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The Central Albany Revitalization Area has targeted the area between Ellsworth and Calapooia streets for riverfront development.

Although it's way too early to know how this will play out, we are thrilled at the news that the Central Albany Revitalization Area is turning its attention to potential development along the riverfront.

Specifically, CARA (the city's urban renewal agency) is looking at the area along the aptly named Water Avenue between Ellsworth and Calapooia streets.

When CARA was approved in 2001, its maximum spending authority was $56 million; it now has about $20 million of that left and wants to earmark the money for riverfront improvements.

Seth Sherry, the city's economic development manager, said it's way too early to have costs hammered out yet for any of the riverfront work. In fact, city officials don't yet have a final direction yet in mind for the work — nor have they hired a firm to head up the project. That work is scheduled to begin this month.

The idea, as Sherry told the Democrat-Herald in a story that appeared in Sunday's newspaper, is to create opportunities for both public and private investment on Water Avenue, and to expand public park space on the north side of Water, "with the goal of making that a more safe, desirable, attractive and fun space for people to recreate and enjoy, and to complement public and private investment in the downtown so far."

The city has "tons of public input" on what plans should look like, Sherry said, including improved bike and pedestrian access, construction of plazas, building of a children's "splash park" and development of better public access to the river.

And that's all good, but the city should be certain that it continues to seek public input as the final direction of the project takes shape.

That's because this kind of work along the riverfront, if done properly, will be a gift to Albany for generations to come.

Because cities, particularly in the American West, have tended to value rivers primarily for their utilitarian purposes — transportation, for example, or waste disposal — it's not at all unusual for cities to have ignored these waterways that in many cases roll right through the middle of town.

Now, it's not true that Albany has turned its back on the riverfront — Monteith Riverpark, for example, is among the jewels of the city's park system. But it is true that other stretches of the riverfront through Albany could stand a little additional attention.

We're still years away from seeing any construction along the riverfront, but some of the pieces may be falling into place: Publicly owned land — zoned for parks and facing the river — may be eligible for grants that target parks redevelopment, riparian restoration and river access.

But there are many wrinkles to iron out over the next few years: To list just one example, the city also will have to work with the Oregon Department of Transportation and with railroad companies as any designs progress.

As Sperry put it: "There are going to be a lot of moving parts to put together to make this happen, but we're up for it and excited to take that on."

To that end, CARA's advisory board wisely has decided to focus intently on the riverfront. That means it will be shifting away from the grant programs that helped with small-scale renovation projects on historic buildings downtown. Those programs have done good work, and have helped to give a most welcome face-lift to Albany's downtown.

But if the idea is to get the biggest bang from CARA's remaining bucks, the best bet is to concentrate on the riverfront — and the organization would be wise to keep distractions from that mission at a minimum.

After all, if this riverfront work is done properly — and if officials continue to solicit public comment every step of the way — this investment should pay dividends for Albany citizens for many decades to come. (mm)

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