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Riverdesign Dayton, A Planning History.

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This a planning history of different projects for the downtown Dayton riverfront, tracing how some ideas surface, but end up changed, and how much was promised, yet not much delivered, and speculate on why it was that way. 


This is also an exploration on how various architectural and urban design trends and fads of the past 50 years played out in the various proposals for the riverfront.


Although I will look at some predecessor plans, the emphasis of this thread will be on a planning effort of the 1970s, Riverdesign Dayton.  At the time this planning effort received national attention and recognition as an innovative design process,, and involved a famous architect of that era, yet it is all but forgotten today.






Center City West :  1958-l967


The first planning efforts for the riverfront actually go back into the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, with various proposals for river boulevards and filling in a portion of the channel for a City-Beautiful/Beaux Arts styled civic center and park complex, similar to Grant Park in Chicago or the Group Plan in Cleveland.  Yet, for modern times,  we must go back the original proposals for the Center City West urban renewal scheme. 





This scheme designated a portion of the river bank for apartments, in this case a series of high rises, with a total of 600 apartments set in landscaped grounds, with the obligatory kidney-shaped pool and tennis courts.  The plan also included a riverfront restaurant perched on the levee between the YMCA and the apartment complex.  This was a scheme very much of it’s time, that time being the era of a certain modern, swinging urban playboy subculture, somewhat illustrated by the Rat Pack






The concept here was following a model being implemented in other cities.  The planning document mentioned Quality Hill in Kansas City and Parktown Place in Philadelphia as precedents, but one can also see affinities with Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores in Chicago.




The planning documents say the proposal was for 600 elevator apartments, and mentions as justification that the market was supporting high-rise apartment construction near downtown.  This activity would be the mid-rises going up in Grafton Hill and Dayton View during the late 1950s and early 1960s,  illustrating a demand for in-town living at the time.  This demand would collapse after the urban unrest of the mid-to-late 1960s.


RKTL Urban Design Plan: 1967-1969


A design conference in 1966 initiated an intensive downtown planning effort, resulting in an urban design scheme by the Baltimore planning and architectural firm RKTL.    RKTL introduced a skywalk system as well as apartments overlooking the river along Monument Street.  The RKTL scheme, however, was primarily focused on the core of downtown, with minimal design interest in the river. 




The River Corridor Committee and the Dan Kiley plan: 1969-1972


Enter Horace W. Huffman Jr, AKA “Huff”.  Huffman apparently was a good example of the civic-spirited local businessman with old-money, similar to the Binghams in Louisville.  Huffman was the heir to the Huffy bicycle business and his family was involved in real estate and business in Dayton since the 1820s-30s. 


Huffman was also involved with the initial attempt to preserve the Oregon district, then called Burns-Jackson.  He and some of the people involved with Burns-Jackson formed the River Corridor Committee, as a way of trying to do something with the river.


Apparently Huffman was inspired by the American River parkway/bikeway in Sacramento, and wanted Dayton to do something similar.  At first the Huffman and his associates tried to affiliate with an ongoing downtown planning effort, but was rebuffed as that plate was too full.  Instead the River Corridor Committee formed under the aegis of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce.


The files of the committee fill 8 boxes at the Wright State University archives/special collections, which include an account of a fact-finding trip to the Riverwalk in San Antonio.  The CEO of National Cash Register flew the committe down to Texas in the corporate jet, and paid for all expenses.  The Riverwalk was to be an inspiration for later planning efforts.


Eventually the River Corridor committee engaged the services of Dan Kiley, one of the foremost landscape architects in the USA at the time,  responsible for the Point park in Pittsburgh and the original landscape plan for the Arch in St Louis. 


Going for the top tier of designers and planners was apparently the MO of Huffman and his associates, as they brought in Bertram Goldberg to do the Burns-Jackson plan, when Goldberg was nationally known for Marina City in Chicago.


In any case Kiley produced a very schematic plan for the Great Miami River.  This plan was a regional in scope as it included the counties both above and below Dayton, with detailed input from others brought in to consult (such as a planning group made up of students and faculty associated with Miami University).  Kiley focused more on the downtown reach of the Great Miami for additional design development.




