Reflections Of A River

The new 41st Street Plaza in Tulsa, Okla., is a water-loving kid’s dream come true, and Tulsans are water-lovers by nature, given the city’s hot summer climate and its location on the Arkansas River. The park’s innovative fountains and pools are the key to its family-friendly design, and provide a central theme for its other purpose--a main city park and a “front porch” for the whole town, as civic leaders call it.

“The 41st Street Plaza has definitely become a popular place for families,” says Matt Meyer, Executive Director of Tulsa's River Parks Authority. “People of all ages and demographics are enjoying this new gathering area. The state-of-the-art playground and water features are a great attraction, and we're extremely grateful to those who made this privately-funded public improvement possible.”

The $2.8-million plaza, which opened on May 1, 2009, represents a two-year public-private effort to upgrade key areas within the park's 18 miles of riverfront. A consortium of local businesses and foundations funded the costs of design and construction, with QuikTrip Corporation--a Tulsa-based convenience store chain--footing the largest share.

The park also celebrates QuikTrip’s first store, which opened nearby 50 years ago. “The selection of this spot was very intentional,” says QuikTrip President Chet Cadieux to the local Tulsa World newspaper.

“We wanted to build a project right here on the river.”

A Ripple Effect

The project’s emphasis on water play reflects its setting, and gives kids and their parents a way to cool down, and enjoy the riverfront setting. Designed by SWA Group, a landscape architecture and planning firm in Sausalito, Calif., in collaboration with Tulsa-based LandPlan Consulting, the park replaces a well-used playground and pavilion with almost three acres of flexible, new play equipment, areas for events and gathering, two small structures for restrooms and an open-air shelter, and grassy berms with a picnic area complementing the six unique water fountain elements.

“The project site ties into River Park’s new upgraded trails, and there are great views,” says SWA’s John Wong, principal designer for the project. “But this isn’t the kind of river that kids can play in. So we developed a series of fountains that bring the river to the kids.”

The six fountains--ranging from highly interactive to primarily aesthetic--include:

· Plaza Fountain. The main water feature has 14 aerated jets on a variable speed pump, enabling the water to dance up and down. Computer-controlled LED lights cycle on and off, and change color through the entire color spectrum for added visual interest in the evening hours.

· Stepped Fountain. Water is introduced through a stainless-steel grate before cascading down three steps and draining into a second stainless-steel grate. Six computer-controlled nozzles sequence on and off in pairs to add excitement.

· Lazy River. This feature uses four floor-mounted jets to create a current that circulates around large, round stones. The fountain is designed to allow children to float small boats in the moving water, and to experiment in changing the water flow by dipping their hands in the current.

· Bubbler Fountain. Seven nozzles emit bubbling mounds of water that spill across the crowned surface of the fountain, and ripple down the vertical sides where it is captured by stainless-steel trench drains and returned to the reservoir for treatment.

· Arching Streams Fountain. Cascades and arches of water are provided by 40 nozzles, controlled in banks of five sequences in various patterns. The computer programming allows the jets to not only cycle on and off, but also create a wave effect by quickly opening and closing the electric valve.

· Interactive Splash Pad. Here, 19 computer-controlled “choreoswitches” cycle on and off, producing a show that is exciting to watch and a blast for the kids to play in. Each nozzle is independently controlled and capable of producing multiple effects, which allows the fountain to be programmed so that children are constantly wondering what will happen next, and where the water will come from.

According to the master plan, the new plaza is anticipated to be the first of two phases of park improvements designed for the overall 41st Street site. A second phase will add more natural elements, including a meandering stream created from an existing drainage-way with rocky islands reflecting the character of the Arkansas River.

A Tribute To Waterways

“Cities born along rivers have taken a more proactive approach to reconnecting with their waterways,” says Wong. Waterfront settlements like Tulsa, now a burgeoning city of 1 million people, were once integrally connected to their rivers as the main mode of transportation and the lifeblood of the town’s commerce. And while today’s modern metropolises don’t rely as much on their rivers, people have a natural longing and interest that makes parks, waterfront developments and other interaction points an important attribute of city life.

For kids, there’s no better way to connect than to a fountain.

Other river cities have developed kid-friendly water features to enhance their parks, including San Antonio’s Main Plaza, its central gathering place. Even this city, famous for a meandering riverwalk, found that an interactive water fountain in its central park gives kids and families an easier, safer water connection.

Fountains add a distinguishing element for neighborhood parks and community-wide plans, including other recent projects by SWA Group in Mountain House near Sacramento, Calif., Aliana in Houston, and Woodbury in Orange County. Water features have also helped humanize the concrete-and-steel nature of dense urban settings, such as Firewheel in Garland, Texas, Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. and PPG Plaza, Pittsburgh, Penn.

While some of these communities developed miles from major bodies of water, Tulsa has never really lost its connection to the river, witnessed by its extensive park system.

Features With A Focus

41st Street Plaza is also providing an important new feature as a central gathering place for the city, and was designed in conjunction with Tulsa River Parks’ $12.4 million dual-trail projects, which were under construction simultaneously with the plaza.

The design of the signature waterfront park was a collaboration that began with the conceptual work of lead designers SWA Group and design-consultant Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver, Canada. Renderings were then developed into construction documents, and taken through construction administration by LandPlan Consultants, Inc. of Tulsa. The fountains--designed by LandPlan’s Michael Crumb and Keith Franklin--provided unusual challenges and innovative solutions.

One of the challenges in implementing the fountain design was the desire of the public-private committee behind the project to make the design exciting, but also have a degree of sustainability by recirculating the water.

The resulting complex pump system, and more than 6,000 linear feet of plumbing, were brought to life by fountain designer/engineers Kerry Friedman and Paul Kaus of HydroDramatics, and implemented by Crossland Heavy Contractors, Inc.

Assuring proper drainage and accommodating the sheer size of some of the fittings made it a challenge to get all the nozzles into relatively small areas. An existing 12-foot by 12-foot arched concrete drainage culvert underneath the site required some utility re-routing, leaving only 2 inches for the plaza fountain drain lines to maintain a downward slope to the reservoir.

In addition, the project’s location within a public park triggered requirements of the Oklahoma State Health Department, whose definitions did not allow any water depth for splashpads. Four of the fountains produced a sufficient volume of water to create a small amount of pooling and depth, causing the agency to initially categorize the fountains as wading pools, which have additional requirements, such as barrier fences and lifeguards. Through minor design accommodation and thorough communication, OSHD officials worked with LandPlan to create innovative play-fountains that are now a key attribute of the park.

In fact, the playground and water features are already heavily used, not just by the young children they were conceived for, but older kids and adults as well.

“People are just drawn to the moving water,” says Franklin. “Each day since the opening we have seen more and more users at the park, and we anticipate it will only become more popular as the temperatures rise and kids get out of school.”

Tulsa’s 41st Street Plaza, it seems, has barely opened and is already a favorite.

Elizabeth Shreeve is a Principal in SWA Group’s Sausalito, Calif., office, and served as project planner for the 41st Street Plaza project. Founded in 1957, SWA Group ( maintains other offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Dallas, Houston and Shanghai.