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To the locals, it came as no surprise when Ann Arbor, Mich., recently topped the list of America’s healthiest cities (“Healthiest Hometown, No.1,” AARP Magazine, September/October 2008). The cities were chosen based on 30 factors--everything from the percentage of residents who commute by walking and biking to the number of fast-food outlets per capita.

Ann Arbor is a 27-square-mile city that boasts 156 city parks, including trails, golf, canoe liveries, tennis courts and athletic fields. A whopping 86 percent of the city’s 113,000 residents get regular exercise, according to AARP research. Ann Arbor is home to five colleges and universities, including the state’s oldest--the University of Michigan--with over 40,000 students. Ann Arborites value education, and its public school system demonstrates this with consistently high graduation rates and test scores.

Several years ago, with a growing student population and five high schools near capacity, Ann Arbor Public Schools took advantage of an expansive, ideally located piece of land that the district had owned since the 1960s, and began the process of building a new high school. After years of planning, a multitude of community forums, building designs and redesigns, freshmen for the new Skyline High School’s first class--the class of 2012--walked through its doors on September 2, 2008.

Laying Out A Plan

The school is situated on a 110-acre site, but the site development only occupies 65 acres. A four-story design-configuration was implemented to reduce the building’s footprint on school grounds. The design team worked closely with community members, district officials and civil engineers to preserve the natural wooded areas, including a large “hardwood forest.”

The forest features oak, maple, beech and other varieties of trees, some of which are over 50 years old. An additional wooded area to the south serves as a buffer between the school grounds and a nearby highway, M-14. The design team took advantage of the site’s existing topography in unique ways. In particular, the school’s football field (or “stadium field,” as the district refers to it) seemed to be a perfect fit for an area adjacent to the school.

The field was literally built into a lower part of the site, below-grade. Unlike a typical school football stadium, with its tall, unsightly bleachers, Skyline’s field design allows for seating to be built into the slope of the “bowl” configuration. In contrast with high schools of old, Skyline features a full athletic campus with a football/soccer/field hockey/lacrosse stadium, complete with spectator seating for 2,607 people. The campus includes a separate running track with an additional practice field in the center, tennis courts, a softball field, a baseball field and even a large, open green space for casual sports.

A Marriage Of Sorts

Members of the active, health-conscious Ann Arbor community saw the new school’s athletic campus as a potential asset. During the planning process for the school, several community forums were held. It was the general feeling from neighbors that if district officials agreed, this new school and all of its amenities would be an asset--an extended backyard--that included state-of-the-art athletic facilities, all open for residents’ use. In the newly expanded part of town where the school was built, neighboring Ann Arborites were lacking parks and recreation facilities, so the school’s manicured fields, tennis courts and running track were seen as a positive to most.

Questions posed during the early community forums varied from, “Will the fields, tracks and courts be off-limits to area residents when school is in session?” to “Will the restrooms and concession building be available for the public to use?” The Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Department had questions, too. It was interested in sharing Skyline’s facilities and offering programs that would benefit from the school’s fields and other surfaces.

Gary Jelin, AIA, of TMP Associates, architects for the new school, recalls that early during construction, when the 400-meter, all-weather running track surface had not yet been installed, residents were already walking around the asphalt area that was laid in preparation for final construction. “I remember driving up to the site, thinking, ‘Who are all of these people?’” Jelin says. “We had to kindly ask them to return after the track surface had been installed. They were anxious to get out there!” It became clear to all that a marriage of district and community would result in a win-win for both parties.

Athletic facilities for the comprehensive, 1,600-student high school would not only serve its younger grade 9-12 citizens, but the community as well. According to Skyline High School Principal Sulura Jackson, the sharing agreement is fairly simple: The Ann Arbor recreation department may request use of the turf field, and after it is accommodated, other groups that meet the district’s criteria may schedule use of the facilities. These might include nonprofit groups or informal community gatherings. In all cases, these outside requests are only granted when they do not interfere with student athletes’ games and practices.

Built To Last

The Skyline stadium field is attractive to the city parks and recreation department and other groups for different reasons. The field includes a unique playing surface called Prestige by FieldTurf. The turf is virtually maintenance-free, and features a drainage system underneath which literally pulls water away from the surface and re-directs it into a nearby natural retention pond. Captured rainwater and natural runoff from the entire site--including the building, parking areas and other sports fields--naturally end up in these ponds.

The turf never needs to be re-striped, as it is marked--predominantly for football--but also includes markings to designate soccer, field hockey and lacrosse boundaries. The field never requires aeration, watering or repairs to dead grass spots. There are no worries about standing water on rainy days.Skyline’s Athletic Director Lorin Cartwright believes that the features and quality of the turf make community use possible. “A facility has to be able to absorb the wear of outside groups,” she says, “while still maintaining the ability to be usable by our students on a daily basis.”

In many cases, with natural grass fields, public use is discouraged because the extra use may result in damage that requires costly maintenance. And schools take pride in keeping a field in top shape for their student athletes. In many cases, high schools and school districts are protective of their football fields. These natural grass fields are often surrounded by elaborate security systems and fencing with a general “keep out” sense about them. At Skyline High School, the athletic campus has quite the opposite feel--community members are welcome there and, in fact, a series of pedestrian paths lead from the neighboring subdivisions directly to the fields.

There are no security systems in place here. The city, along with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (“The Ride”), has made an investment and added a bus stop to the site so that community members can travel to and from the facilities without the use of their own vehicles. New bike racks encourage bicycle traffic to the athletic campus as well. For those who choose to drive, a 610-car parking area directly adjacent to the football field allows for student, resident and visitor parking.

Now that the school is complete and facilities have been constructed, the results are clear--residents are using the fields, tracks, bike trails and parking areas. Along with the careful selection of products and materials, early conversations among community members, park district, city- and school-district personnel made it possible. Ann Arbor continues its tradition as a ‘healthy’ town, and now offers even more athletic amenities to its residents.

Michelle McCulloch has been a member of TMP’s marketing team since 2005. Established in 1959, TMP Architecture is a full-service architectural/engineering firm focused in the planning and design of K-12, municipal and college/university projects. The firm has offices in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Portage, Mich. and Columbus, Ohio. Michelle can be reached at mmcculloch@tmp-architecture.com

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