….and made some suggestions for downtown circulation.  Note that Main Street becomes a transit mall.




A closer look at the downtown riverfront.  Kiley proposes a park at Deeds Point, housing on the north bank of the river (and a rerouted Riverside Avenue), and housing and a little river plaza on the south bank.  All of this would be tied together with a water taxi, and a low dam would raise the level of the river to create more of a pool in front of downtown, as an aesthetic enhancement.




A closer look at the north side of the river.  Unfortunately the Kiley study is a Xerox.  The original was probably a felt-tip colored schematic sketch.  One can discern a design intention of trying to connect McKinley Park with a sequence of park space east of I-75, along with some riverside apartments, including four high-rise towers overlooking an enlarged and redesigned Riverbend Park.




Some colored drawings of the north bank.  Quite a bit of McPhersontown would have been removed, but there would have been some rather extensive landscaping in a mix of formal and informal design. 




(I particularly like the way the trees break away from a formal planting field into a small boulevard)




Putting it together….




And a section through the housing and riverside landscaping




The Deeds point graphics were so murky (bad Xerox) that I recolored this smaller scale schematic, which appears to be a gridded arrangement of formal tree plantings, allees, and lawns, with a pool and riverside restaurant and what I imagine to be a wooded terrace café with a view of downtown.  Also note the footbridge across the river, which was eventually built, 30 years later.




This Deeds Point design really shows a bit of Kileys hand, with the formal plantings creating outdoor “rooms” of various types, and the play and contrasts with formal and informal plantings.  Here are some samples of Kiley’s more famous works:




….imagine Deeds Point laid out like that, as a rather elegant park.


And another section, on the downtown side of the Great Miami




The focus on the south bank of the Great Miami was to develop a river plaza around a man-made cove indenting from the river.  The location for the River Plaza would have been the parking between the little 1920]s high rise at the Main Street bridge and First Baptist church, as a northern termination of Main Street.  The scheme would have required the closing and rerouting of Monument street, and the construction of some shops, apartments, and a hotel.  Note, too, that Main Street is closed off at a little wooded plaza.




Architecturally this is all very schematic (the emphasis is on landscape design), but one can see the evolution of modernism in the 1960s toward angles and free composition, breaking out of the classic modernist “box form”.


The text accompanying the diagrams demonstrate that Kiley was aware of the RKTL proposals as he proposes a pedestrian walkway to connect up with the proposed skywalk system recommended by the RKTL urban design concept.




Kiley produced his report in 1972.  The north bank design was dropped after landowner opposition.  Nothing was done with Deeds Point.  But from 1972 to 1975 the River Corridor Committee did try to get the River Plaza built, but met with resistance from the city, as well as questions within the committee as to whether or not his little cove was such a good idea (one member, in a letter to Huffman, characterized the plaza concept as a “snake pit”, mentioning that it would be too steep to the river, too many steps, too shaded, among other things). 




Yet I think the basic concept (aside from the cove) was a good one, to emphasize the river front with some sort of public space and a mix of buildings of to terminate the march of the high rises and commercial uses up the axis of Main Street, which was the most intensely developed street downtown.  Yet nothing was built, and a parking lot remains on this site.


Also, starting 1973 the River Corridor Committee did get the first stretches of the Great Miami bike path built, which eventually would extend up and down river.  Dedicated in 1976, the bike path remains the most successful legacy of the River Corridor Committee.




Riverdesign Dayton: 1976-1980


Eventually Huffman gave up on the River Plaza concept, and a new approach was tried.  Again a big-name designer was hired to come up with a new plan for the riverfront.


The shortlist included a number of famous and no-so-famous names.  At the top of the list was Lawrence Halprin (with a handwritten note next to his name as “most qualified”) and further down Charles Moore and his new firm, based in New Haven,  as Moore was Dean of the Yale School of Architecture at that time.  A note by Moore’s name indicates they where impressed by his presentation (apparently they met with Moore or received a prospectus from him).


And Charles Moore was chosen.



(cover of one of the products of the design process.  Most of these images are from this publication)


Moore proposed groundbreaking approach to design.  It involved massive community participation, and addressed the reach of the Miami River from Island Park to Carillon Park, but with a focus on the downtown bank of the river. 


