A Lesson Worth Learning

By W. Dwayne Adams, Jr.
Photos Courtesy Of Chris Arend / Courtesy of USKH Inc.

“Kids,” now in their 60s, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, remember Fish Creek as a babbling brook running through Blueberry Bog at the city’s southern edge. It was a place where moose roamed, salmon swam up the creek to spawn, and bears ate berries, salmon, and an occasional roaming moose.

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Fast forward 30 years and the landscape had changed dramatically--the babbling brook was gone, replaced with a mostly culverted creek that, where exposed to the air, was in a straight-line ditch. Taking the place of salmon were shopping carts, plastic bags, and construction debris. Drainage structures had been sized for stream flows for the salmon-filled creek, but rapid urbanization of Anchorage’s expanding “Midtown” generated buildings, roads, and parking lots that increased runoff quantities. The result was poor water quality for Fish Creek and, more seriously, flooding of roadways, businesses, and homes.

Separate Issues, One Ultimate Goal
While Fish Creek was degrading, two separate but related efforts were taking shape. First, citizen park activists identified a need for parkland in the rapidly urbanizing Midtown area. Second, public-works officials and water-resource interests joined together to begin the process of restoring waterways to address water-quality concerns and flooding that was becoming more problematic.

These were separate issues, but solutions for the park lay in the resolution of both.

While the need and a general plan for the park were recognized in the West Anchorage Park and Trail Study, it was the concerted efforts by a pair of parks and recreation commissioners who worked hard to secure a site and garner funding through a number of key parties. Chief funding came from the Cuddys, a local banking family with roots far into the city’s past. At that point the “Gang of Four” worked to carry the project to the next level.

The Gang of Four included a pair of landscape architects, a community planner, and an architect. These people worked with elementary-school students and the public to generate a concept recognizing the panorama of the Chugach Mountain range and featuring “glacial” forms that set trails, an amphitheater, and a small playground in a landscape of sweeping landforms and boulders. The early schematics of the park became a reality as funding and donated labor by local business interests spurred the project forward.

Revamp The Plan
While the park became a reality, it initially received little use. An impetus for change arrived when a small group of speedskaters requested approval for an oval in the park. The group involved in the conception and design of the park expressed concern, but public input deemed the oval to be a key component for park use in the winter. A new master plan, overseen by landscape architects from Land Design North/USKH, grew from this effort using the “bones” of the old plan, but focused on encouraging greater public use.

It was at this point that the water quality and flooding concerns for Fish Creek became a key to success. Engineers sought a site in Midtown to provide 11 acre-feet of flood storage. One potential site was an existing 2.2-acre snow-storage area adjacent to the park, but the parcel was too small to accommodate the snow- and floodwater-storage requirements. The engineers requested use of a portion of the park to address the capacity issue. The park design team recognized this as an opportunity and focused on a water feature as a key element, adding additional public use as well as a wildlife habitat. With the addition of the 2.2 acres of snow-storage area, the design team was able to create a 19-acre park that would produce the community park the public, the Gang of Four, and the park founders had long envisioned.

Still, the design program seriously challenged available funding. Working closely with a design-review committee, the design team configured key elements to reduce material needs without compromising the work program. A major cost savings included use of excavation material from the pond to create landforms and raise elevations within the park, enhancing views of the nearby Chugach Mountains and screening adjacent big-box stores from key locations. This approach also created a “Great Lawn,” which serves as an informal play area that can accommodate large outdoor concerts.

Beyond the costs, the design and technical aspects of the work were daunting. Snow- and floodwater storage required 3.5 acres of the 19-acre park, which could compromise park use. This issue was addressed by providing a reasonable “main pond” of approximately 2.3 acres, creating floodwater-storage areas at the periphery of the park. This also accommodated snow storage and provided treatment of runoff via biofiltration and detention at a “forebay” before introduction to the main pond. Also, the peripheral areas accommodated flooding at high volumes while remaining as wetland areas at other times, creating additional habitat for wildlife.

The main pond design addressed a number of challenges. Of particular concern was how to make the pond work well for public use and wildlife habitat, yet still handle capacity requirements for floods. Careful grading solved this challenge, allowing public contact and wading, including disabled access, while not endangering users. Through careful engineering, critical elevations were set for all public-contact areas (steps and ramps) and a weir and bypass to deliver flood waters to peripheral park areas, addressing flood-capacity needs. Public access to the pond was concentrated and limited to avoid impacts to vegetation and wildlife, and pond edges were stabilized with emergent grass seed as an interim measure until native vegetation could be reestablished. There was a concern that Canada geese would habituate in large numbers in the primary public-use area, causing public-health concerns--an issue in other parks. To address this, a length of the pond edge was planted with coarse species of vegetation (Cinquefoil and Rose) to discourage the aggregation of geese near people.

Conceived simply as a remnant green space in Midtown Anchorage, the Cuddy Family Midtown Park has evolved to serve active recreation interests, restore a forgotten creek, improve habitat for fish and other wildlife, and accommodate flood waters that threaten public and private properties downstream of the park.

Getting It Right
On any summer day, dozens of people are kayaking, floating model sailboats, and wading in the pond. Nearby, bicyclists weave along the numerous trails. On winter days, skiers glide on the trails and kids sled down rolling hills. The Christmas tree is lit and families skate on the polished ice. During lunch breaks, local office workers take advantage of the speedskating oval, but on weekends and evenings, the oval belongs to the high-speed, Lycra-clad set. In recognition of the success of the park, the Alaska Chapter of the Associated General Contractors awarded the park the “Outstanding Project Under $3,000,000” for 2008.

The park is successful as a result of community involvement, the passion of a core group of dedicated citizens, the creative problem-solving of a professional design team of landscape architects and engineers, and the generous donation of a family dedicated to a healthy lifestyle.

Landscape architects and planners must be skilled in recognizing that challenges are opportunities. Seizing any one of the opportunities that were presented could have produced a decent project. It was a good park without a speedskating oval or a pond, but a better park with the addition of both. It was only after all the needs were recognized and possibilities pursued that the full breadth of the project could be realized, and the Cuddy Family Midtown Park is now truly a park for families.

W. Dwayne Adams, Jr., FASLA, has nearly 40 years of experience as a landscape architect and planner, and is head of the Landscape Architecture Department at USKH Inc. in Anchorage, Alaska. Contact him at dadams@uskh.com.