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November’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

St. Louis, MO
ForestparkBalloonsINTForest Park, which opened in 1876, is a sprawling green space in the heart of St. Louis.  At 1,371 acres, it is one of the largest urban parks in the country, and more than 13 million visitors per year come to the park to play sports, ride bikes, run, fish, practice archery, or to attend one of the many special events the park hosts, such as the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.  With so many people using the park, traffic quickly became a big concern for the organizations tasked with maintaining and running the park. Continue reading

Creating Parkland via Rail Trails

A ninth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by converting abandoned railroad corridors into rail trails.

In 1963 famed Morton Arboretum naturalist May Theilgaard Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. “We are human beings,” she wrote. “We walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.” Her visionary and poetic letter led to the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path and marked the beginning of the rails-to-trails movement.

Until the interstate highway program in the 1950s, the world’s best-engineered rights-of-way were railroad corridors. Hills and cliffs were excavated, valleys filled, curves softened, tunnels dug, bridges built, all to provide routes of exquisitely smooth gentleness with little or no cross-traffic. They were also extraordinarily well routed from, to, and through the centers of activity–cities. Today, 130,000 miles of these marvelous linear connections have been abandoned. Already, 1,500 segments totaling 15,000 miles have been turned into trails for biking, skiing, skating, running, and walking. Most are rural but the urban ones almost invariably become the spines of city biking networks that also include on-road bike lanes and other feeder-collector routes. Rail trails have become focal points for nonmotorized transportation and recreation in Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Indianapolis; Dallas; Cincinnati; Spokane; Milwaukee; St. Petersburg; Albany, New York; Arlington, Virginia; Barrington, Rhode Island; and scores of other cities and towns. And there are still abandoned corridors available for conversion into trails.

The Stone Arch Bridge portion of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail going towards Minneapolis. Credit: Brian Monberg, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Minneapolis shows the multiple types of rail trails and their power to affect a city’s park, recreation, and transportation systems. Most dramatic is the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi, built by railroad baron James J. Hill for his Great Northern route to Seattle. Opened in 1883, it was in rail service until 1978. Rescued from demolition, the bridge was refurbished for non-motorized use through a variety of federal, state, and local funds and ultimately turned over to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Today it is the keystone of the bicycle/pedestrian network in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A few blocks away is the Midtown Greenway, created from a former Milwaukee Road track that maintained separation from traffic by being sunk in a box-shaped trench below street level. The 5.5-mile trail today serves several thousand bicyclists, runners, and skaters per day; in the future it will also host an extension of the light-rail system on a parallel track in the same trench. The corridor was bought for $10 million by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Trail engineering and construction, which cost $25 million, was paid from a variety of local, regional, state, and federal sources. Annual maintenance, which includes lighting and snow plowing, comes to about $500,000 a year.

A couple of miles north, a different set of tracks has been converted into the Cedar Lake Park and Trail. This isn’t a rail-to-trail, it’s a rail-with-trail. When the Burlington Northern Railroad decided to divest itself of an underutilized freight yard, it kept one track for through service and sold the rest to the Park Board. The Board erected a fence and converted the wide industrial facility into a model nature habitat with three meandering, parallel treadways–two one-way paths for cyclists and skaters, and one soft-surface path for walkers and runners. With an extraordinary amount of community support, volunteerism, and sweat-equity, the 48-acre project cost only $3.5 million to acquire and develop, and it was finished in a record six years.

Six years is a record? Well, yes. Creating a rail trail, candidly, is not easy. The land ownership issues are confusing. Legal and regulatory complexities stretch from the local level to the state capital to Washington, D.C. A review of years-to-complete-a-trail validates the difficulty: for the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C., eleven years from conception to ribbon-cutting; for the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg, fifteen years; for the Minuteman Trail in Arlington, Massachusetts, eighteen years; for the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C., twenty-two years and (as of this writing) counting.

But the final results justify the heartache: These are truly “million-dollar trails.” Other than on a former railroad track, it is simply not possible in an existing built-up community to create a new pathway that is long, straight, wide, continuous, sheathed in vegetation, and almost entirely separated from traffic. And the annual usership numbers reveal the pent-up desire lines: 2 million on the Minuteman Trail outside of Boston; 3 million on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail outside of Washington, D.C.; 1.7 million on the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail; 1.1 million on the East Bay Bicycle Path outside of Providence, Rhode Island; and 1 million on the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C.

