This chapter in the Comprehensive Plan focuses on the Conestoga River corridor and Riverfront lands as immense resources that can contribute, in unique ways, to the community quality of life and special identity of the City and metro region.
The content herein includes a Conestoga Riverfront Vision illuminating exciting community development opportunities and a Conestoga Riverfront Framework section below, which contains a set of practical Policies and Actions to help realize the Vision.
The inspiration to advance the Conestoga Riverfront arose through engagement with residents and stakeholders across the environmental, economic, and social sectors. The Conestoga Riverfront Vision can be summarized in four core priorities:
- Ecology: Align and progress natural conservation and watershed quality efforts, to improve personal health outcomes and biodiversity, while planning for flood resilience and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
- Education: Provide educational and workforce learning opportunities for City residents related to water systems and environmental health (often known as green collar jobs).
- Recreation: Develop recreation opportunities centered on the River to promote exercise, enjoyment, learning, tourism, and business growth.
- Economic Development: Encourage, through investment and other supports, concerted economic and land development at select neighborhood nodes where mixed-use building is appropriate and beneficial.
Any new initiative must be rooted in equity: the river itself has been treated as a sewer for more than a century, and the residential communities bordering the river in the city are predominantly lower income communities of color that have experienced disinvestment over decades. Through foresight and good planning, it is possible to chart a new path.
In sum, the body of work in this chapter amounts to a new Conestoga Riverfront Initiative. The scope is ambitious and multi-faceted and will require a range of partner organizations, numerous projects, and effective coordination over the next 20 years and beyond.
CONESTOGA RIVERFRONT FRAMEWORK: POLICIES AND ACTIONS (CRF)
The policies and actions in this section affirm the Conestoga River as an asset and promote re-engagement with the river to enhance the quality of life. There are multiple benefits associated with the four riverfront priorities outlined in the Vision above: ecology, education, recreation, and economy.
The riverfront policies and actions are divided into four major elements:
- Laying the foundation for riverfront revitalization
- Enhancing points of access to the riverfront
- Extending community activities and assets to the riverfront
- Realizing community development opportunities at specific points of interest on the riverfront
ELEMENT CRF-1 — LAYING THE FOUNDATION FOR RIVERFRONT REVITALIZATION
Policy CRF – 1.1: Conestoga Riverfront Corridor
Define and distinguish the importance of the Riverfront Corridor by identifying it as a special place and area of focus on the Comprehensive Plan maps and other official maps. Identify key locations for river access, facilities, and community and economic development activities.
Action CRF – 1.1A: Conservation Overlay District
Establish a Conservation Overlay District along the Conestoga River that emphasizes the protection, conservation, and restoration of the most environmentally sensitive lands. Specific areas to consider for inclusion are Sunnyside, Conestoga Pines, City Water Works, City Operations Center at Riverside Avenue, Hands Woods, Holly Pointe Nature Preserve, and adjacent cemeteries.
Action CRF – 1.1B: Integrating the River into Parks Master Planning
Emphasize recreational opportunities in and around the Conestoga River in the City’s upcoming Parks and Recreation Master Plan. Specify and prioritize capital improvement projects that connect the river to the broader park system and enhance the City park experience as a whole. Include projects that improve river access, such as trailheads, trail links, active and passive park spaces along the river, paddling facilities and other amenities. Developing these amenities requires new and innovative approaches that can amplify the power and impact of the Parks Master Plan.
Policy CRF – 1.2: Intermunicipal Cooperation for Riverfront Initiative
Work with adjacent municipalities to gain agreement on the Conestoga River Corridor designation and participation in a broader Conestoga Riverfront Initiative to realize the river’s full potential. Opportunities for re-engagement with the river are not uniquely contained within a single municipality. Explore utilizing the existing Council of Governments (COG) and Lancaster Inter-Municipal Council to coordinate specific projects and actions, including development of river trails and mixed-use development at key nodes.
Action CRF – 1.2A: Infrastructure and Land Development Alignment
Develop collaborative agreements to align infrastructure and land development along the river. Potential agreements could address connections to Bridgeport, Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) solutions, as they are implemented, and improvements at other City-owned properties such as Conestoga Pines and the Operations Center.