The process was so innovative that it received national attention, and was given an urban design award in the prestigious Progressive Architecture magazine awards issue (this was the first Dayton project to be recognized by PA, the second was the Arcade, which was a cover story).


Riverdesign involved a steering panel (members chosen by the Priority Boards and River Corridor), that gave some general direction, but what was innovative was the community participation aspect. 


First, in April 1976, a storefront studio was set up in the Arcade, as a way to solicit public ideas and comment on what to do, and also for critique as the design was developed.  The drawings and models were all produced at this office as the design was developed.  The Arcade was chosen for the storefront studio as it was one of the higher foot-traffic areas downtown.




Moore’s project manager also moved to Dayton for the duration of Riverdesign, and partnered with an architect from the local design firm of Lorenz & Williams.    They are both in the left-hand image.  On the right is the Riverdesign van at a riverfront festival




Then a series of six TV shows were scheduled on the local public TV station.  The concept was to use the telethon fundraising format, but instead, turn it into a “design-a-thon”, were viewers would call in ideas and critiques, and they would be sketched-out and pinned up


Some pix of the design-a-thons, including, on the lower right hand corner, Horace Huffman being interviewed.




The schedule:


Show 1:  Acquaint the viewers with Riverdesign and the principles, and to solicit ideas


Show 2:  Solicit ideas, and link ideas to locations circled on a large map


Show 3:  Present proposals zone by zone, and then, in the Sunday newspaper there was a pull-out supplement and mail-in survey form were the viewers (and readers) could vote on the various proposals.



(Charles Moore at the drafting board.  Apparently he came to town for some of the shows)




After Show 3 a focus area was chosen and there was design development based on the various public inputs. 


Show 4:  Presentation, with a panel discussion, call-in comments, and a model that could be disassembled and reassembled based on comments.


Shows 5 and 6: The series finished up with a discussion of implementation.


As one can imagine this did engage the community.  In fact, getting caught up in the excitement led a local businessman to launch an excursion riverboat, the Mark Twain, and offer rides up and down the river from Island Park.




Although concepts were prepared for the entire inner city reach of the Great Miami and up Wolf Creek, this thread will focus on the ones downtown.


Early concept for Deeds Point, from the design-a-thon shows.






Some views of McPhersontown, showing the changes since the 1970s: trad houses, gracious colonnaded & porched apartments, and a nice old brick street…gone.  It was recommended to develop a promenade along the river here, which was eventually done, but not before most of the neighborhood was demolished…




Across the Mad River from Deeds Point a Children’s Zoo was recommended (and note the footbridge idea gets carried over from the Kiley Plan).  This is the site of today’s Ballpark Village proposal. 




(note the difference between then and now…back then the proposal was public amenity, now it is a privatized leisure/consumption zone)




Another fascinating concept that came out of Riverdesign was to revive the old Miami and Erie canal route as a sort of a Dayton version of the San Antonio riverwalk, using remaining canal buildings and also some infill, and extending this to a basin at the edge of the Oregon District, near Fifth Street, as a way of connecting Oregon with downtown and the river. 


Although this looks like a throwaway design, one can see there was some thought given to it, recognizing people will probably drive down to visit it, parking was provided.



(red circle was where the pix are at)


Of course this was never built, and all the old canal buildings are gone.




Yet, apparently people did remember this idea, because 20 years later, when EDAW engaged in a similar process to come up with Riverscape, the canal idea resurfaced, and a part of it was built, near 5/3 Field.


A proposal for the Main Street Bridge, and steps to the river




And what ended up as the main focus of the Riverdesign, the old Center City West high-rise housing site west of the YMCA




…what to do and not to do…..




Two thumbnail sketches. 






And, for the north bank of the river, a small amphitheatre with either an island or floating stage with the Dayton skyline as a backdrop


Design-a-thon thumbnail sketch….




…and some design development:




And, finally, a proposal for a floating walkway across the river and a grand landscape feature up from the river between the Masonic Temple and the Art Institute, and the low dam.