Many park directors initially shy away from taking on the challenge of a rail-trail. This is a serious mistake. In addition to all the connectivity and usership values, rail trails often have ecological and historical values very much in keeping with an urban park system’s mission. With corridor widths of 60 to 100 feet, or even more in the West, they frequently harbor interesting, unusual, and rare plant species on their margins, as well as having bridges, tunnels, and stations. Moreover, trails are so popular that they have radically increased the support base for virtually every park agency that has ever taken one on.

The reality is that creating one of these trails is so tough that it virtually requires a partnership between a park department (or sometimes a public works or transportation department) and the private sector (usually a citizen group, sometimes a foundation or corporation). The financial and legal issues are too much for a group of volunteers to handle alone, while the political issues are too intense for a government agency without citizen support. Some of these conversions are so difficult that a national organization, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, formed specifically to provide technical, legal, financial, and political assistance to communities around the country. The Trust for Public Land is another national organization that has been unusually active with creating urban rail trails.

More than that, trail advocates are fierce in their commitment to these facilities–many see them literally as “do or die” opportunities. In Seattle, when the Post-Intelligencer newspaper reported that the Burlington Northern Railroad had secretly sold off a piece of track that had been slated for a continuation of the Burke-Gilman Trail, cyclists were so outraged that they chained their bikes across the entranceway of Burlington Northern’s Seattle headquarters and began a vehement protest that stayed on the front pages for two months. (The railroad, which had sold the land to an out-of-state tycoon for a place to dock his yacht, found a way to rescind the deal and the corridor is now the trail extension.)

The Capital Crescent Trail as it enters Bethesda, Maryland, 7 miles from its starting point in Washington, D.C. Credit: Barbara Richey, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

In Washington, D.C., when the National Park Service was unable to get a quick congressional appropriation to save the Georgetown Branch from being developed by CSX Railroad into a string of million-dollar homes through a national park, land developer Kingdon Gould III loaned $12 million of his own money and held the land for a year until Congress acted. (The corridor is today the Capital Crescent Trail, centerpiece of what will eventually be a 20-mile “bicycle beltway” within the nation’s capital.)

The latest innovation is the overhead or trestle trail. Influenced by the creation in Paris, France, of the Promenade Plantée (“Planted Walkway”), activists in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis have all discovered abandoned rail trestles and launched campaigns to bring them back as trails. First to open, in 2009, was New York’s High Line, a sensational tour de force in the now-chic former meatpacking district. The walkway (which from day one was so crowded with pedestrians that bicycles were not permitted) includes sophisticated plantings, architectural landscaping reminiscent of railroad tracks, artistic benches and chaise longues, a viewing gallery with picture window overlooking 10th Avenue traffic, a large wall of glass panes dyed every hue of the Hudson River, food carts, seating areas, and more.

A bit less upscale but considerably longer and designed for cyclists as well as walkers, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is expected to open in segments as funds for the $45-million conversion are found. The Bloomingdale Trail should serve recreational cyclists as well as purposeful commuters since one day it could join an interconnected trailway linking all the way from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. St. Louis’s Iron Horse Trestle will also prove helpful to cyclists, runners, and walkers of all stripes since it passes over busy Interstate 70 and leads toward the popular Riverfront Trail along the Mississippi River.

Walking on Water: Covering Reservoirs Can Create Parkland

A fifth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by covering their reservoirs.

Open drinking water reservoirs have been often-beloved icons in the United States for well over a century. Highland Park Reservoir (1879), McMillan Reservoir (1903), and Silver Lake Reservoir (1907), among others, were the places to promenade, picnic, see, and be seen in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, respectively.

Cool Spring Reservoir in Wilmington, Del. before it was buried. Credit: Philip Franks, Hurley-Franks and Associates.

Some, like Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park Reservoir, were located within larger park spaces; others, like Compton Hill Reservoir in St. Louis, essentially filled the entire space of their own park-like setting. It was recognized that none of them was entirely hygienic. They were fenced but, after all, at the mercy of general city dust and grime, not to mention bird droppings. But, like Ivory soap in the old commercial, 99.44 percent pure was considered good enough.

There are also numerous reservoirs that are not fenced. These reservoirs contain what is called “raw” water that is relatively clean but not yet “finished” for human consumption. At Griggs Reservoir Park in Columbus, Ohio, or White Rock Lake Park in Dallas visitors can go right to the water’s edge and dip their toes in, if they wish, or even go boating.

Then in 1993 came a highly publicized outbreak of Cryptosporidium bacteria in the Milwaukee water supply, and, soon after, heightened concerns about terrorism. Attention to public health was raised a notch. In December, 2005, after years of deliberation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published something called the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2) that mandated that all newly constructed “finished water” reservoirs be built with a cover. (Finished water is clean enough for delivery to homes; raw water still needs treatment before it’s drinkable.) As for already existing finished water reservoirs, EPA gave municipalities the choice of covering them or leaving them as-is and then re-treating the water to finish it.

