Easton's Grand Plan To Reclaim It's Lost Waterfront
Dec 01, 2018 12:00AM
● By Brian Saucedo
By Bob Allen // Photography by Stephen Buchanan
Many travelers who whiz past Easton en route to the ocean, or even those who venture off U.S. Route 50 long enough to visit the Talbot County seat’s historic downtown district probably don’t even realize that the Eastern Shore town has (or, perhaps you could say, had) a waterfront.
Cities and towns large and small—from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to Easton’s sister city, St. Michaels—have revitalized their water access in post-industrial fashion, turning them into visitor destinations and economic engines. Easton’s present-day connection to nearby Tred Avon River is tenuous, at best. The waterfront itself has been “overlooked and under-utilized” in the words of Ted Bautz, a licensed commercial real estate broker who is also volunteer board chair of the nonprofit Easton Economic Development Corp (EEDC).
Though it will take some time—a lot of time, actually—Easton plans to reclaim and reinvent its portion of the Tred Avon. That reinvention could include a marina, waterfront restaurants and hotels, a public plaza, and seafood and farmers’ markets conjoined with a park, featuring shoreline and woodland trails, a playground, picnic area, dock and kayak launch, botanical garden, outdoor classrooms, and a “Great Lawn” area for festivals, concerts, and community events. A footbridge across the western branch of the Tred Avon will eventually connect all this to the area’s trail network.
Hints of Easton Point revitilization plans can be found near the waterfront, such as this trail/boardwalk installation.
When fully realized, Easton Point will encompass roughly 200 acres and three-quarter miles of riverfront. It will also reconnect Easton’s historic downtown to the water while creating new green spaces and a pedestrian gateway between river and town.
On a rather massive scale, the town government, in partnership with Talbot County and a handful of community-based non-profits including the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, has embarked on this multi-faceted, long-term $250 million redevelopment and revitalization initiative that is destined to reshape a sizable portion of the town.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” says Easton Mayor Robert Willey, who is considering a run for his fifth term as mayor next year to keep the Easton Point initiative on track. “It’s probably at least a 15-year project.”
Easton Point will revive nearby neighborhoods and create housing along with new retail/commercial space in anticipation of Easton’s projected future population growth.
This stretch of the Tred Avon River is Easton’s only navigatable waterfront, which the town plans to make more accessible with mixed-use development along the adjacent properties.
“It’s like a moon shot,” Bautz says. “It’s a huge project. The whole idea is to maintain access to the water and open up the viewscapes so people can see those beautiful sunsets.”
But Bautz knows as well as anybody that the Easton Point project entails a whole lot more than just viewscapes and breathtaking sunsets.
A guiding document called the Port Street Small Area Master Plan, published by EEDC in 2016 after months of community meetings and public “visioning” sessions, captures the immensity of the project.
Additionally, the entire riverfront within town limits will be made accessible by a 12-foot-wide boardwalk connecting with the region’s trails.
There are also discussions about relocating the current county-owned boat ramp at the end of Port Street (which runs from downtown to the river) to another location, where it can be enlarged and enhanced, possibly with restaurants, markets, and similar small retail amenities.
The ramp’s present location is slated to become a public plaza.
Overall, the Easton Point initiative will strike a delicate balance between ecology, recreation, and education on the one hand and new retail/commercial and housing stock on the other. Small retail footprints will be favored over large-scale ones (i.e. no big boxes).
Several existing riverfront property owners have already come up with a retail wishlist, such as a brewery with a tasting room. Town officials would like to eventually have a farmers’ market at the intersection of Port Street and Easton Parkway (Maryland Route 322).
“We have no desire to over-commercialize the area,” says Willey, a Talbot County native who has served as mayor for 16 years and before that, served on the town council for 12 years, including six as its president. “That would be a step backward.”
Easton’s waterfront was once a bustling commerce center. As early as the 1660s, the Tred Avon River served as an essential colonial shipping lane for tobacco grown in what is now Talbot County, which was transported some 15 miles out to the Chesapeake Bay and onward to distant international markets.
Easton Point Marina, currently the only marina in town limits, has undergone some renovations and is part of the discussion to potentially relocate its boat ramp to a more serviciable location nearby.