Policy CRF – 1.3: Shared Clean Water Investments
Cooperate with neighboring municipalities and partner organizations upstream on the Conestoga River to clean up tributaries in the watershed. Seek policy changes with Pennsylvania and federal agencies to allow the City and its partners to invest in upstream projects that will directly benefit the City’s natural environment and residents. Upstream projects may include pollution reduction plans, stormwater system improvements, riparian tree planting, and other interventions that achieve regional objectives in a more cost-effective, less piecemeal fashion.
ELEMENT CRF-2 — ENHANCING POINTS OF ACCESS TO THE RIVERFRONT
Policy CRF – 2.1: Conestoga River Trail Development
Facilitate the creation of a viable, contiguous water trail for boaters and paddlers, including accessible points of entry through easements or other means. River trail development may also include other supporting facilities such as signage, trail heads, and connections.
Action CRF – 2.1A: River Trail Access Points
Identify locations for boat launches on City property and/or within City boundaries, including at least two to three boat launches with ADA universal design.
Policy CRF – 2.2: River Trail Management
Work with relevant government agencies (e.g., Fish and Game Commission, DCNR, DEP) and local organizations (e.g., Conestoga River Club) to ensure adequate management and operation of River Trail facilities, including boat launches and portages. Enhance safety of the trail through good design, surveillance, emergency contact systems, and best practices.
Policy CRF – 2.3: Conestoga Greenway Development
Complete a contiguous Conestoga Greenway walking and biking trail along the full extent of the City’s riverfront (and beyond). Clearly designate the Greenway trail on City-owned properties and acquire property or easement rights on private property to fill in missing trail segments.
Action CRF – 2.3A: Greenway Connection Extensions
Extend the existing Conestoga Greenway north to connect with the Heritage Trail at Conestoga Pines and with the Water Street Trail at Engleside.
Action CRF – 2.3B: Intermunicipal Trail Cooperation
Develop a cooperative agreement with the Lancaster Inter-Municipal Committee or neighboring municipalities to extend the Conestoga Greenway to and through neighboring municipalities. Achieving full connectivity between the Heritage Trail and Engleside, for example, requires City coordination with East Lampeter, West Lampeter, and Lancaster Townships. Work for future regional connections to other trails, such as south to the Enola Low Grade Trail and west to Millersville.
Action CRF – 2.3C: Riverfront Development Organization
Establish a new entity or partner with an existing organization to acquire riverfront parcels and easements within the Conestoga Riverfront Corridor. The acquisition of properties would be focused on sites that could be redeveloped for riverfront access and revitalization.
Policy CRF – 2.4: In-River Recreation Amenities
Promote recreational use of the river beyond fishing and non-motorized boating. Investigate concepts such as a whitewater kayaking course, ropes courses over the river, obstacle courses, and other scalable activities. One or more unique and commercially viable attractions should be facilitated.
ELEMENT CRF-3 — EXTENDING COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES AND ASSETS TO THE RIVER
Policy CRF – 3.1: Neighborhood Connections to the Riverfront
Identify and prioritize connections to locations where residents can experience and appreciate the river’s ecology and beauty. Proactively incorporate such spaces in land development and capital improvement projects, which may include trails, public access to natural features, and community gathering spaces. Strawberry St. Bridge, Hands Woods, and Conestoga Pines Park each present unique opportunities for enhancing neighborhood connections to the river.
Policy CRF – 3.2: Environmental Center of Excellence
Pursue the creation of an independent Environmental Center of Excellence that advances the core priorities of the Conestoga Riverfront Vision: Ecology, Education, Recreation, and Economic Development. This Center is proposed to include elements such as natural lands, low-impact building(s) or facilities, and community programs. Development of a Center should involve the direct partnership and investment of a stakeholder organization or organizations who can provide leadership and expertise.
Policy CRF – 3.3: Ecological Conservation Standards
Within the Conservation Overlay District, set standards for the sustainable community use of riverfront lands for recreation and development. Advance best management practices for clean water, as well as proactive restoration of habitat. Ensure community use of the riverfront maintains or improves the quality of its ecosystems.