As one can imagine with all this publicity this was a very high-visibility effort, and others became infected with the excitement over the revived riverfront.  The excursion riverboat upthread was one example.  Another was the Kiwanis River Fountain.


Apparently one of the design concepts that surfaced was for a river fountain, a sort of floating garden and gazebo.  This was actually built, via a big fundraising campaign by the local Kiwanis club, led by the publisher of the Dayton Journal-Herald.




The River Fountain would be anchored in the river, but removed by the Conservancy District and put in storage during the high water months.




Most of the Riverdesign design development effort went into the site west of the YMCA, the old Center City West high-rise apartment site, rechristened “River Canal”. Which is interesting given the earlier emphasis by the River Corridor Committee on the “River Plaza” Main & Monument site east of First Baptist. 




Why the change in site emphasis?




Behind all the populist participatory planning there is some implication, based on correspondence in the files, that, behind the scenes the city pushed for the west-of-the-Y site as it already acquired and cleared the property via urban renewal.


In any case Charles Moore did develop a fairly interesting and rich scheme, sort of a miniature San Antonio-style riverwalk, by creating a canal in from the river, and clustering retail and townhouses around the water feature.  A high rise was proposed for the west side of the site, as a sound and visual barrier from I-75.




This is a pretty good example of what Moore was doing in the 1970s (he also was involved in an urban design scheme for Bunker Hill in LA around this time), with the picturesque planning, the saved or recreated historic façade as a design feature, and the design working in section due to the grade change from the levee.






A key feature of River Canal was the water feature and surrounding walkways and plazas.  This was envisioned as a public-private partnership, with a public entity, perhaps the city, picking up the cost for the water feature and public spaces, and a private developer doing the housing and commercial pieces.




The water feature was connected to the river via these portals involving floodgates (another idea borrowed from San Antonio).  There was quite a bit of preliminary engineering involved, including calculations, schematics, and so forth, essentially a preliminary engineering design proving feasibility.  Feasibility came at a price; the cost was between $3M and $4M, depending on a one- or two- floodgate option.






And restating the design, with graphics from, I think, the request for proposal that went out to different developers.







And some thumbnails of the housing….






Charles Moore and Riverdesign finished up in late 1976 or early 1977, with their documentation and recommendations published in 1977.  Then Lorenz & Williams took over partial implementation.  The amphitheatre was designed and built, but on the downtown side of the river, completed by 1981.




The space was apparently actually used for events for a time, but was unused and forgotten by the time I arrived in Dayton in 1988, as I don’t recall anything happening there.


T.S. Eliot wrote that “between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”.  The shadow in this case was the $4M price tag (in then-year dollars) for the public part of the public-private partnership; the water feature and related public space.


Based on the files apparently the city began negotiations with Oxford Development in or around 1980-81.  Oxford was moving into the US urban redevelopment market in a big way back then, being the developer selected for the Louisville Galleria complex around the same time. 


Oxford’s correspondence indicated they where favorable to the project, though had some quibbles about the unit mix and floor plans.  Oxford did emphasize that the plan would never work unless the city or some other public entity funded the public part of the scheme.


Which did not happen.


The files are silent for the 1980s.  The city and Oxford entered negotiations and the River Corridor Committee was shut-out. Apparently the River Corridor Committee wrapped up its work and disbanded.  The river canal was never built.  In fact nothing was built for ten years. 


Eventually the Landing did get constructed, opening in the early 1990s, finally completing the residential part of the Center City West urban renewal project of thirty years earlier.  I think, in the end, Oxford was the developer. 


And what Charles Moore and his design team recommended against did come to pass:








And the Kiwanis River Fountain?




It was partially rebuilt and was still in the river as late as 1988 or 1989.  I last saw it beached on the levee near Deeds Point.  Then it disappeared, down the memory hole along with the rest of Riverdesign Dayton.


And what happened to Horace Huffman, who was the mover and shaker that started all this? 


Apparently he retired and relocated to northern Michigan, the Charlevoix/Petoskey area around Little Traverse Bay.  Huffman became involved in the Little Traverse Conservancy (a land trust), and also worked to develop a recreational trail system in northern Michigan:


From the “Top of Michigan Trails Council” website.


