Feature Article - September 2012
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Trash To Treasure

Transforming Brownfields Into Playing Fields and Parks

By Kelli Anderson

Early Community Input

Such hard data, such as thorough soil testing, doing topography and taking inventory of what existing facilities can be utilized, should also include getting good information from the community. And the earlier, the better.

"Planning started early on, even before they took ownership of the site, planning out what facilities could be utilized," said Steve Konters, principal with the Hitchcock Design Group in Naperville, Ill., about the Three Oaks Recreation Area in Crystal Lake, Ill. "Having as much information as you can and involving the public to a high degree is essential. By incorporating their input early, you set yourself up for better public support when it's time to move the project forward."

And once information has been gathered, don't be shy about communicating the benefits (it helps to present several), as well as the limitations some brownfield sites may bring to the table. Communities need to know what impediments exist and about the specific problems a project will face if they are going to be able to effectively manage a redeveloped site.

"Include the public in the design of the park with a lot of input," said Roger Leblanc, engineer with Stantec, on the Sydney steel mill park project. "And if there are things you can't do, explain why; don't just tell them what you want to do. You should want to build it not just because you have a certain budget, but because you really want them to use it. You want to find out what's missing in the area and what people would use."

Challenges—the Mother of Invention

Such brownfield challenges, however, like capping off contaminated soils beneath new layers of topsoil, mean that traditional construction methods sometimes give way to more creative solutions to keep contaminants contained and the costs down. "Everything you dig has to be sealed and taken to controlled landfills," Kastelic said about the labor-intensive process. "So as architects, if we're smart, the best thing is not to have to cart off soil. Leave as much undisturbed a possible to minimize costs. That ultimately led to our solutions."

With the additional challenge of keeping the original 1973 center open to the public while new construction (that eventually replaced it) took place, keeping contaminated soils contained was doubly important. The solution was to build three to four feet above grade, pouring up to the foundations, and implementing several hundred helical piers screwed down to the bedrock with two-foot caissons capped with concrete.

This kind of kid-gloved approach to contaminated soils has been true of the Sydney project as well. "Everything in the new park and buildings has to be sensitive to what's underneath the cap," Sorge said about a remediation process that has taken 15 years, from conception to planning to implementation. "From foundations to light poles, placement of everything has to be careful so that you don't compromise the cap material below."

Other issues frequently encountered by brownfields include settling of debris beneath landfills and the emission of methane gas. In some cases, landfills have areas that have not been compromised and can be built on with no difficulty; other times construction must devise ways to stabilize settling layers and find ways to capture, transport and safely release methane gas.

In the case of the Northside Aztlan Community Center, both settling landfill material and methane gas presented significant challenges in updating the original building. "When we came to the project as a design-build, most of the cleanup, testing and environmental assessment had been completed through part of an EPA superfund, a federal cleanup effort for the site," Kastelic said, "but the soil was still giving off methane."

To capture the gas and redirect it, the center was built on a void with a perforated piping system to collect the gas beneath the building and vent it out through the roof where it is dispersed into the atmosphere.