The requirement was greeted with dismay by many people who delight in the view of the open water, but the presence of a cover opens up the possibility for gaining parkland. Seattle, in particular, has recognized this chance to close a park gap in some neighborhoods. In fact, the city (along with the whole state of Washington) got started more than a decade ahead of the EPA rule. As former Mayor Greg Nickels put it, “This is a rare opportunity to turn public works into public parks. Underground reservoirs will not only improve the quality and security of our water supply, they will add to the quality of life in our neighborhoods.” All in all, the city is set to add 76 acres of new parkland using reservoir decks – including 4 acres in densely populated Capitol Hill, 20 acres in Jefferson Park (with a running track, sports fields, picnic grounds and a large, unprogrammed lawn), and a completely new park on top of Myrtle Reservoir. The $161-million cost is being funded via a rise in residential water use fees.

Cool Spring Reservoir in Wilmington, Del. after it was buried in a concrete tank. Note the grassy field and ornamental pond. Photo taken one month before opening day. Credit: Rory MacRory, AECOM.

Wilmington, Delaware, is getting a significant parkland boost from a similar program. Cool Spring Reservoir, which dates to 1875 and is located in a densely populated section, was buried in 2009, adding about 7 acres of parkland to the adjoining 12.5-acre Cool Spring Park. In one swoop, this conversion increased the small city’s total parkland resource by 1.6 percent. The expanded park serves about 11,500 residents within a half-mile radius.

Under the EPA rule, cities have the option of covering their finished-water reservoirs with a variety of materials, from air-supported fabric to floating polypropylene, from a dome of aluminum to a flat surface of wood, steel, or concrete. An analysis of possibilities for 15-acre Elysian Reservoir by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power pegged the cost of a floating cover at $19.6 million, a lightweight aluminum roof at $38.1 million, and a buried concrete tank at $121.4 million. Seattle, of course, found the same type of steep costs, but the mayor’s office there conducted a study that showed acquiring a similar amount of other parkland would cost about 85 percent as much as putting the reservoirs in concrete tanks. Michael Shiosaki, Seattle’s deputy director of planning said, “There’s no way we’d be able to buy properties like this, situated as they are on scenic overlooks in densely built-out locations throughout the city.” The concrete decks are covered with 8 inches to 2 feet of soil and planted with grass. They are principally used as open lawn areas, active sports fields, and game courts, interwoven with pathways. Trees are restricted to the perimeter because of the risk of root penetration of the deck.

The tension of shimmering views versus safe drinking water is not new and it’s not unsolvable. St. Louis long ago figured out how to do it: For more than 100 years, Compton Hill Reservoir has been covered, but the top of the cover is bowl-shaped and filled with water – non-drinking water – to make for a beautiful park experience. Seattle did something similar, building a small non-drinking water pond and fountain on top of its new Cal Anderson Park deck to memorialize the former reservoir. Wilmington also responded to a neighborhood outcry, putting its reservoir under just half the property and redesigning the other half as a pond with a viewing platform.

Not all reservoir stories have happy outcomes. Washington, D.C.’s McMillan Reservoir, built in the early 1900s and envisioned as a central feature in the city’s open space network, has been closed to the public since World War II. The grounds of the reservoir and its associated sand filtration site total 118 acres in a part of the city with little other usable parkland. Originally designed in 1907 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. as a public park with promenades and places for people to sit, the facility is today encircled by a rusty chain-link fence set far back from the water pool itself, precluding any human use of the grounds. Ironically, since the water is unfinished the EPA rule does not come into play and there is no mandate to cover or bury it. The managing agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is concerned about possible water contamination and has no plans to remove or move the fence to get better use of the surrounding green space, and the neighborhood is not powerful or well-organized enough to push the Corps to think more creatively.

We’ve written before how reservoirs can be used as city parks, with some photos of the famed Cal Anderson Park. Additional Seattle reservoirs converted to parks with their opening dates include:

Magnolia Reservoir – Magnolia Manor Park (1995)
Lincoln Reservoir – Cal Anderson Park (2004)
Beacon Reservoir – Jefferson Park Expansion (October 2010)
Myrtle Reservoir – Myrtle Reservoir Park (November 2010)
West Seattle Reservoir – In design/development phase as of January 2011 (3 choices being debated in meetings)
Maple Leaf Reservoir – In mid-2011 the finished design documents will be turned into construction documents, and the reservoir is in the process of being covered.

