By Sharman Egan/Contributing Writer

There’s ample water near downtown Mobile, but how do we get to it? I’m talking about the city’s downtown waterfront, a two-mile stretch of Water Street along the Mobile River. Want to walk or run along the river? Your only choice is a .2 mile walk in Cooper Riverside Park, barely enough to register on your FitBit. There are no riverfront restaurants, no shops and no place to live on the water. But now that’s beginning to change.

It’s ironic that the biggest barrier to downtown Mobile’s waterfront is Water Street. With six lanes of traffic and limited crosswalks, it’s hardly inviting. Then you have to contend with the railroad tracks.

The city has plans to transform Water Street, from the GM&O Building to Claiborne Street, into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly area that will ease access to the waterfront. The full plan may take decades to become a reality but the first phase is underway and should be completed well within the Mobility timeframe of 2020.

It includes narrowing the street from six to four lanes to slow traffic and allow room for bike and pedestrian paths, new signals to improve traffic flow, larger crosswalks and landscaping. The engineering plan is scheduled for completion this year with construction to begin shortly thereafter. City officials believe the redesign will also be a catalyst for development.

City of Mobile

Water Street has already seen major improvements in the last two years with more coming. There are more ways to enjoy the waterfront, and within a couple of years you’ll be able to live on the river.

The cruise terminal is finally busy again after five years of dry dock. Aussies took over downtown when the Azamara Quest visited in October. It will return for a one-day stop in March. And of course, the Carnival Fantasy is regularly cruising out of Mobile in an 13-month deal after a multi-million dollar facelift to the terminal. As of this writing, the next three cruises are sold out.

When Carnival announced its return in September 2015, it was reported as a contract through November 2017. But I found sites online where you can book through April 2018, for prices starting at just $254 for a five-day cruise. Kevin and I took the same cruise on the Holiday (a smaller and older ship) in 2007. It was a fantastic vacation for under $1,000 total. You can’t beat that.

With the closing to the public of the GulfQuest Museum in November, the waterfront lost one of its major attractions and its only restaurant. Kevin and I were lucky enough to visit just a couple of weeks before it closed.

With all due respect to the mayor, I thought it was a lot of fun, and TripAdvisor users rated it as the #4 attraction in Mobile. But it was mostly empty the day we visited and there’s no question it was a big drain on the city. I’m dying to know how the city plans to repurpose it. Could this be an opportunity to finally have restaurants and shops along the waterfront?

The wildly popular Riverside Ice is back for a second year at Cooper Riverside Park, offering ice skating for overheated Mobilians. But you better go quickly; it will close for the season in mid January. The city also sponsored Holiday Movie Nights in December with free films in the amphitheater at Cooper Riverside Park on Tuesday and Friday nights.

Gulf Coast Ducks Triple Splash launched last May, offering the Gulf Coast’s only land and water tour. You pick up the tour at the USS Alabama, splash in and out of the Mobile River and Mobile Bay, and ride through downtown for 70 minutes. It gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor and Facebook, and the boats I’ve seen around town have been packed with happy quackers. They are also booking their last tours of the 2016 season.

Did you know you can now walk, run, bike or skate under the river through the Bankhead Tunnel? This past summer the Alabama Department of Transportation began closing the tunnel most Saturday mornings. Hours vary, so check ALDOT’s Twitter feed for updates.

Looking for something to eat along Water Street? Try Nourish Café, which opened in September in the Moorer YMCA (free parking!). It offers one of the only “whole food” menus downtown. The food is so delicious you won’t notice the missing calories.

What about living on the river? Come late 2017, developers hope you’ll be able to move into Meridian at the Port at 300 N. Water St. The $46.5 million development will offer 264 high-end apartments, doubling the number of apartments downtown. It will also include at least one retail space inside a ship container. The Water Street redesign is key to the project; the developers would not have undertaken the project without it. Demolition is underway.

Between the Water Street redesign and Meridian at the Port, the word “transformative” has been tossed around a lot. It’s not hard to see how these two projects could spark the transformation of Mobile’s waterfront, especially in combination with numerous other developments within blocks of the river. In the next Mobility, we’ll take a look at some of those developments.