Beginning in early 1994 and into the spring of 1995 Horace “Huffy” Huffman and Tom Bailey (both of the Little Traverse Conservancy) discussed between themselves, and later with other like minded individuals, the concept and need for a vehicle to coordinate and bring together numerous trail user groups in Emmet, Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties. Huffman and Bailey recognized a lack of overall coordination, direction and planning of recreational trail activity in Northern Lower Michigan to meet the demands of an expanding population and the rapid growth of tourism to the area.


Huffy” Huffman, the retired Chairman of Huffy Corporation, Dayton, Ohio, had been involved in a successful “Miami Valley Regional Bicycle Council” which conducts a “Thunder Road Bike-a-Thon” and raises about $300,000 annually to support local trail development, cycling projects and health care charities. He and Bailey felt this “model” could be used to create the organizational vehicle and funding needed to provide a centralized entity for planning, coordinating and speeding up development of a regional recreational trail network in the three county area.



Horace Huffman Jr. died in 1996. 


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Riverdesign fits into a half-century of physical planning efforts for downtown and immediate vicinity.  I don’t show the smaller efforts like the loft development or the Victoria renovation, nor bigger regional efforts like the failed light-rail and Newfields New Town efforts of the 1970s.




A lot of big plans, but execution was lacking in many of them.  Yet, one can see how ideas surface, and then continue from one to another planning effort, like housing on the river, or a revival of the old canal. 


One thing that is apparent is that plans involving retail fail in a big way (Mid Town Mart, the RKTL plan and it’s successor Arcade redevelopment, and the retail component of River Canal).  This track record does not bode well for the West Third Street “business village” at Wright-Dunbar, or perhaps the planned Ballpark Village.


Another thing is that small scale efforts seem to work better (Oregon redevelopment, perhaps Riverscape).  And there might be a learning curve as later projects avoid some of the pitfalls that sank earlier schemes.




For all the planning effort in Dayton city, the real history of the past 50 years is in the suburbs.  This bar chart overlays just the larger retail and highway activity over the downtown planning, a period in which retail sales downtown sank to 3%  of the regional total.  There is also the tale of office decentralization (CBD office space dropping from nearly 100% to 37% of the regional total) and industrial decentralization and closure, as well as the familiar story of the depopulation of the pre-WWII city.




One thinks of suburbia as the eternal present, ahistorical, the quotidian, the Society of the Spectacle, the Matrix.  But perhaps there is more to it than only that?  Yet this history is a private and ephemeral history that is difficult to document, and particularly difficult to illustrate.


There is a reader out on “The New Suburban History”.  What would be entertaining to explore is “The New Suburban (Historical) Geography”, as a cultural studies turn, versus the usual Kunstleresque/New Urbanist critique.

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  Well done. Thanks for posting.


  "For all the planning effort in Dayton city, the real history of the past 50 years is in the suburbs."


    For whatever reason, that's where most of the money is.


    "One thing that is apparent is that plans involving retail fail in a big way."


    You have to have the shoppers to get the sales. The best way to get shoppers is to go to them, not make them come to you.


    "The space was apparently actually used for events for a time, but was unused and forgotten..."


      New things have a certain novelty that will attract people. The key word is "people." Remember the classic Jane Jacobs quote, "The renderings looked nice, but where are the people?"


    This thread is kind of sad, in that so much effort was made yet the fundamentals were so wrong.

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A lot of this inability to execute, or what gets done fails or is less than what's proposed, could account for why people around here are so negative about the city.  That Riverdesign effort and its going pffft was a pretty high-vis failure.


The Landing is a good example.  Yeah, sure its nice there are apartments in the city, and that the Y was remodelled, but does anyone here seriously think the Landing is a good design?  It could be in Beavercreek or Centerville as well as downtown Dayton.  But maybe thats all that can really be built, given economic reality, and that was a problem with all these plans, they were never realistic when it came to economics....as you said the fundamentals were wrong.


It will be interesting to see the fate of the current crop of urban revival attempts will fail or be scaled back.

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It will be interesting to see the fate of the current crop of urban revival attempts will fail or be scaled back.

^well said.

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