PRB Articles


University Park

Just 60 miles south of the Canadian border, the city of Grand Forks, ND, under the direction of the Grand Forks Park District (a special district), is rolling out an aquatics plan that not only meets the aquatics needs of its constituents, but has also unintentionally turned back the clock to the days when all projects were local, when all projects were personal.

“This project really surprised me,” says John Staley, Director for the Grand Forks Park District, “because it turned out to be not so much about aquatics, but about building neighborhoods. It was very, very popular.”

The Best Laid Plans

Well, not always. Like most complex projects, this one has a long history and, in the beginning, popular support was not, shall we say, strong.

According to Staley, the process actually started in late 2000 when the Grand Forks Park District, faced with three aging outdoor pools, commissioned Counsilman-Hunsaker to complete a community wide aquatics study for the city of Grand Forks. The result of that study was a long-range strategy calling for a mix of indoor pools, outdoor pools and neighborhood spray parks.

“Totally disjointed at the time was an effort by the city to get a major hotel built next to our brand new arena and events center,” says Staley. “They were talking to the owner of CanAd Inns, a high end motel chain in southern Manitoba, and during negotiations the owner of the chain told the city they needed an additional attraction to pull people into the community to make the hotel financially feasible, so the idea of the water park came up.”

The city knew the park district was interested in building an indoor water park in Grand Forks as part of their recently completed long-range strategic plan, so the two entities began working together. One thing led to another and before you knew it, a bond issue was added to the ballot and put up for vote. The idea was to accomplish two objectives at once: community aquatics and event center success.

“When we went for the vote on the bond issue,” says Staley, “it was really controversial. The new aquatics center was going to be owned by the city, run by us here at the park district and the hotel would benefit because it would draw people. Well, the taxpayers didn’t understand it.” Kind of like the stadiums they keep for these high-end teams around the country.

As it turned out, the voters of Grand Forks would make pretty good poker players. Their refusal to fund the water park didn’t change a thing. Within thirty days of the vote, the owner of the hotel chain decided to build the water park himself and attach it to his hotel.

“They’ve already started construction,” says Staley, “so we’re going to have a 30,000square foot aquatics facility in our community shortly.”

Not a bad turn of events.

Replacing a Popular Pool with a Spray Park

While Staley and his team were working through the negotiations with the hotel, they were hit with another challenge – they had to move a popular neighborhood pool.

The simple re-location of Riverside Pool, which was suddenly thrust into the flood plain by changes the Army Corps of Engineers made to the nearby river that gave the pool its name, was anything but.

The plan was to add two splash parks in that area of town (more to go in other areas of town later) to serve the Riverside Park and the University Park neighborhoods. The University Park splash park was to be built first.

“The Riverside neighborhood became really angry at us for closing the Riverside Pool,” says Staley. “They were upset we were replacing a pool with a splash park which, to them, was inadequate.”

And, they were confused by the bond vote taking place for the event center facility – which wasn’t related to the spray park, but happening at the same time.

“But, that pool is going to get flooded two out of every three years,” says Staley, “so it was just totally impractical to keep it open.”

Like parks and recreation departments in other communities, Staley’s team involved their citizens, got as much testimony as possible, visited other cities with similar spray park installations, hired the appropriate consultants and moved through all the usual planning phases.

The park district went to great lengths to involve the University Park neighborhood in the design of the just completed spray park

“We went into West Elementary (4th grade class) and Winship Elementary (5th grade class) which are the two schools that are closest to the park,” says Bill Palmiscno, Superintendent of Recreation. “We took everybody into their computer room and had them use WaterPlay’s online system to build their own water parks. So, we had 32 individual water parks and then we went through them and calculated all the features that were most popular and those are the ones we worked into ours.”

At the end of the day, the eight most popular features made it into the 3,000 square foot spray park.

Engineering Decisions

Like all construction projects, the University Park project saw its share of engineering decisions and budgetary compromises. This project began by determining the size of the spray ground.

Wayne Dietrich, Principal Architect for EAPC Architects in Grand Forks says, “We looked at a number of spray ground sizes and water features. We looked at a 3,500 square foot spray ground down to a 1,500 square foot spray ground. We made the selection at the 3,000 square foot size.”

The final size of the park determines how many features you can have which determines how much water you need to pump which leads to utility bill questions which leads to decisions and educated guesses by the planning committee.

One of the big decisions was whether to re-circulate the water or dump it. At University Park, they decided it was more cost-effective and possibly healthier to just dump the water and continually pump fresh water.

“We did studies to make sure this was the best choice,” says Dietrich, “but without knowing the frequency of use, how many days it will be operating and how many children will be using it, it’s really an unknown factor.”

In the end, they decided to follow the lead of cities like Green Bay, Wisconsin, which has five or six spray parks sprinkled throughout the city and has decided dumping the water is the best option.

The option looked especially attractive since the park is unfenced and unmanned (the park has one roving attendant who is on site, but responsible for more than just the spray park).

“We had to deal with public health a bit about that,” says Dietrich, “because its not fenced in, if a dog comes and goes to the bathroom and contaminates it that could be a problem. We decided it would actually be more of a problem with re-circulating the water then just pumping fresh.” And, the design allows for a re-circulating system to be added later if necessary.

Apparently, the health department agreed because the new, unfenced, relatively unmanned park opened in August of 2005 to great popular demand.

Since its opening, the park district has broken ground on a second spray park in another city neighborhood as part of their Elks Pool refurbishing with three to four more planned to roll out in the coming years.

Building neighborhoods, it seems, is contagious.

How It Works?

According to Wayne Dietrich, Principal Architect for EAPC Architects in Grand Forks, “The nuts and bolts of these spray parks are pretty basic. You just have a water supply (usually coming from a nearby park building) and traveling out to a below grade vault that houses the water manifold and appropriate electronics. The electronics control which features run and for how long when a user hits the activator on the feature. Ultimately, how long and when the user hits the activator of the water feature creates a sequence of how each water feature is used by the water sent to it.”

University Park Details

Size: 3,000 square feet

Number of Features: 19 (eight above ground)

Manufacturer: WaterPlay

Water Supply: City Water. Not re-circulated.

Drains: Two

Over-spray Area: 10 feet

Price Tag: $221,000

Where Funds Came From: Mitigation/re-location funds provided by Army Corps of Engineers earmarked for the replacement of Riverside Pool which is now located in a flood plain.

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