Before it even officially opens, the Saluda Riverwalk has earned recognition from an international organization that celebrates making waterfronts accessible for public use.

The Waterfront Center, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., selected the riverfront trail in Columbia as one of nine projects or plans to be honored in its 2020 “Excellence on the Waterfront Awards Program.” (The Waterfront Center’s website hasn’t been updated to include this year’s awards.)

The program has been around since 1987, when Harbour Town at Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head was among the first class of honorees. Other South Carolina winners through the years are Waterfront Park and the S.C. Aquarium in Charleston and Falls Park/Liberty Bridge in Greenville.

Think about that. When visitors share pictures from Hilton Head, they often stand in front of the Harbour Town lighthouse. From Charleston, they take selfies at the pineapple fountain in Waterfront Park. From Greenville, they pose on the Liberty Bridge with Reedy River Falls in the background. The view from the Saluda Riverwalk looking back toward Millrace Rapids now joins that list.

The awards program was started with the help of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Design Arts Program and the National Marine Manufacturers Association. The goal is to recognize the best waterfront planning, design and development throughout the world. Through 2020, the juries have honored nearly 400 projects.

The River Alliance, the non-profit that guides planning of the Three Rivers Greenway, and EngenuitySC prepared the Saluda Riverwalk’s application for the award. The jury selected the Duwamish Gardens Habitat Restoration project in Tukwila, WA, as the top 2020 honor project. The Saluda Riverwalk was among six other honor projects. A master plan for Buffalo Bayou East in Houston, TX, earned the top 2020 plan award, and one other plan drew recognition.

The Center usually presents the Excellence on the Waterfront Center Award projects at their annual international conference, but this year, they decided to present online in two evening sessions. Each award winner will showcase their project. The Saluda is scheduled for Wednesday, October 21 at 5 p.m.  You can sign up for one or both nights via Eventbrite at no cost.

The Saluda Riverwalk was first proposed in 1996, but construction only began after Richland County voters approved a penny sales tax to fund road and bike/pedestrian projects in 2016. The paved trail follows the contour of the north bank of the Saluda River for three miles, from I-26 to the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers.

The majority of the trail has been completed, but a final section at the east end has been delayed by a combination of legal challenges of the penny tax program funding for the county and its lead construction company as well as design changes required where the east end of the trail parallels railroad tracks.

Though the greenway never has officially opened and the gate to its parking lot remains closed, people have been using it for more than a year. Walkers, bikers and paddlesport users park along Candi Lane and follow paved and unpaved paths to the trail. Technically, they are trespassing on a construction site, but authorities have looked the other way. Before construction began on the riverwalk, many of those same users followed a well-worn dirt path along the river. The City of Columbia, which will incorporate the greenway into its parks system once construction is completed, has stepped in to maintain the “unopened” trail.