station steam plant, have incorporated Toledo’s industrial infrastructure into modern developments. The Riverwalk highlights many of these architectures, and elements like the glass pavilion in the Glass City Metropark give a nod to the city’s industrial past and present.
As much as industry plays a continuing role in shaping the riverfront, most of the Maumee River and its tributaries are surrounded by agricultural land, which has in recent years led to ecological imbalances in the water — oftentimes at the expense of the city waterfront’s recreation and aesthetic. Excess phosphorus runoff from farmland flows into the Maumee River and into Lake Erie, which creates the perfect conditions for an overwhelming sprawl of algal blooms that turn the waterways green. The 2014 water crisis rose to national attention because the algal blooms not only turned Lake Erie green, but also rendered Toledo’s tap water undrinkable for almost half a million residents.
This industrial and ecological history of Toledo’s shoreline brings us to today, where groups are looking to restore the environment and increase green space. During the construction process, Metroparks Toledo hopes to naturalize the shoreline and restore the wetlands, forests and prairies on the riverfront in an effort to rebalance its ecology.
The hope is that these environmental restoration efforts will not only help the riverfront to recover ecologically, but also provide a healthy environment for communities to flourish.
Scott Carpenter, the Director of Public Relations at Metroparks Toledo, said that the 22nd Century Committee, a committee that worked on a plan for downtown Toledo’s future but has since transitioned to be ConnecToledo, identified that “we needed about 300 more acres of green space to have a nice mix of where people live, where they work, where they play, to really make it a community.”
“For years around here we’ve known that we haven’t given our riverfront enough attention, so we looked at creating new green space, we looked to the river and we already had plans to start this Metropark,” Carpenter said.
Cindy Kerr, Vice President of Operations for ConnecToledo, is excited that the use of the river will be integrated into downtown and looks forward to the possibilities the river presents, including boat racing competitions.
“I think that the biggest delighter…is […] our riverfront and the actual river itself being in use again for us,” Kerr said.
The Riverwalk is a multi-year endeavor led by Metroparks Toledo that has three project areas: Glass City Metropark, International Park and downtown Toledo. The first of three construction phases is complete, including the Glass City Metropark, which opened in Dec. 2020.
Phase 2 includes creating a campground, adventure play areas and an ice skating ribbon in Glass City Metropark. Metroparks Toledo also plans to build a pedestrian and bike bridge that will connect the Metropark to International Park. This second phase is estimated to be completed in late 2022 or early 2023. Phase 3 involves renovating and transforming International Park into a Metropark.
The riverwalk revitalization is an initiative that involves both public and private groups. Metroparks Toledo worked with the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, the city and other groups to submit a federal BUILD grant for the Riverwalk. Metroparks Toledo is also collaborating with ConnecToledo to carry out plans for the Riverwalk.
To fund the Riverwalk, which is a $200 million project, Metroparks Toledo proposed a property tax on the November 2020 presidential ballot that was approved by voters and will cover half of the costs. Grants and private donations will pay for the remaining expenses.
Based on estimates from Carpenter and Kerr, the Riverwalk could be completed in six to 10 years or later, depending on funding and other factors.
To connect different locations along the riverfront for the Riverwalk, Metroparks Toledo has acquired property from the city, ConnecToledo and other entities and communicated with businesses located near the river.
Connectivity is a major focus of the Riverwalk. The trails will not only connect parks and investments completed in recent years but also the neighborhoods that are in the Riverwalk’s vicinity, many of which historically housed working class families employed by nearby industries: East Toledo, Garfield and Birmingham on the east side and Vistula District, Downtown, Warehouse District and Middlegrounds on the downtown side. New developments and additional green space spurred by the Riverwalk, especially on the east side of the river, could mean opportunity for renewed interest in oft-forgotten neighborhoods struggling with high poverty and crime rates.
Through the Riverwalk, Carpenter noted that creating nice places to live can help attract more talent — especially young people — to Toledo. Within the past decade, Toledo has faced a depopulation as more people move to other cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. Toledo lost over 7,000 residents between 2010 and 2018 and 2,600 millennials (20 – 39 year olds) between 2012 and 2017.
When Metroparks Toledo looked at other competitive towns such as Des Moines and Grand Rapids, they found that people were interested in cities that had riverfronts and parks that improved the communities’ quality of life.
“That’s a huge part of it, mostly making it a great place to live, which would also then make it a nice place to visit, which is more economic return from tourists, and then there’s private development,” Carpenter said.
The riverfront encourages economic return with new residents and businesses paying taxes, new residential complexes being built, and other developments near the riverfront.
The Riverwalk also highlights cultural institutions — another draw for potential residents and tourists alike. The National Museum of the Great Lakes, which moved to Toledo in 2014, was one of the first cultural entities on the river’s east side that contributed to the city’s revitalization.
“I love whenever there’s the opportunity to add something that is outdoors activity, healthy and a fun way to explore the community,” Kate Fineske, the museum’s Senior Director of Institutional Advancement, said. “I really believe [this is] really helping to make the downtown vibrant, make it a fun place to go, give people a reason to come downtown.”
And for the communities that already reside in downtown, the Riverwalk has confirmed a sense of pride and progress for neighborhoods that have not had many developments in the past.
“They’re very proud of the park and very happy to finally have some public investment in their neighborhood,” Carpenter said. “Connecting everyone together, literally bringing people together we think will have a positive impact on our whole community.”