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Sutliff vision taking shape

FW KENT PARK— The area once known as McClellan’s Landing could be the site of multiple trailheads and year-round activities within the next 20-30 years, according to University of Iowa students Emily House, Eric Isaacs, Alicia Rosman and Erik Sampson. The foursome, master’s degree candidates in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, have been working closely with the Sutliff Bridge Authority (SBA) and the Johnson County Conservation Board in an effort to develop a sustainable, practical plan for the Sutliff Bridge and its surrounding area.
The students took on the project as an assignment for their degree program, but it became more than just school work.
“This project transcended from simply being an assignment into something more meaningful,” Eric Isaacs said.  “Personally, I feel that the turning point came when the group actually got to visit the Sutliff Bridge site and got the opportunity to talk with SBA members and other locals.  This really made it clear to me that the bridge and the surrounding area meant a lot to a lot of people.” 
After months of meetings, studying photographs, newspaper articles and other documents, and after a public input meeting held in the historic Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern, the students’ work was complete.
And it was time to present it.
On Wednesday, May 18, Isaacs, House and Rosman presented their plan to the County Conservation Board. Titled “A Vision for the Future while Preserving the Past,” the students laid-out approximately 30 years worth of improvement, development and refinement for the Sutliff area. The plan was broken down into short-term (current time to 10 years), mid-term (10 to 20 years post-reconstruction), and long-term (30 years post-reconstruction).
For all three periods, the group had five basic guidelines intended to “help maintain and encourage the growth of a vibrant center for community and recreational activity.” First, the possible economic, environmental and social implications for any improvement or development in the Sutliff Bridge area should be considered. Any proposed improvement or development should always enhance the connectivity with the surrounding area and Johnson County. Third, historic preservation and enhancement should be taken into account, and any materials, methods and new construction should be consistent with the local character.
The short-term scenario calls for basic amenities such as plaques, picnic tables and benches, charcoal grills, trash receptacles, bike racks, incorporation of bridge remnants and an informational brochure. During an April 2 public input meeting, the idea of informational plaques giving a brief history of the bridge, its architecture and the area was quite popular. On May 5, lead engineer Tim McDermott of VJ Engineering addressed the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, noting there was enough useable material from the destroyed span for two informational signs or plaques, most likely one on either end. McDermott suggested one be a history of the bridge and Sutliff with the other a brief lesson on how a Parker truss bridge functions.
With an eye toward Sutliff increasingly becoming a destination for bicyclists, the group recommended installation of bike racks and showed examples ranging from common racks to metal designs resembling some form of modern art. The students also suggested incorporating salvaged parts of the destroyed span whenever possible, with ideas ranging from bike racks to public art to picnic shelters and kiosks.
In the mid-term scenario, the foursome floated the idea of expanding the site. Currently, the county owns approximately 30 acres of right-of-way leading to the bridge on the west side as well as adjacent to the county road.
“The expansion of the area surrounding the Sutliff Bridge should be considered in order to provide the proposed elements,” the report stated. In addition, the students felt expansion could provide additional space for more recreational activities. They also noted expansion in the mid-term would make some long-term ideas more feasible.
Foreseeing an increase in boaters of all kinds using the Cedar River, especially if a river trail is established, the group suggseted the installation of docks capable of accommodating boats, canoes and kayaks. They also called for “river etiquette” signs to be posted to “avoid negative interactions between the diverse set of river users.” Public discussions would be needed to determine the location and types of docks needed as well as to determine who would ultimately be responsible for maintenance.
Additional parking would be needed, the students felt, based on a projected increase in visitors to Sutliff. Kiosks, restrooms and lighting were also proposed. The kiosks would be used to further the telling of the Sutliff story, while restrooms would take some of the load off of the facilities in Baxa’s. Lighting could be used to ward off undesirable nocturnal activities and for the safety of visitors.
In the long-term scenario, the students again suggest expanding the site by purchasing land adjacent to the bridge on the west side. The land is currently undeveloped and could greatly increase the area’s capacity, possibly for fundraisers, family reunions and other events in a large-purpose picnic shelter.
The U of I contingent envisioned Sutliff as providing a connection point for expanding recreational trails throughout Johnson County; a system of nature trails running along or near the Cedar River could also connect Sutliff to the rest of the county for walking and biking activities.
“The area surrounding the Sutliff Bridge site contains many excellent natural features that would provide superb locations for nature trails to also be developed,” the report stated. The students also provided a detailed break-down of various trail construction methods and materials with material-only cost estimates for the Conservation Board’s consideration.
Conservation Director Harry Graves praised the students for their efforts. Professor Jerry Anthony, the students’ instructor, echoed the sentiments. “They did very well.” Anthony said. “They have gone beyond what was required for their assignment.”
“It was truly rewarding to work on this project and get the chance to meet so many people through the journey,” Isaacs said.