Ever since Ira Allen built sawmills on its banks in 1772, the Winooski River has been the lifeblood of the city that shares its name. Today, attention is again focused down by the riverside, as local officials finalize plans for a promenade that they hope will spark a second rebirth of the old mill town.
Construction of Riverwalk, extending 300 feet along the Champlain Mill, is slated to start later this year or early next spring, with opening expected in the summer of 1997. Completion of this section of walkway will create a nearly half-mile-long, riveredge ribbon running from the Winooski One Hydro Park to the 120-acre natural area east of the Mill.
This picturesque pedestrian link between the falls and rapids of the Winooski "will be an attractive draw for shopping, tourists, vendors and others who can contribute to our economic health," says Mayor William Norful.
The segment to be cantilevered out from the Mill will probably be surfaced boardwalk-style, much like the lakeside strand in Burlington's Waterfront Park. Indeed, Norful is hoping that completion of Riverwalk will cause the region's residents to view this stretch of the Winooski as the Burlington area's "second waterfront."
The riverside "has never been thought of that way until now," says Doug Scott, director of the Winooski Community Development Corporation. For the past several years, Scott adds, "the city has sort of turned its back on the river."
The watery artery's economic importance was obvious to everyone for more than a century — from 1835, when the first woolen mill was built, until 1954, when the looms were forever silenced. But Winooski's first major urban renewal initiative, launched in the late 1960s, largely overlooked the river's potential as a scenic resource. Revitalization efforts focused on the downtown core, especially the abandoned mills. Planners even indulged for a time in a bit of fantasy, imagining part of the city capped with a transparent dome.
The actual outcome is a relatively vibrant shopping development centered on the Champlain Mill and served by a suburban-style parking lot that is at least as prominent a feature of Winooski as the Onion River itself.
In retrospect, that earlier generation of urban renewers would have been wise to devise an alternative to what Mayor Norful concedes is "an ugly parking lot." But as city development director Scott points out, "planners in the '70s thought they had a choice of either creating a parking lot and saving the mill or losing it altogether. They decided to save it."
The latest long-range vision for Winooski includes construction of a large retail outlet where the parking lot now sits, with cars to be moved to an underground garage. Further signifying the shift in urban priorities away from accommodating automobiles, current plans also call for making part of downtown car-free and for building a pedestrian overpass across Main Street.
In the shorter term, developers' attention will remain fixed on the riverside. A dumpster and parking site east of the Champlain Mill is to be transformed into a plaza for outdoor markets and festivals. A 40-unit, middle-income condo complex is envisioned for a piece of land owned by Green Mountain Power just up river from the Winooski's rapids.
Riverwalk is seen as the first step toward the re-revitalization of the city's downtown. The project is being financed through a $280,000 grant from the state's Agency of Transportation and a $70,000 contribution from the Winooski Community Development Corporation.
"Winooski needs to establish a special social identity," says Norful. "It has to offer the kind of quality environment that appeals to people who don't like the ambience of malls. It has to be a lively and family-friendly place — an option for all the kids who have literally grown up in those malls."