Riverside residents and some village trustees who commented on a preferred style for a proposed Des Plaines River floodwall appeared to favor an option that combined Olmsted’s walls in Boston’s Franklin Park and The Rockery in Easton, Massachusetts. (COURTESY OF VILLAGE OF RIVERSIDE)

The National Association for Olmsted Parks, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicating to “rais[ing] awareness of the importance of the Olmsted legacy among public officials, community leaders, landscape design professionals, and academics” weighed in last week on Riverside’s proposed floodwall and urged local officials “to take a step back … and assess green infrastructure before proceeding.”

In an April 7 letter addressed to the Riverside Village Board, Anne Neal Petri, the president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, said the group had “serious concerns about plans by the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with design and construction of a massive floodwall,” calling it “contrary to the plans of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Riverside at the request of town leaders in 1868.”

However, it’s unclear what impact the group’s objections are likely to have on local officials, who said they were not approached by the organization and questioned the letter’s claims.

“It’s factually in error,” said Village President Ben Sells, referring to claims in the letter that the floodwall, if built, would be 10 feet tall and destroy “the picturesque entry at Forest Avenue,” perhaps “diminishing the integrity of the [National Historic Landscape]-designated landscape.”

The village has not given the go-ahead for construction at this point and the design phase is in its early stages. It is unclear right now just how tall the wall will be at any one place along the river south of Forest Avenue, and there has been a levee along the Groveland Avenue bank for decades.

Sells pointed out that the floodplain near the river now home to hundreds of residents in single-family and multifamily buildings was not part of Olmsted’s General Plan of Riverside. The 1869 plan specifically blocks out that area with the label “land not belonging to the company.”

Because the area along the river behind homes on West Avenue is private property, if the property owners wished to do so, they could build fences there (as some have done in side yards) by right. That the entry into Riverside from the Forest Avenue bridge is “picturesque” is also an open question; the property closest to the bridge south of Forest Avenue is a condo building whose parking lot is in the rear.

On April 8, the Riverside Preservation Commission met to discuss the floodwall and remained skeptical of its linear aspect. They, too, wanted more information on the height and suggested the village and Army Corps work harder to soften the visual impact of the wall on those entering the village.

“I think if they were told the facts, they’d change their letter,” Sells said of the national organization. “We’re going to great pains to make sure this is historically appropriate.

Preservation Commissioners resisted making a recommendation on a preferred design option for the floodwall, saying they had too many unanswered questions.

In her letter, Petri recommended that Army Corps take “ecologically sensitive approaches” outlined in the Army Corps’ “Engineering with Nature” guidelines.

The Army Corps’ project manager for the Riverside flood wall, Jeffrey Zuercher, responded in an email to Petri’s letter that the Army Corps is already incorporating “Engineering with Nature” guidelines, such as using native plantings, into this project.

It’s not possible to build a full levee south of Forest Avenue, because there isn’t enough land, Zuercher said.

“EWN is focused mainly on coastal and open landscape areas where land is abundant and the idea of a horizontal levee could be implemented across hundreds of acres to blend in with the landscape,” Zuercher wrote. “This idea is viable where land is not an issue, but in an urban landscape where land is minimal [it] is not feasible.” 

Sells said Zuercher has indicated that what might be possible is building a floodwall and earthing up the river side of the wall so it appears to be a levee from that aspect. The question is whether such a solution would withstand repeated high water events.

The Riverside Landscape Advisory Commission was to have discussed floodwall design options at its meeting April 13 after the Landmark’s press time. The village board will take up the matter against its April 15 meeting at 7 p.m., which will be held virtually via Zoom.

Sells said that it’s now unlikely trustees would recommend a specific design proposal that could be sent to the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office for review of its impact on the village’s landmark designation.

But, with homeowners along West Avenue in limbo, Sells said he’d like there to be some resolution on the design and scale of the floodwall in the next couple of months.

“At some point this has to be brought to a conclusion, because we have to move forward with the people on West Avenue,” Sells said.