By Jessica Royer Ocken
Berens Park in Elmhurst, Ill., has been a fixture for sports practices for more than 30 years. But since it was created, houses have encircled it on all sides, so other amenities—gymnastics programs, playgrounds, community meeting spaces—were placed elsewhere, leaving Berens Park as a well-loved facility but one not quite living up to its full potential.
"It was a highly used park," says Jim Rogers, director of park and recreation services for the Elmhurst Park District. A 38 percent increase in athletic field usage meant baseball, soccer or football players constantly were trampling the grass, sometimes simultaneously. And with Elmhurst's population at 42,000 and counting, the city and park district (two separate units of government) knew they needed to reorganize to get the most out of the park's space. When they learned they'd been awarded an IllinoisFIRST grant for community improvement, about a third of the funds needed for the $9.9-million project, they decided to get started. Wisely, they began by gathering input from the community. Through public meetings and surveys, they learned what Elmhurst wanted, so when Williams Architects in Carol Stream, Ill., came on board, they had clear goals.
"[The park] had potential, but it was very fragmented and utilitarian in terms of layout and programs," explains Tom Poulos, who managed and designed the project for Williams. "Neighbors didn't feel it was a neighborhood park with structured programming."
Because of the setting, parking was a challenge, and residential streets could become clogged with park visitors' vehicles. The park's two entrances were difficult to find, and neighborhood streets ran through the park's property, creating a safety hazard for those chasing wayward balls.
In a marathon charrette (architect-speak for a session to develop a concept plan), Williams Architects came up with a workable idea that was soon approved by the community, as was the development plan that followed. Because safety is paramount for any community facility, the designers tackled this first.
"We looked at the two points of access as they existed and seized them as an opportunity rather than a detriment to the project," Poulos explains. Neighbors and owners wanted to eliminate flow-through traffic, so this "spawned the idea of creating a hub of activity in the center of the park," he says.
Accessible from two directions and flanked by expanded parking lots with spaces for 600 cars, "The Hub" forms the center of the revitalized Berens Park.
"All the major structures and programs are based there," Poulos says. The main pavilion building "offers vitality" and serves as a focal point.
Yet it isn't gaudy. Throughout the process, designers and builders kept Berens Park's neighbors in mind, such as with the cupola atop the pavilion.
"It's in the center, so it's far away from the homes," Poulos notes.
Festive banners decorate light fixtures around The Hub and the parking lots, but "no sight-lines were interrupted," he adds. Architects also blended park buildings into the neighborhood atmosphere by selecting materials of the area and of the residences.
"We mimicked a master craftsman style," Poulos says.
Fortunately, Berens Park's neighbors were accustomed to sports practices and games, so additional offerings weren't too disturbing. Now a variety of active and passive activities make their home at the park. The 3,500-square-foot pavilion in the center of The Hub offers concessions and restrooms, as well as multipurpose meeting rooms rentable for parties or more official gatherings.
Anything else you can think of is offered at the northern end of the park in the Joanne B. Wagner Community Center, including preschool classes and dance, music and gymnastics programs, not to mention registration offices for summer camps and sports leagues, which have increased their enrollment by nearly a third since the upgrade. This 25,000-square-foot building and its 7.5 acres of land, which just happened to adjoin the park, were put up for sale by a local community college at the perfect time to expand Berens Park as it was being redeveloped.
To complete the package, Berens Park's original 55 acres were leveled and regraded to create 10 new, single-purpose playing fields (with irrigation and lights) surrounded by elevation changes that add interest, as well as providing adequate drainage to the surrounding wetlands. Cooperation with Elmhurst Public Schools enabled the park to double its tennis court offerings from six to a dozen, Rogers notes. The schools paid for half the courts in exchange for the right to hold their practices and meets there. But when the school has nothing scheduled, they're open for public play.
Since sports no longer have to double up on turf space, the grass gets more time to rest, and scheduling conflicts are a thing of the past. In addition, the new park offers plenty of other grass-sparing distractions. Four batting cages and an 18-hole miniature golf course tempt those honing their skills or looking for fun. In the summer a splash play area—sheltered by 14-foot umbrellas and featuring a water curtain and "Big Squirt" filling stations to keep aquatic toys ready to go—provides a safe place for younger kids to play. The playground features a realistic climbing rock, and a system of ramps makes everything accessible. An amphitheater with ample lawn seating draws performances and youth activities, and a nearly one-mile walking path gives those on foot a workout and a tour of the grounds. Although the official park season is April through October, there's a hill on-site that's great for sledding, and folks say they've seen a cross-country skier or two.
"It's thought of as a jewel in this section of town," Poulos says. And Park District Executive Director Rich Grodzky agrees.
"It's a one-stop shop now," he says. "You can bring your family there for the day."
Teenager in soccer practice and squirmy youngster who needs something to do? No problem.
"It's designed to handle all the activities at one time, and you can park there all day," he adds. "You can get a dog or a slice of pizza if you're hungry."