Originally called Talbot Courthouse, the town of Easton was founded in 1778 by an act of the Maryland State Legislature. By then, wheat had become the principal cash crop shipped down the winding river.
For the ensuing century and a half, the Tred Avon spurred the Talbot County seat’s growth and prosperity. Easton became the home of seafood processing and shipbuilding firms. (The famed War of 1812 sailing craft, Baltimore Clipper, was built in Easton). As recently as the 1930s, steamboats plied the river’s shallow waters.
“The port, the water, was the way that Frederick Douglas and everybody else came here,” Bautz says.
The nationwide trend of reclaiming and redefining old waterfronts (whether it’s Baltimore’s Harbor Place or St. Michaels’ riverfront) for post-industrial uses and quality of life enhancers is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Dilapidated properties in and around Easton’s waterfront, such as this old gas station, could be completely removed from the townscape and replaced with bustling mixed-use development within Easton’s Port Street Small Area Master Plan.
Forty or 50 years ago, ports, for the most part, were grimy, seedy, and utilitarian. More often than not, they were places you tended not to visit unless you had business there. In Easton, the waterfront became an afterthought with much of the Tred Avon outside of town limits.
At various times, the Tred Avon’s banks have hosted an asphalt factory, a fuel depot, and a town public works building, which, though dilapidated, is still in use.
“For many years, the riverfront was used as the town dump,” says Will Smith, a steering committee member of Friends of Easton Point Park. “It was the county landfill and people just discarded things there without much constraint, such as dead animals from the town veterinarian.”
Easton Point Links to Redevelopment
When other Eastern Shore towns redefined and rebranded themselves with their easy access to the waterfront, Easton remained hamstrung.
“In such a water-driven region, the town of Easton didn’t have any true access to the waterfront,” says Katie Parks, director of conservation for the Easton-based Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.
Easton Point Park was the starting point and a vital component of the greater Easton Point redevelopment vision that would soon follow. Though still in the design stages, it’s due to be an 11.5-acre park on 600 feet of waterfront within the town limits. It will be contained within the larger Easton Point revival.
“Getting the park started shows that we were serious about this project and we can go from there,” Willey says.
Parks says the town of Easton contacted ESLC in 2010 about creating a master plan for Easton Point Park, which will be located on the river near the terminus of Glenwood Avenue.
The ESLC, with the assistance of a team of design students at Thomas Jefferson University, spent about two years gathering input from residents whose communities would be impacted by the park. This information was used to formulate a detailed schematic, which was unveiled in 2012. Suggested park amenities include an amphitheater, a small marina, a kayak launching area, outdoor classrooms, and, possibly, a maritime museum.
“One of the central tenants of this project is to ensure that Easton Point (and the park) be publicly accessible and serve as a waterfront gateway to the town,” says Tracy Ward, executive director of Easton Economic Development Corporation. “In our plan, we call for a transportation link—a trolley or small bus, for example.”
Is It All Up-Hill From Here?
The Port Street master plan also entails the ultimate revival of The Hill, a historic neighborhood that lies between the river and downtown and is segmented by Front Street.
The Hill is the oldest settlement of free blacks in the United States. The great Frederick Douglas was born near Easton, and his statue presides over the grounds of the county courthouse on Washington Street. Douglas visited The Hill and dedicated two churches there in the latter part of the 19th century.
“The Hill has been overlooked for years in terms of amenities, improvements, and having good things to happen,” Willey says. “When they determined it to be the oldest free black community in the country, things started taking off. So, to me, Easton Point extends to The Hill. The town has acquired six properties there and we are renovating them to turn them into home ownership opportunities. This will provide affordable housing and will help stabilize these neighborhoods.”
As the Port Street master plan emphasizes, nothing less than Easton’s future is at stake here: “We know that the majority of population growth in Talbot County will occur in Easton, and Easton Point has the potential to absorb that growth responsibly.”
That said, even people like Willey and Bautz, who are intimately acquainted with the overall initiative, scratch their heads when contemplating its daunting scope and complexity. The long timeline can also be exasperating.
But, as Willey concludes: “If we don’t get started now, we’ll never get it done.”