The proposed Army Corps of Engineers floodwall would stretch along Park Park (at the top of the map) from Woodside to Groveland and then south along the river bank to the BNSF Railroad embankment, shown at the south end of the map. (PROVIDED)

Riverside trustees voted unanimously on Dec. 17 to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the go-ahead to begin designing a proposed floodwall that would extend along Park Place from Woodside Road to Groveland Avenue and then south along the riverbank to the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad embankment.

In doing so, however, trustees moved to assure opponents of the project that unless the Army Corps demonstrates that the resulting floodwall won’t negatively impact the village’s national historic landmark status and meets high standards of design, it would not move forward.

“For me, a linear wall along the riverbank is a non-starter,” said Trustee Doug Pollock. “I can’t imagine a circumstance where any village board would approve just a blank concrete wall extending along the river bank. … I’ll be the first to pull the plug on this if we can’t get it right.”

The roughly $7.2 million project is being funded via a partnership between the federal government and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. While the village’s out-of-pocket costs are expected to be minimal, if Riverside kills the project once the design is complete, the village would be on the hook for preliminary and final design expenses, which could be several hundred thousand dollars. 

Last week’s decision by village trustees permits the Army Corps of Engineers to begin designing the floodwall, a process expected to take more than a year. By next spring, local and Army Corps officials will determine the exact alignment of the proposed floodwall, particularly as it pertains to residential properties along West Avenue.

For the next 12 months or so after that determination, a number of tasks will be in motion at the same time, including negotiations for property acquisition and a formal review by the Army Corps of Engineers on the impact a floodwall would have on Riverside’s historic landmark designation.

Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga, a member of the Riverside Preservation Commission and a candidate for trustee in next April’s election, said that the Upper Des Plaines River Watershed Study, where a Riverside floodwall was justified, ignores the village’s historic status.

The construction of such a wall in a national landmark community, said Marsh-Ozga, requires the Army Corps to review its impact. She pointed to the National Historic Preservation Act’s Section 106, which requires federal agencies to “identify historic properties, assess effects to historic properties, consider alternatives to avoid, minimize, or mitigate any adverse effects, and document their resolution,” according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s website.

When the Riverside Preservation Commission discussed the floodwall project at its Dec. 10 meeting, according to Marsh-Ozga, the commission’s chairman stated that a Section 106 review was needed.

“Yet there has been [no review],” said Marsh-Ozga, who recommended that trustees defer a vote on moving ahead with the design phase of the project.

However, Village President Ben Sells said a Section 106 evaluation “will be” done.

The Army Corps has stated that Section 106 had been considered in its decision to recommend a floodwall for Riverside, but local officials are not convinced.

“If we cannot find clear and convincing evidence of that, the village will request a separate and thorough [Section] 106 review, and the Army Corps has agreed to do that,” Sells said.

Sells also said that the village and Army Corps would solicit more public input on design during that process and Zuercher said the Army Corps was open to add special features to the design of the floodwall – such as allowing river access to West Avenue property owners – although that would likely increase the cost of the project for the village.

In contrast to the Dec. 3 village board meeting where residents of Groveland, Lincoln, Forest and West avenues predominantly expressed support for the floodwall, those residents providing public comment on Dec. 17 were either against the wall outright or had serious concerns about how the wall would impact their properties.

Nearly all of the 13 members of the public commenting on Dec. 17 live on Maplewood Road, immediately north of the project area, and reiterated their fears that the wall would increase flooding on their properties. Some residents living on the south leg of Maplewood Road, adjacent to Park Place worried the floodwall would result in the removal of trees and shrubs in their backyards and would be an eyesore.

Sells disputed the claim that the wall would increase flooding for Maplewood Road residents and tried to alleviate fears of those along the Park Place frontage.

“The project will not increase flooding anywhere. The ACE is not allowed to construct a project that will increase flooding in any other location.”

Sells reiterated the conclusion of both the Army Corps and the village’s engineer that while the amount of water inundating Riverside during flood events seems large, it is minuscule in comparison to the volume of water rushing downstream during flood events and that a wall directing water downstream will not push it to other residential areas upstream, downstream or west of the Des Plaines River.

“It will have no impact on flooding whatsoever,” Sells said. 

As for the wall’s impact on properties next to Park Place, Sells said the wall’s location and the 15-foot easement to the north would not intrude onto private property at all, and that any rear yard fence would either completely or mostly obscure the view of the wall.

He also said that the village would mark off the easement area along Park Place to give residents a sense of exactly where a floodwall would be and what trees and shrubs on public land would have to removed. Sells also said the village could use cardboard or string to demonstrate the height of the wall in that area.

As for the argument that it wasn’t worth building the floodwall if FEMA would still require property owners in the Groveland Avenue area flood basin to obtain flood insurance, Sells said that was no reason to kill the project outright.

“That does not change the fact that this project would protect 111 structures … and that comprises 273 households,” Sells said.

While many questions remain regarding the final “look” of the floodwall, exactly how it will appear from the west and exactly where two pump stations will be located, Trustee Patricia Collins said that in order to answer those questions, the project had to be designed.

“I don’t see how we can answer people’s questions without moving into the design phase,” Collins said. “

But if the design doesn’t measure up, trustees said they would not hesitate killing the project and eating possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars expended during the design phase.

“The real challenge will be designing something that fits in with the charm and natural beauty of Riverside,” Trustee Cristin Evans said. “It has to look nice or I’m going to be a ‘no’ vote also. It’s going to be very important for us to get that right.”

Trustee Edward Hannon echoed that view, saying he would not hesitate to vote down construction and eat the cost of design if the floodwall design falls short of the village’s expectations.

“If these objectives aren’t being met, there’s a ‘no’ vote coming from me,” Hannon said.

Trustee Wendell Jisa, like Collins, viewed the design phase as a necessary investment.

“I look at this as a consulting fee. A couple hundred thousand dollar investment to determine whether or not it’s the right choice? I think it’s worthy of that,” said Jisa.