We’ve also written about an international park-to-reservoir, Padding Reservoir Gardens in Sydney.  This historic reservoir is unique in that the underground ruins were preserved and kept publicly accessible.

From Design to Construction: The Making of Citygarden in St. Louis

Blogging about the 2010 American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting and Expo, September 10-13, held at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

“We never thought we’d get the job,” admitted Warren T. Byrd, Jr., a principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBWLA). “We were concerned by our lack of experience with sculptural gardens.” 

But after being narrowed down to seven finalists, and rescheduling their interview due to a crippling snow storm, the Virginia firm managed to fly to St. Louis, meet with the panel of judges and win the bid. 

Their challenge: develop a three-acre “urban oasis that is a hybrid between a sculpture garden, a botanic garden and a city park” on two of the 15-block Gateway Mall. Located between Eighth, Tenth, Market and Chestnut Streets and within walking distance of the Gateway Arch, the site was once dotted with buildings. These buildings were torn down 20-30 years ago and the site was vacant. After studying wind direction, sunlight, pedestrian access, and topography, NBWLA decided to draw on local and regional hydrology and geology, particularly the presence of the Mississippi River, and incorporate all these elements into their final design. 

Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels. Credit: Gewel Maker (Flickr Feed)

The tricky part was incorporating the 23 sculptures already purchased by the Gateway Foundation as a gift to the city. The sculptures had to be open and accessible; there were not to be any “Do Not Touch” signs. 

The land is owned by the city of St. Louis; the non-profit Gateway Foundation owns the sculptures and provided the funding for the design and construction. 

Some highlights of the final design include a green/grey black granite meander wall, stones with multiple finishes, pavement that can withstand lots of water at a less than 5% grade, ramps imbedded into stairs, a giant TV displaying “video art,” a 2,000 square-foot café that seats 80 people inside and out, and the fountains. 

Split Basin. Credit: Gewel Maker (Flickr Feed)

Three fountains were incorporated into the park: the entry basin, 34 feet in diameter with a thin sheet of water sliding off the Eros Benato sculpture; the split basin – named for a waterfall that “breaks” the basin into two parts – 190 feet long, 20 feet wide and 16 inches deep (the upper part turns into a reflecting pool and became such a popular swimming hole for youngsters that lifeguards were hired); and the spray basin, with 104 jets – the most spray jets in any active fountain in the country – that is choreographed to 10 different musical selections, running three-fourths of the year. Nearby are plenty of seats for parents wishing to stay dry. 

The horticultural elements incorporate almost 80 percent native plants and 32 large trees. The trees line an urban promenade along Market Street and mark the old property and foundation boundaries. 

The final price tag for the project came to just under $30 million and took about 28 months to complete, from design and construction phase to opening day. The project incorporated sustainability strategies into the design, with green roofs for the café and maintenance building, rain gardens (internally imbedded and on street level), LED lights for security and safety, and porous/pervious pavement. 

Citygarden will be permanently endowed and long-term maintenance plans are in the works. St. Louis’ newest park has been a big success and truly transformed the downtown. For more information about Citygarden, go here.

Streetcar Investments Including Recreational Destinations

The US Department of Transportation this week awarded nearly $300 in grants as part of the administration’s livability initiative to better coordinate transportation, housing and commercial development investments to serve the people living in those communities. The funds come from the Urban Circulator Grant Program and the Bus and Bus Livability Grant Program.

Streetcars were funded in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Charlotte and Fort Worth, and one noticeable piece of those cities’ plans is not only to connect downtown employment centers, but route streetcars through and by major recreational destinations such as parks. As FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff noted, “Streetcars are making a comeback because cities across America are recognizing that they can restore economic development downtown – giving citizens the choice to move between home, shopping and entertainment without ever looking for a parking space.”

Cincinnati, which received $25 million for its route, is planning a line that will hit the city’s riverfront park and stadia, the soon-to-be-renovated Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, 20-acre Inwood Park north of downtown, and the Zoo and Botanical garden at the northern end. In St. Louis, which also received $25 million, a street car route will link up the city’s signature green space, Forest Park along with the University District.

Other already-built streetcars also have linked to key recreation destinations, such as Seattle’s Lake Union Trolley linking up with the park of the same name. Streetcars are being touted for their potential effect on economic development, and including these recreational destinations, along with employment and residential may be a key to their success. It is encouraging to see the federal government including a variety of factors in these investments — and living up to the goals of its livability initiative.