Policy CRF – 3.4: Community Partnerships and Programming
Partner with neighborhood, resident, and organizational stakeholders to help guide decisions regarding the design of riverfront programs and facilities. Input from neighbors, educational institutions, recreation organizations, and economic agencies should be invited and considered, as well as best practices from other communities.
ELEMENT CRF-4 — REALIZING COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES ON THE RIVERFRONT
Policy CRF – 4.1: Neighborhood Development at Engleside
Create a vibrant place and dense, mixed-use hub at and around Engleside, with direct public connections to the riverfront. Assign appropriate land uses to facilitate these goals. Plan and design major infrastructure improvements (such as CSO upgrades, redevelopment of the Public Works building, and roadway changes) with a clear intention to make Engleside a place where the public can access the river, recreation, and commercial attractions. The design of private development and public infrastructure should emphasize stormwater retention and water quality, in line with the City’s consent decree.
Action CRF – 4.1A: Small Area Plan for Engleside
Undertake and complete a Small Area Plan for the Engleside area to carry out the Policy above. Because the Engleside area spans three municipalities, establish an intermunicipal agreement and work in concert with Lancaster Township and West Lampeter to execute the plan and bring it to reality.
Policy CRF – 4.2: Neighborhood Development at Bridgeport
Create a vibrant place and dense mixed-use hub at and around Bridgeport, with direct public connections to the Riverfront. Build upon the planning and development efforts in the Bridgeport Crossroads report, which lays out intermunicipal priorities east of the river. Implement recommended infrastructure projects and maximize economic benefits to city residents.
Action CRF – 4.2A: Planning Analysis for Bridgeport
Undertake and complete the next phase of planning for the Bridgeport area. Further review City land uses, as well as key projects and actions, to increase neighborhood livability and align with emerging plans for Bridgeport. Facilitate direct links to jobs, shopping, health care, and other needs. Improve facilities for active transportation modes, including Greenway and River trail connections, as well as non-motorized upgrades to the Bridgeport bridge.
Policy CRF – 4.3: Environmental Center of Excellence at Sunnyside Preserve
Site an Environmental Center of Excellence at the Sunnyside Preserve. Any facility should uphold high standards of green design and be integrated with the preserve and its planned activities. A center could allow residents and organizations to convene and learn about the key issues facing the community and ways to conserve, restore, and celebrate the natural habitat and environment at the preserve, in our region, and beyond.
Action CRF – 4.3A: Sunnyside Nature and Recreation Preserve
Establish a preserve on the undeveloped northern portion of the Sunnyside peninsula (approximately 70 acres owned by the City). Seek non-profit options for the long-term stewardship, management, and operations of the preserve. Use zoning regulations, easements, and other tools to designate the Sunnyside Preserve as a permanent natural asset and opportunity for community recreation. Any parkland designation should allow for specific complementary, commercial uses that support and sustain the Preserve.
Action CRF – 4.3B: Master Design of Sunnyside Preserve
Undertake and complete a Master Design or Small Area Plan for the Sunnyside Preserve. This Master Site Design will guide the fine-grained decisions with respect to the physical design, programming, and governance of the spaces and facilities that support the overarching mission of a nature and recreation preserve. The Master Design process should be guided by an expert consultant and involve local environmental groups, neighborhoods, educational institutions, and recreation organizations.
Action CRF – 4.3C: Eco District at Sunnyside Peninsula South
Establish an Eco District Overlay on the southern portion of the Sunnyside Peninsula, in keeping with the preserve to the north. Future infrastructure, housing and other buildings should be developed at standards that have a net benefit or minimal impact on the sensitive Sunnyside environment. Building and site design should favor green features, such as renewable energy, solar orientation, low lot coverage, and water/sewer facilities that do not require additional City infrastructure.
Policy CRF – 4.5: Re-Use of the County Youth Intervention Center (YIC)
Redevelop or adaptively re-use the building and site that currently functions as the Youth Intervention Center. The current building and parking lot are much too large for the services being provided. Seek opportunities to relocate the YIC functions and redevelop the site in line with the Sunnyside Preserve vision. If YIC functions remain at this site, seek a compatible partner or partners to share the building space. Utilize excessive parking on site to serve Sunnyside Preserve activities and amenities.
