Embracing Challenges As Opportunities

Photos Courtesy Of the City of Henderson

When the city of Henderson, Nev., hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony in March to mark the grand opening of its 56 th park, residents were thrilled. They had been anxiously awaiting completion of Whitney Mesa Recreation Area and the many amenities it would bring to their neighborhood. What they didn’t know, however, was that the park also has the distinction of being one of Henderson’s most historic and one of the most challenging to build.

During the early planning stages, it was noted that the established neighborhood and developing new communities in the Whitney Mesa area did not have a half-mile access to a neighborhood park (although residents did have access to a recreation center and aquatic complex). In keeping with the city’s objective of having a park or trail within a half-mile of most Henderson homes, it seemed balance could be achieved with the addition of the Whitney Mesa Recreation Area.

Long before a shovel turned dirt, the city invited residents and stakeholder groups to participate in public meetings in order to engage in the planning process. They were asked which amenities they wanted most, how they planned to use the park, and what “flavor” the park should have. Residents expressed an interest in having traditional park amenities, tennis courts, trails, an archery range, and a BMX area.

Sprucing Up The Site

But cultural and environmental assessments conducted in the area documented an extreme degradation of the desert throughout the future 100-acre park site. As a result, it was determined that project objectives must include a mix of improvements and restoration. For example, natural springs located throughout the site required creative planning and construction solutions. Ultimately, the water was directed to safe channels, leaving unspoiled the natural look and feel of the desert springs. In areas where cliffs and the danger of falling rocks were identified, trails and amenities were placed to minimize access to these areas.

The mesa had also been used for many years by children and teens as a makeshift “cut-through” from the neighborhood to Whitney Ranch Recreation Center/Aquatic Complex, four nearby schools, and a softball area. In public meetings, neighbors expressed concerns that legitimate trails might pose a potential for increased vandalism and graffiti. But there have been fewer reported incidents since the trails were installed, reinforcing the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design philosophy, which suggests that by casual surveillance, good users will help minimize improper use of the area. Trail alignment along the top of the mesa provides convenient access for users, but also allows buildable land for future development.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges planners had to address was visual and physical pollution, including the need for an extensive cleanup of an area where motorcycles and ATVs had caused

The tennis complex at the Whitney Mesa Recreation Area features standard courts as well as 10 and Under courts to encourage children to give the game a try.

significant damage to the natural desert environment. Also, Whitney Mesa had been used for years as an illegal dumping ground for appliances and vehicles. In fact, 14 abandoned vehicles were removed as the project moved forward. Work also included restoration of the desert and the strategic placement of barriers to help prevent future damage to desert flora and fauna.

Tailoring Amenities

Staff members knew the importance of designing park elements while being mindful of the mesa’s sensitivity. So instead of fighting the mesa’s slopes, the park’s soft surface trails follow the natural grades. An archery range is positioned against the mesa so it can be used as a backstop. Pedestrian trail connections between the park’s playground amenities and the tennis complex required special planning to ensure proper draining and safe access throughout the area.

The much-requested tennis complex was designed in coordination with the United States Tennis Association, which provided guidance on court sizes and layouts. Although the standard court size is 78 feet long by 36 feet wide, the city also incorporated four “10 and Under” courts, which are 36 feet long by 18 feet wide. The latter courts were designed to engage children in that age range by using special equipment, shorter court dimensions, and modified scoring. The tennis complex also has backboards for individual play and practice, a concession area, and a power source on each court for ball machines or musical players. Ample shaded viewing areas for players and spectators are also appreciated at the city’s largest bank of public tennis courts.

Building in the desert usually involves concerns about the harsh, dry soil. And although the soil type at Whitney Mesa wouldn’t be preferred for construction projects, it proved to be ideal for constructing the BMX area’s tracks and jumps. The amenity—the  first of its kind for the city—also features an automated start gate, pump track, wall ride, announcer’s stand, picnic area, and oversized vehicle parking.

A Hint Of History

The site’s history also played a critical role in its development. In researching Whitney Mesa, city staff learned that in 1829-1830, trader Antonio Armijo apparently stopped to rest in the area as he, his 60-member caravan, and 100 mules made their way across the Mojave Desert from New Mexico to Southern California to trade Mexican wool for horses and mules. It is believed that Armijo and his party used three campsites near Whitney Mesa. His journey was the first successful round trip on the Old Spanish Trail, and served to open trade between Mexico and California.

In documenting his journey, Armijo wrote in his journal about the many Native Americans he met along the way, noting they seemed to be docile and curious. While there is no evidence of sensitive cultural artifacts in the Whitney Mesa area, city staff still felt it was important to pay tribute to the area’s rich history. In honor of Armijo, a day camp was built bearing his name that features an outdoor amphitheater, archery range, picnic area, and tent pads. The camp can be reserved by scouts and other user groups throughout the year. It is tucked away behind the aquatic complex, which provides several programming opportunities for the city’s parks and recreation department.

In a nod to the Native Americans Armijo may have met in his travels, decorative wickiups, based on domed dwellings used by some nomadic cultures, were fabricated and installed at the camp. These strategically placed play structures have already proven to be a favorite among park users. The playground, too, features a similar theme with its pioneer and Paiute-themed look and amenities, including a play stagecoach and horse.

Preservation For The Future

Funding for the $14.1-million project was received through a grant from the Bureau of Land Management as authorized by the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA). Henderson has received more than $238 million in SNPLMA funding over the last decade for parks, trails, and open-space projects to benefit the community and keep pace with growth.

By embracing challenges as opportunities, the city of Henderson has delivered one of its most innovative parks to its residents. Blending the natural environment with its rich history gives Whitney Mesa Recreation Area a touch of the past with a focus on preservation for the future.

Kim Becker is the Marketing & Communications Supervisor for the city of Henderson. Reach her at Kim.Becker@cityofhenderson.com .

Bryan BuchkoComment