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Montgomery eyes new nature park, recreational trail network

For years, greenspace advocates in Montgomery have eyed an extraordinary, city-owned property near downtown as a potential site for a new park. The proposed public space even has a name: Cypress Nature Park.

Others have longed for the city to create recreational trails that would better connect neighborhoods and capitalize on Montgomery’s historic and natural resources.

Those conversations are turning to action as the city, Montgomery County and a nonprofit group collaborate on a master plan for both Cypress Nature Park and a citywide trail network.

One piece in the puzzle could be under construction later this year: a new trailhead and small park north of downtown along the Alabama River near the Montgomery Marina/RV Park and famed Capitol City Oyster Bar. Plans call for constructing a bicycle and pedestrian path south from the trailhead, all the way back to the existing downtown Montgomery Riverwalk.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit River Region Trails expects to receive within a few weeks the first phase of a master plan for Cypress Nature Park and the trail network. The document, which is being prepared by a private consulting group, was funded in part by the nonprofit Alabama Power Foundation and will help guide the nonprofit trails organization and public officials on the best, next steps forward.

“We’re trying to get from knowing what this could be to defining what it should be, focusing on our overall goals for improving Montgomery,” said Will O’Connor, River Regions Trails executive director. “We want to build what we can build now to create momentum for more.”

At the heart of the parks/trails vision is the proposed Cypress Nature Park, a 260-acre parcel northeast of downtown, just north of the city’s historic Oakwood Cemetery. The parcel includes a stunning wetland area with mature black tupelo, water tupelo and bald cypress trees. From the wetland, the land rises 100 feet to a scenic bluff.

O’Connor said the qualities of the site indicate it may have once been part of the Alabama River, which now meanders past the city less than a mile away. The property is blessed with natural springs and seeps and is a haven for hundreds of species of birds, along with butterflies, a range of insects and invertebrates, and mammals, including racoon and deer.

He said few in town are aware of the site, although it is visited periodically by local college biology students. As a potential park, O’Connor and other advocates envision a host of amenities at the site, from a boardwalk trail through the wetlands, to hiking and biking trails, to interpretative signage and outdoor classrooms, making it a destination for environmental education. It would also be an amenity for a growing number of downtown loft and apartment dwellers.

“Most likely, the initial development focus would be the park,” O’Connor said, although the master plan will provide guidance. He said the initial hope is to begin development of the park in the next two years, with support from the city and other funders.

The bigger, long-term picture  – one that is likely take many years to refine and complete – envisions a 30-mile recreational trail, looping through multiple Montgomery neighborhoods and connecting to Cypress Nature Park. Tying into the “Loop” would be a network of smaller trails and sidewalks totaling 50 miles of pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly routes for the community.

The loop – a precise route hasn’t been finalized – would make use of discontinued railway rights-of-way in some locations and newly created trails in others. It would link to the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail that cuts through west Montgomery to the state Capitol and connect with other city parks and historic sites.

O’Connor said the organization is looking closely at a six-mile section of privately held railroad right-of-way, heading southeast from near downtown, that could become the initial “spine” of the trail loop. If that section can be developed into a trail, “it will begin to show how impactful this could be.”

He said the trail network would weave city neighborhoods closer together, with inviting walk paths and sidewalks. The network has the potential to boost property values, encourage residential and business development, and entice tourists. It could also help improve the health of the community by offering residents an easily accessible recreational asset for fitness and stress relief, not to mention providing a safe, alternate method for people to move around town without a car.

“Our trail can offer different things to different people,” O’Connor said, “It promises multiple benefits for the community.”

City officials are enthusiastic about the potential impacts of the Loop and Cypress Nature Park.

“We are excited to promote the Loop as a way for locals and visitors alike to get out and enjoy the existing urban trails that connect downtown and the Alabama River with a surprising density of public art, cool destinations, deep history and wonderful views,” said Jocelyn Zanzot, an urban planner with the City of Montgomery. “Overall, we are very excited to partner with River Region Trails to make these new opportunities for exploring Montgomery possible.”

John Steiner is a board member of River Region Trails and chairman of the board of the The Nature Conservancy’s Alabama chapter. He said River Region Trails is working with other partners and experts, including representatives of local universities, on the park and trails plan. He said the master plan will help sketch out a roadmap for the projects, but also provide information that can be used to broaden the conversation with the community and with potential public and private-sector funders.

O’Connor said public input and participation will be critical as plans develop, to ensure community buy-in and build support.

“The Cypress Nature Park is a spectacular part of Montgomery,” said Leslie Sanders, vice president of Alabama Power’s Southern Division, which is headquartered in the city. “When we talk about innovative and exciting opportunities to enhance the quality of life for those in Montgomery, and the visitor experience, the work of River Region Trails should be very near the top.

“Few cities have such an opportunity to bring together such diverse and unique recreational and educational opportunities. The trails and park will be important to the growing narrative that Montgomery is a great place to live, work and visit.”

To learn more about the park and trails plan and how to support the effort, visit the River Region Trails website at www.riverregiontrails.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)