COUNCIL BLUFFS — Three Omaha women were crossing the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge when they noticed a green light sweeping across the landscape on the Iowa side of the Missouri River.
They decided to step off the bridge to investigate.
Sisters Santana and Kelsey Whiteley and friend Tiffanie Bucheit found themselves on the Great Lawn of the new Tom Hanafan River's Edge Park, in the middle of its interactive light display, “Rays.”
Their Monday night stroll put them on city property that was underwater for 110 days during the 2011 flood. Now the space is lush green, with newly planted trees and a Great Lawn that's illuminated at night by flashing, swirling lights.
“I've never experienced something like this,” said Whiteley, 20, after the light show was over. “Now there is actually something to do over here.”
Council Bluffs officially dedicated the 95-acre park with a ceremony Wednesday evening. It included a special City Council meeting to name the park for Mayor Tom Hanafan. A series of public events will celebrate the park's opening in the coming weeks, highlighted by a free Beach Boys concert Saturday night.
The centerpiece of the park is the Great Lawn, intended as a spot for reading, throwing Frisbees or taking in the light show.
Council Bluffs business and civic leaders want to draw people from Omaha and around the region to the park, at the east end of the pedestrian bridge.
The park offers a sweeping view of the downtown Omaha skyline, as well as a place to walk, run or ride bikes along the Missouri River.
The pedestrian bridge allows Omahans to park on the Nebraska side of the river and stroll across the bridge to events at the park.
“It will be a park that will set the metro area apart from a lot of other metro areas,” Hanafan said. “Downtown Omaha and the west side of Council Bluffs are growing a little bit together.”
Larry Foster, Council Bluffs' Parks and Recreation director, estimates that 40 percent to 45 percent of concertgoers at the Beach Boys show will leave their cars in Omaha.
There are also several parking lots in Council Bluffs serving the park, including one just north of Harrah's Casino and two separate lots closer to the Great Lawn, one right next to it and another under the Interstate 480 bridge.
The park sits mostly on the river side of the levee system. The Missouri River flood almost put an end to plans for the park.
“We weren't sure what we would do,” Hanafan said.
But the work had already started, including hauling in and grading 40,000 cubic yards of dirt. And much of the precast concrete needed for the park's amphitheater had been ordered.
Hanafan and Foster consulted with the City Council. All agreed it was important to go ahead. But some plans, such as a boulevard-like street leading to the park from the south, were scaled back.
“The city had invested pretty heavily in the park and would have nothing to show for it,” Foster said.
And the floodwaters didn't do as much damage as had been feared. Much of the park gradually slopes toward the river, so the receding water carried most debris with it. The layer of silt that remained was only about 3 inches thick, Foster said.
“It's a pretty complicated elevation scheme, but it worked,” he said. “We didn't have much debris here.”
The city anticipates that the land will flood again. Along the river are “quick couplers,” where workers can hook up hoses to spray down the park after the river is back in its banks.
Said Hanafan: “That area is natural. It's going to flood.”
The area north of the pedestrian bridge remains in its natural state and is filled with trees and fallen timber. Eventually, the city will put in dirt or wood-chip trails.
The River's Edge Park is important not just for bringing Omahans across the river. Plans are in the works for a development similar to Omaha's Aksarben Village, with a mix of residential, office and entertainment space. It would be built in the Playland Park area east of the levee.
The park also is an early step in improving West Broadway, the four miles of street that links downtown Council Bluffs to downtown Omaha, said Pete Tulipana, president and CEO of the Iowa West Foundation. He said West Broadway will be “one of our highest priorities.”
The foundation is funding the “Rays” light show and paid $5.4million in the overall development of the $7 million River's Edge Park. Private donors provided about $100,000, and the balance came from city, county and state funding.
Other aspects to the park include 900 trees from Lanoha Nurseries and elsewhere, and a plaza honoring the 600-plus donors who gave $25 to $500 to develop the park.
One of the most unique aspects of the park is “Rays.” Organizers say they know of nothing else like it.
At night, the lights turn on twice an hour, for 3- and 6-minute shows. Sixteen projectors illuminate the lawn and the area surrounding it with changing, swirling light patterns.
The interactive part occurs when the lights, directed by infrared and radar sensors, move around as people on the lawn interact with the lights.
“You will see tons of people … running out there and feeling and experiencing these patterns and colors,” said Dan Corson, the Seattle artist who created “Rays.”
Monday after sunset, the lights were turned on for a trial run. About 20 people showed up, with most sitting on the steps of the amphitheater.
Wade Perry and Karyn Peabody of Council Bluffs brought their three children. When the lights were on, the kids ran around, chasing light beams and howling with laughter.
Perry said “Rays” is better than more traditional public art. Eventually, he said, people stop noticing bronze statues.
Said Bailey Peabody, 11: “With this, the lights are always different.”
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