On The Right Track

Photos Courtesy of Environmental Planning & Design, LLC

Oakmont, located 14 miles northeast of the city of Pittsburgh, Penn., is a community of 6,000 residents over 1.5 square miles. Founded in 1889 as a railroad town and the namesake to the world-famous Oakmont Country Club, the community is distinguished by an eclectic collection of shops, boutiques, and eateries in its business district, and residential neighborhoods primarily consisting of single-family homes.

Oakmont’s historic Riverside Park is nestled along the Allegheny River, neighboring the Hulton Bridge and immediately adjacent to the local middle- and high-school buildings. Much of Riverside Park is enveloped in a canopy of mature oak and maple trees. It was built in the 1930s when a former railroad neighborhood was razed to make way for the 13-acre site. The riverfront setting is defined by significant elevation changes. Two pavilions, a field house, benches, and picnic tables are elevated a short distance from the steep river bank on the lower plateau closer to the river. On the same level, a track encircles two basketball courts, four tennis courts, and a playground. On the higher plateau, farther from the river, the park's football, baseball, softball, and tee-ball fields are home to a busy schedule of sporting events, including the Riverview School District’s football games.

Sharing The Wealth And The Responsibility

Riverside Park serves as the community’s key recreation space, and is a vital part of Oakmont Borough’s overall atmosphere. The property is owned by the borough, and Riverview School District leases a portion of the facilities. Maintenance is completed predominately by the borough with the school district serving in a supporting role.

Resolving how Riverside Park can adapt to the borough and the school district’s contemporary recreation needs served as the impetus for the creation of a park master plan in 2010. Grounded in a resident survey and a series of public meetings, residents discussed different design options for the park. The overall master plan outlined improvements and facility upgrades that will preserve the park’s character and allow it to continue to contribute to the borough’s physical safety, aesthetics, health, and overall sense of civic pride.

Fitting A Refrigerator Into A Breadbox

For the past 80 years, Riverview Park, in a setting punctuated by decades-old trees, has accommodated a simultaneous congregation of many park users--scholastic athletes, gym classes, amateur softball teams, and seniors walking and picnicking at one of the riverbank pavilions. Multiple events and games are often scheduled on the same day and at the same time.

How can programming be expanded within a park space that can’t expand? Working closely with the school district to understand the sequencing related to school-sponsored tennis matches, it was determined that the matches would not be substantially impacted if the number of courts was reduced from five to four. This additional space allowed for expansion of the playground area and the installation of a new splash pad. In addition, a few small changes enhanced the functionality of the park for track events. For example, the sprint lanes were reconfigured to add a short area of track so the 100-yard sprint could be completed in a full straightaway.

On The Right Track

When the old cinder track was originally constructed, there were no guidelines related to universal accessibility and access for people with disabilities. There was no space to add a traditional accessible pathway. The landscape-architecture team solved that problem by creating a pathway leading from a parking space on the school-district lot, through the park, to the improved track.

The cinder track was used extensively for school-sponsored sporting events and as a popular walking path for residents. However, members of the community wanted to make the track available for year-round use instead of only during the warmer, drier months. The track upgrades included repairing the existing old track for use as a base for the new track, installing a layer of stone and a layer of asphalt, and finally topping it with a rubber surface. The cinder track made an excellent compacted base that also reduced the amount of work required for the new track. Bioswales were installed between the track and the courts so all drainage from the track is handled along the sides. The old track had drains in the main area, creating a change in material that posed a potential safety hazard for runners.

A feature of the old park that was retained in the upgraded version is the location of spectator seating on a hill along the track. This decision did create a problem for universal accessibility, however. A switchback trail was added to link the upper and lower areas of the park, connecting directly with the ADA-accessible track on the lower portion of the park, and providing access to walking trails and other amenities.

Meeting federal ADA requirements and those of the funding agency, Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, proved challenging, but combining the ADA pathway and the track allowed the park to retain the highest degree of functionality while meeting all requirements. Small urban parks often require the types of solutions that optimize the use of existing spaces and ensure that every square foot is being used to its highest potential.

Besides the track, the tennis and basketball courts were in need of rejuvenation as well. Using the existing courts as a base for the new surfaces helped reduce the project budget. The courts were mounded near the nets, and drainage was improved to prevent the regular ponding of water. All stormwater was directed to bioswales between the tracks and courts. Underground pipes were not needed, further reducing project costs.

Safety Is The Key

Athletic contests have rules, corporations have policies, and military branches have codes of conduct. In the case of Riverside Park, the main rule involves safety. The old layout presented significant safety risks because of the number of activities happening at one time in close proximity. An errant baseball could easily hit track and field participants; long jumpers had to walk through the baseball field to access competition space; students threw javelins towards baseball outfielders. Mature trees prevented wholesale changes from being made, but small adjustments in the organization of athletic space decreased the possibility of dangerous accidents.

Riverside Park is home to mature trees—mostly oaks—that add to the ambience and character of the park. Unfortunately, safety concerns dictated that some of the trees had to be removed because the roots were causing damage to the track and courts and creating a hazard. Public meetings related to the removal of the trees were heated, and when the trees were eventually flagged for removal, there was an additional outcry. About 25-30% of the park’s tree canopy was eventually removed to support the track and court improvements.

An unintended, positive consequence of the tree removal is that the condition, health, and appearance of the grass in the park has significantly improved, enhancing the overall park experience and atmosphere.

Like many urban recreation areas, Riverside Park needs to be everything to everyone: a space for organized sports, leisure activities, picnicking, and riverfront access. During the planning process, residents worked through a series of park-design options that allowed for the setting of priorities and determining trade-offs between functionality, cost, and space allocations. The decision to remove trees was difficult but ultimately contributed to enhanced safety, functionality, and new amenities for Oakmont’s residents.

Andrew Schwartz , RLA, AICP, LEED AP, is a landscape architect and planner, and is the Managing Principal at Environmental Planning & Design, LLC in Pittsburgh, Penn. Reach him at epd@epd-pgh.com

Bryan BuchkoComment