Policy CRF – 4.6: Conestoga Pines Park
Develop Conestoga Pines Park as a unique urban open space with enhanced natural features and exceptional connectivity to the City and surrounding areas. Add connections to adjacent trail systems, create boating amenities, restore the natural lands, improve links to the Conestoga Pines neighborhood to the north, and support complementary education and recreation programming that serves City residents.
Action CRF – 4.6A: Conestoga Pines Park Master Plan
Implement the Master Plan for Conestoga Pines Park and Walnut Street Fishing Area, completed in 2023, which further details the policy goals and execution.
Policy CRF – 4.7: Lancaster County Central Park
Facilitate the expanded knowledge and use of the County Central Park as a tremendous nature and recreation asset for City residents. The increasing residential and commercial development along Chesapeake St. and Duke St. attracts residents near the river and requires greater multi-modal connectivity to the County Park, added wayfinding signage, and new accessways through surrounding properties.
Action CRF – 4.7A: Strawberry Street Bridge Gateway
Establish the Strawberry Street Bridge entering County Central Park as a key gateway to the Conestoga River and the Lancaster County Central Park. Explore the provision of amenities at or around this gateway for park users, such as boat launches and low-intensity food and drink.
CONESTOGA RIVER CORRIDOR: OPPORTUNITIES OF INTEREST
A White Paper Commissioned for the Comprehensive Plan, 2023
The Conestoga River, for too long a polluted, neglected asset, has great potential for public re-engagement that would enhance the community’s quality of life and contribute to the ongoing revitalization of the City of Lancaster.
This White Paper examines over a dozen opportunities for recreational use, educational activities and economic development that would rejuvenate the underused river corridor and add to the City’s dynamism. These opportunities would build upon the City’s efforts to become a center of excellence for clean water and environmental stewardship and help to propel the river as a driver of community development.
Generations ago, the Conestoga River was an economic driver and a focal point for recreation. City dwellers boarded riverboats for pleasure cruises and excursions to and from Rocky Spring Park, while fishers and swimmers were drawn to the river for summer fun.
But discharges from factories and sewage plants and runoff from farms and streets increasingly impaired water quality. By 1922, the river was deemed unsafe. The riverboats disappeared, and swimming and fishing largely came to an end. What was once a scenic waterway mostly vanished from public usage and view.
The 2008 Natural Heritage Inventory (NHI) for Lancaster County notes that the Conestoga River Corridor supports terrestrial (upland) forest and palustrine (wetland) plant communities along embankments and floodplains. Two Natural Heritage Areas of high significance are located along the river in or near the city. Many of these natural features have been significantly impacted by development and other human activities.
Recent decades, however, have seen the gradual, early stages of renewal. The Clean Water Act of 1972 spurred the cleanup of the nation’s waterways, and Lancaster County’s streams and rivers are healthier and continuing to improve. Public interest in water recreation and river trails has grown. Cities across the United States have demonstrated the intrinsic value of reopening their riverfronts for public enjoyment.
An ongoing challenge is the City’s legacy combined sanitary-stormwater system. During heavy rains, it overflows into the river. The City has been working to reduce these overflows under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Since 2010, Lancaster has prioritized green infrastructure to detain and treat stormwater where it is generated, reducing runoff and the discharge of pollutants. A range of related efforts to improve water quality and protect ecological resources are underway. In 2018, Lancaster County established a Countywide Action Plan for meeting EPA Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) goals for sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous—which has further set the stage for ecosystem repair and healthy, sustainable development opportunities. Lancaster County and the City of Lancaster have both developed strong, professional capacity for thoughtful environmental work.
Corridor of Opportunity
Lancaster City and surrounding municipalities are poised to redefine the river corridor and riverfront lands as a special place with community and economic potential.
Lancaster City should consider ways to connect the Conestoga River Corridor to Lancaster County’s green infrastructure network. Special consideration should be given to the City’s emerging non-motorized trail system and how it can connect to a full-length water River Trail, an extended Conestoga Greenway Trail, and the Heritage Trail (between Leola and the LGH Health Campus).
