Taking The LEED

When you think of an oasis, the Arizona desert may be the last image that comes to mind. But parts of the Sonoran Valley were once a lush, riparian backdrop when the Salt and Gila Rivers flowed through the area. Soon, you’ll find an environment reminiscent of yesteryear, when the City of Chandler opens Veterans Oasis Park in early 2008. Surrounded by housing developments and retail outlets in the city’s southeastern section, the 113-acre site will serve as a refuge for people to soak in the Zen of natural surroundings.

A Desert Oasis

“VeteransOasisPark will be an environment that embraces nature and environmental education,” says City of Chandler Naturalist Sandra Muñoz-Weingarten. “The EnvironmentalEducationCenter will be the gateway to the site.”

The 11,000-square-foot Center will be ground zero for topics related to nature, the environment and conservation. It features multiple classrooms, an exhibit hall and a nature store, where environmentally friendly items will be sold. Center staff will offer programs and tours for school and scout groups and others interested in learning about the environment.

“We’ll host a variety of drop-in programs for all ages, pre-school to seniors,” says Muñoz-Weingarten. “Gardening, geology, bird watching, desert survival skills, water conservation, astronomy and even solar-oven cooking will be included; the possibilities are endless.” Visitors will learn about the environment as well in the Center’s self-guided Nature Discovery Room, where they can explore--hands-on--animal skins and skulls, geology specimens and plants parts, such as cactus ribs and saguaro ”boots.” There will be aquariums with live animals, including desert critters ranging from tarantulas to lizards. The room will also contain bulletin boards and brochure racks with information and suggestions on how to live more ”green,” in addition to opportunities to attend classes on the topic. “We hope to gather and offer resources and information that will allow the center to be a clearinghouse for the public on all things related to the environment,” says Muñoz-Weingarten, “and we hope that people can share their ideas and suggestions with us.”

A Sensory Sanctuary

There will also be plenty of opportunities in the park to learn about nature firsthand. In addition to picnic areas, park planners designed VeteransOasisPark with 4 ½ miles of trails for those who like to hike or stroll. The park’s landscaping and riparian habitat zones will be ideal for those interested in studying nature and viewing wildlife. Wildlife viewing blinds, picnic areas and ramadas will provide areas in which visitors can spend time enjoying passive recreation while soaking in the natural sounds--and tranquility—of the site.

Interpretive signage -- to be added later in the project -- will allow visitors the opportunity to learn about the on-site flora and fauna as the visitors meander through the park. One area -- designated a hummingbird and butterfly habitat--conjures up images of these creatures abundantly clustered in trees, shrubs and flowers, aviary-style. “Actually, we’re not going to go out and buy hummingbirds and butterflies and bring them to the park,” says Muñoz-Weingarten. “Instead, we will create an environment that will naturally attract such wildlife to this area.”

A five-acre urban lake will be the centerpiece of the park and operate under the guidelines of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish. It will be stocked regularly, and fishing clinics will be offered to anglers of all ages through the state’s Urban Fishing program. An adjacent amphitheatre will also provide opportunities for educational events and activities.

Desert Wetlands

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this project is its commitment to the environment and its conservation. Seventy-eight acres of the site are designed for groundwater recharge, created through a formation of shallow basins that will infiltrate high-quality reclaimed water to the city’s subsurface aquifer for storage and recovery.

“This system will not only serve as an important component of the city’s comprehensive reclaimed water management plan and provide a backup water supply for Chandler, but it will also provide critical habitat for birds and wildlife,” says Muñoz-Weingarten. Staff at the center will be watching closely and creating lists of birds, mammals and other creatures spotted at the site, and it is excited to see the list increase in scope as the site’s habitat begins to mature.

Design and Construction

Parts of the park’s EnvironmentalEducationCenter were built using Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, making it more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. The majority of the building is comprised of Insulated Concrete Forms, or ICFs, which have the appearance of a cement block, but are actually made of a mixture of cement and Styrofoam. The ICFs use 85 percent recycled materials, making them an ideal fit for such a center. Muñoz-Weingarten opted to have the construction crews leave one wall on the inside of a storage room exposed so visitors can see the ICF that are hidden behind drywall in other parts of the building.

With the Park’s opening just around the corner, the City of Chandler is excited about the possibilities of this new facility.

“It’s definitely a unique project for us,” says Muñoz-Weingarten. “The buzz has already begun. I’ve received a number of calls from nearby residents about the park. Realtors are even calling, looking to find out more about what we’re doing so they can incorporate the park as a selling point. In addition, I’ve spoken to scout leaders and service club members who are anxious to schedule some volunteer projects with us, so we will be launching a volunteer program shortly after our grand opening.”

Although the building and site are still under construction, the end is in sight, and staff hopes to be able to move into the building by the end of the year. With that timeline in mind, a soft opening will take place in early 2008 and a grand opening will happen sometime in the spring. Meanwhile, staff is moving ahead by writing programs, creating policies, ordering supplies and trying to contain their anticipation for the opening. “Everyone is so excited,” says Muñoz-Weingarten. “After months of planning and organizing, we can’t wait to get started.”

For more information on the project, and to track updates on the park’s opening, log onto www.chandleraz.gov/veterans-oasis.

The City of Chandler, Ariz., is currently looking for qualified instructors for the EnvironmentalEducationCenter to teach classes on a wide array of subjects relating to nature. If you are interested, please call (480) 782-2886 or send an e-mail to sandra.munoz-weingarten@chandleraz.gov.

Erica Ramos-Guevara works for the City of Chandler, Ariz., in its Community Services-Recreation Division. She can be reached via e-mail at erica.ramos-guevara@chandleraz.gov.