Revitalized waterfront is a landscaped showpiece

Riverwalk Landing is the
newest part of Yorktown Waterfront
in Virginia.
A combination of hardscapes and softscapes are important parts of the revitalization effort that’s been carried out at this high-profile, historic area.

When ships carrying the European settlers first reached Yorktown, Va., around 1630, they were greeted by an untamed wilderness. Things were more civilized, but still tenuous during the Revolutionary War, when Yorktown was the site of General Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington. And, Yorktown was still a rather rough place during the Civil War, as battles raged in and around Yorktown. During this time, and well after, Yorktown’s waterfront was an industrial powerhouse, shipping tobacco around the world.

Today, Yorktown Waterfront is just as busy, but a lot more civilized. Together with nearby Williamsburg and Jamestown, Yorktown is part of what is known as the Historic Triangle, a mecca for tourists interested in America’s early history. To properly welcome those arriving via cruise ship or otherwise looking to visit its historic waterfront area, Yorktown developed the Riverwalk Landing, a 10.5-acre seaport that features a mix of landscaping, both hardscapes and softscapes, and connects the seaport to residential shops and a park-like setting.

In its 2008 Green Star Awards, the Professional Grounds Management Society ( named The Riverwalk Landing at Yorktown Waterfront a grand prize winner in the Government Building and Complex category. The Riverwalk Landing is just the newest portion of a larger waterfront area that is also maintained by York County.

The waterfront was dominated mainly by fishermen when the revitalization effort began nearly 20 years ago. “Prior to the commercial development, there was a lot of work put into beach stabilization all along the river,” says Joanne Chapman, landscape maintenance coordinator with York County. “Numerous improvements were made to the beachfront, waterfront and surrounding areas. It was a cooperative effort with York County, national parks and many other agencies.” As part of these efforts, a large section of the beach was developed—the beach was enlarged, a sidewalk installed and landscaping added

About five years ago, attention turned to the creation of the Riverwalk Landing area of the waterfront. Retails stores, a restaurant, two floating piers and a community center were built. “The third and final phase of the revitalization of the Yorktown Waterfront area was the completion of the Riverwalk Extension project in 2006, which included more expansion and stabilization of beachfront areas along Water Street and the mile-long pedestrian trail that follows along the York River from the Yorktown Battlefield & Visitor Center to the Yorktown Victory Center, with a total project area covering 12.5 acres,” Chapman explains.

An important part of these improvements was an effort to add landscaping and institute high maintenance standards to the landscaped areas. Landscape borders run all along the walkway, with larger open areas within the Riverwalk Landing, and more than 1 acre of brick pavers was installed near the retail stores. Not surprisingly, all of these elements take a lot of work to maintain.

“We’re there every day doing some type of maintenance,” says Chapman of the crew that maintains the waterfront. About six employees maintain the grounds along the beachfront/waterfront. “Four full-time employees do all of the mowing, not only at the waterfront, but also at 10 other county-owned buildings in Yorktown Village,” says Chapman. “And, we have two landscape technicians that are focused on the ‘detail’ work: the perennial and annual flower plantings. Those types of showy areas require a lot of hands-on maintenance.” In addition to plantings in landscape beds, the Riverwalk Landing boasts many large, freestanding planters, as well as planters hanging from streetlights.

While many of the beds are irrigated, there is one employee in the summer devoted to overseeing the watering of all the plantings. “It’s a real team effort,” says Chapman. To free that team up to focus on mowing, flowers and watering, York County uses private landscape contractors for some other maintenance tasks, such as IPM. “Any of our preventative spraying or treatments for disease or insects, which we don’t do a lot of, is done by contractors,” says Chapman.

There are also busy times when the waterfront crews are supplemented by some of the other grounds crews (who work at parks/athletic fields/roadways/school facilities) from York County. “One of the big times of the year is mulching. We’ll bring in other crews and do it as a team,” Chapman explains. The waterfront maintenance staff has a storage facility to keep the mowing equipment on-site, but the employees and most of the equipment is kept at a central county facility several miles away.

On a day-to-day basis, one of the biggest maintenance items is dealing with the constant influx of sand (and some trash) that comes up into the landscaped areas from the beachfront. “Sand blows onto the site every day; it gets everywhere,” says Chapman. “Some of it is from foot traffic, but most of it is from the wind. The sand collects in the same areas it always has before the area was developed and the sidewalk installed. The sand doesn’t care that we spent all of that money and did all of that work!” she jokes.

Many days, employees can use blowers to blow the sand back onto the beach, but one recent wind event was so severe they brought in a Bobcat to scoop the sand up and carry it out.

The Yorktown Waterfront is no stranger to high winds and wild weather. “Since the revitalization project began, [it] has endured Hurricane Isabel in September of 2003 and Tropical Storm Ernesto Labor Day weekend 2006, followed by a significant nor’easter three weeks later,” reports Chapman. “Managing gardens and landscapes in a transition zone of the mid-Atlantic region can be a challenge, as anyone working in this region knows.” Right now, she and the crew are working to install fencing and additional plantings to keep the sand on the beach.

The crews that care for the flowers install two different seasonal plantings each year. When fall pansies are planted, some bulbs are included to give an early show in the spring. “About the middle of May we start changing out the flowers for the summer plantings,” says Chapman (white crape myrtle and hydrangea are frequently used). “We fill the movable planters with a combination of annuals and perennials for more color.”

All of the maintenance has to be completed in a way that doesn’t interfere with public use of the waterfront, especially at the always-crowded Riverwalk Landing. “We work around a very busy events schedule in the summer; there are farmers’ markets and concerts and other things going on all the time. And, there are always tourists there. It’s a very busy place,” says Chapman. For example, the mowing crew, which uses Toro zero-turns and John Deere mowers, tries to be done as early as possible in the morning to avoid the crowds.

“We have a very professional grounds maintenance staff, and they do an excellent job keeping this historic village looking beautiful for citizens and visitors alike,” Chapman praises.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.