Reopening the Conestoga as a recreational asset may offer education and economic development opportunities to disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city. The School District of Lancaster, Lancaster County Career and Technology Center and Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology could help to prepare young people for careers in environmental science and water, which are projected to increase 8 percent over the next decade.
The role Lancaster plays as critical partner and leader in cleaning waterways within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, combined with the tremendous potential community benefits of riverfront development suggest the time is ripe: a thoughtful strategy for the Conestoga River Corridor can position the City of Lancaster as an Environmental Center of Excellence.
Points of Entry
There are opportunities for the City to increase access to the Conestoga River for recreation, education, conservation, and economic development. Few of the access points from 100 years ago still exist, and most of those that do aren’t readily accessible or are in poor condition. Creating frequent, non-motorized access points for the local community to engage, including one or two significant public trailheads to accommodate vehicle parking for regional public access, will propel an overall riverfront strategy.
Connection 1 – River Trail
The City should encourage, through its policies, a Conestoga River Trail with safe and accessible connection points. Development of river recreational assets can be relatively low cost yet bring significant economic activity. Once points of entry are established, any number of amenities and enhancements become possible. They, in turn, can become catalysts for investment and business activity.
Along the east/southeast edge of the City, there are numerous opportunities for the public to connect to the river trail for recreation, including at the new Riverside Avenue Operations Center, Conestoga Pines, Water Works, Bridgeport, Holly Pointe, Sunnyside, Engleside, County Park and points south. Some are directly within the control of the City, but others would require inter-municipal cooperation.
Connection 2 – The Conestoga Greenway
The Conestoga Greenway is a current point of connection that should be extended north to the Heritage Trail at Conestoga Pines or the Riverside Avenue Operations Center, and south to Engleside in support of the City Active Transportation Plan. As the City pursues a non-motorized trail along South Water Street to Engleside, the potential to create a loop trail, as well as a connection to Buchmiller Park, amplifies the value of this access point.
Greenway trails provide both direct and indirect benefits to the community. Economic impact studies document substantial economic benefits. These include increasing the value of nearby properties, boosting spending at local businesses, making communities more attractive places to live, influencing business location and relocation decisions, reducing medical costs by encouraging exercise and other healthy outdoor activities, and providing transportation options that cut fuel expenses.
Due to favorable topography along the river, existing rights of way, and proposed uses (for example, the County commitment to provide trail access at the base of the property for the new prison), the City should cooperate with neighboring municipalities to obtain permissions for extending the trail.
Connection 3 – Re-use of Existing Parcels
The City should explore the potential of creating river connection points for the public when landowners are considering upgrading or redeveloping parcels. Appropriate land use policies need to be in place for such consideration to be possible. Strategic guidance for land use along the riverfront should be developed in concert with the Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map. Recommendations of transformational capital projects along the river should be pursued and include how to help set priorities for strategic land acquisition and development of public benefit opportunities.
Connection 4 – Parcels Under City Control
Adaptive re-use of property under control of the City should include bringing the community into a relationship with the Conestoga River. Additive programming at existing sites (for example, Conestoga Pines or the Water Works) should be developed. Dormant property and those scheduled for re-purposing should be re-evaluated such that future uses include connections with the river and ways to provide points of entry.
In particular, the City owns about 50 acres on the northern portion of the Sunnyside peninsula. Many attempts have been made to commercially develop the site. Not for lack of effort, all have failed to materialize—largely due to the costs of building infrastructure on hard rock and steep slopes. The peninsula is a mostly wooded gem that could become a nature and recreation preserve. The Conestoga Greenway could be linked to a trail on Sunnyside’s banks. Preserving the natural setting while connecting the community to the river creates benefits for environmental, educational, and economic development.
Points of Extension
Recreation, education, conservation, and ecology are ways to connect residents with the river and enhance quality of life. The City of Lancaster has made and will continue to make substantial investments in conservation and urban ecology. Lancaster County has similarly built a reputation for excellence and innovative leadership in helping to clean Chesapeake Bay. The opportunity to scale up those efforts, develop educational programs for the community, and create professional workplace opportunities is available, with the ultimate prize a cleaner, more livable City.
