Karen Cragnolin Park

Karen Cragnolin Park – Greenway Phase

Named in honor of RiverLink’s founding Executive Director, this 5.33-acre tract of land in the French Broad River Park corridor has gone through an impressive transformation from former junkyard to reclaimed, open greenspace.

History & Background

Asheville has come a long way from the days of turning its back to the river – paving her riparian buffer, releasing refuse into her muddy waters, and disregarding her ecological, recreational and tourism benefits. Too thick to drink and too thin to plow – that’s how author and historian Wilma Dykeman described the river in its worst days.

Today, Asheville’s urban riparian corridor reflects a river in transition, with parks, greenways, art studios and breweries emerging between dredging facilities, warehouses and concrete and plastics factories. As a newly-revitalized cultural and recreation corridor, the French Broad River has become a place people want to spend time due to its environmental and economical vitality – a transformation RiverLink has spent more than thirty years promoting.

A missing link in this ribbon of parks, river access sites, greenways and concessions is the future Karen Cragnolin Park. Purchased as a long-standing auto-crushing junkyard in 2006, RiverLink has invested more than a decade removing concrete, healing the polluted soil, managing invasive plants, and planning a new park–one that showcases its context in mother nature and cultural history, tells its story of remediation, and honors RiverLink’s founder, Karen Cragnolin. As a community leader and visionary, Karen deserves enormous credit for having the vision and leading the path forward to transform Asheville’s riverfront, restoring an entire district as something to be enjoyed by all – residents and visitors alike.

Karen Cragnolin Park

The Master Plan for Karen Cragnolin Park, developed by renowned landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, is the product of an involved discovery process, examining site hydrology, conditions in the riparian zone, soil conditions, early human uses, recent industrial uses, and more. Developing the plan for this five-acre park employed a community engagement process which included field days at the beginning and near the end of the design process, with presentations of findings, take-home materials, and online surveys of stakeholders to incorporate feedback along the way.

The result is a masterful design which will be executed in a phased approach. The first phase, described in detail below, will include functional stormwater amenities, a paved path connecting to the adjacent parks and educational signage throughout. Additional future phase features being explored include a pavilion, river access and an educational platform all dependent on funding and partnership.

The Greenway Phase

RiverLink is working with local government, design and construction partners to initiate the first phase of Karen Cragnolin Park. Phase One includes grading, creating the paved path, and the accompanying landscape plantings and wetlands, educational signage and fencing. When completed, this phase will welcome visitors through a naturalized setting with plants selected to provide pollinator habitat, floodwater storage and continued phytoremediation of the soil, along with educational signage addressing the site’s natural and human history, and highlighting the vision and work of Karen Cragnolin. 

Much of the Phase One costs derive from the significant grading that will continue the site’s transformation from its industrial past. Site plans are designed to return the floodplain to its pre-development function of capturing and storing excess water. Sensitive earth-moving operations will respect the river while ensuring that the new infrastructure withstands heavy rain and flood events. Earthen mounds will support and amplify pollinator plantings while facilitating drainage of floodwater back to the river via wetlands and rain gardens created with plants adapted to wet environments. 

This project represents a key opportunity to sustain threatened pollinators, as much of the municipal parkland contiguous to the future Karen Cragnolin Park is mowed fescue, largely devoid of pollinator habitat. Karen Cragnolin Park’s design documents call for native prairie grasses and forbs chosen for their ability to support pollinating insects, store and filter flood water, and continue phytoremediation. The master plan creates almost half an acre of much-needed habitat for butterflies, hummingbirds, bees. These pollinator gardens, situated among unmowed, native meadows, provide an opportunity for visitors to learn about native grassland ecology, and observe the diversity of life it supports, while continuing the remediation of soils from the site’s past industrial use.

In addition to the grading and plantings, this phase includes installation of attractive and durable signage to educate visitors about the park’s cultural history, ecological prominence, and transformational story. These signs will tell the stories of Cherokee presence and use of the river corridor, post-colonial development, the significance of the historic local Black community, the damage delivered by decades of industry, and the transformation by RiverLink and partners, highlighting the leadership of key women including Wilma Dykeman, Jean Webb and RiverLink founder Karen Cragnolin, who helped ignite the restoration.

A visually-appealing fence will be constructed in a contour aligned with the greenway path, precluding access to the undeveloped portions of the park where soil remediation and permitting is not complete, and where management is not yet occuring. This fencing will be in place until the remaining portions of the park have completed environmental review and permitting, allowing development of the rest of the park in subsequent phases. 

Greenway project completion is planned for summer 2023 with a ribbon cutting and community-wide celebration.