Connection 5 – Education
Primary and secondary institutions should develop curriculum and certificate and degree programs that prepare students for work in environmental science and water infrastructure. At the same time, educating the public about ecological work on the river can build community involvement. The Conestoga River is a historical and archaeologically significant place. Opportunities to learn about the history of Lancaster City and County with a focus on community planning can be based in the classroom and on the water.
Connection 6 – Ecology, Conservation, and Restoration
The City should pursue opportunities along the Conestoga River Corridor to protect natural places and enhance quality of life. Restoration, conservation, and preservation through the introduction of best management practices affords an opportunity for enhanced connections. Efforts in this area should be developed in conjunction with City neighborhoods along the river and with upstream communities.
Connection 7 – Parks and Recreation
The City should integrate river corridor opportunities into Parks and Recreation planning. It should create parks and recreation amenities along the river (particularly at designated points of entry) and connect City neighborhoods to these assets via the Heritage Trail and Water Street trail systems, among other links.
Connection 8 – Community and Neighborhood
The Department of Neighborhood Engagement should pursue ways to engage the community with the river corridor to enhance health, revitalize ecosystems, boost the neighborhoods’ economy and improve quality of life. Involvement of neighborhood stakeholders will elevate the quality of amenities and facilities that are designed and built over time.
Points of Development
Within the river corridor are three especially interesting geographic opportunities at Sunnyside, Engleside, and Bridgeport, which could facilitate the City’s riverfront objectives and overarching community development goals.
Connection 9 – Sunnyside
As noted above, the City-owned portions on the peninsula afford an excellent opportunity for a preserve that can become part of the City’s recreation, education, ecology, and neighborhood strategies. The peninsula can be a point of entry to the river with a boat launch, a recreational extension of the Conestoga Greenway, and a place where environmental work, including a hub for educational programs, can be established.
Lancaster County has a growing network of environmental non-profit and for-profit organizations. These groups are already working together and can deepen their partnerships at Sunnyside to create a Center of Excellence.
Connection 10 – Engleside
Engleside is a historic crossroads and major gateway to the City. Its position on the river corridor offers an opportunity for transformation from a place passed through to a place that draws people, for both commercial and environmental activities. The City should establish policies in its Comprehensive Plan to facilitate integrated economic development, recreation connections, and ecological improvements.
Connection 11 – Bridgeport
Although it’s outside the City, Bridgeport is a historical access point to the river and gateway to Lancaster. Bridgeport is where Old Philadelphia Pike and Lincoln Highway East converge to cross the Conestoga River and become East King Street. Downstream of Bridgeport, the river was once navigable. One could board a boat and travel to Baltimore or Philadelphia.
The City should seek to expand the intermunicipal collaboration represented by the Bridgeport Transportation Land Use Study. The study had a goal of enhancing walkability, transportation choices, and neighborhood character. It offers recommendations for traffic calming, pedestrian connectivity, trails along the river, road improvements, and land use / zoning.
Recommendations in the study can be augmented. The City, in cooperation with neighboring municipalities, should facilitate neighborhood connections to the river and the Conestoga Greenway while also enhancing access to the ongoing development in Bridgeport.
Connection 12 – Unique, Distinct Places
Along the Corridor, attention should be given to smaller connection points and interesting proximities. Conestoga Pines Park faces a Manheim Township park on the west side of the river. River access accommodations can be made at the Riverside Avenue Operations Center. Holly Pointe Nature Preserve is on the east side of the river facing Sunnyside. The bridges to Sunnyside at Circle Ave and to the County Park at Strawberry Street offer
It is important to ensure that land use planning and infrastructure investments anticipate the ways in which these locations can become part of community engagement with the river.
The Conestoga River Corridor has enormous potential to enhance the community’s quality of life and contribute to the ongoing revitalization of the City of Lancaster. When viewed as an interconnected system of assets, there is a compelling vision for the river as a driver of education, ecology, recreation, and economic advancement. The Conestoga River Corridor, a gem hidden in plain sight, can become a centerpiece to the city’s identity and development, and a destination for neighbors and visitors to enjoy for generations to come.