Give Them What They Want

Otter Cove Aquatic Park in St. Charles, Ill.

By Kelli Anderson


iming isn't everything—but it helps. When the St. Charles Park District in St. Charles, Ill., passed a referendum in 2008 to build a new aquatic park, it couldn't have foreseen the economic downturn looming on the world's collective horizon.

Now, almost two years later, the project, while still moving forward with a projected opening date sometime next year, has benefited first and foremost from exhaustive planning built on strong community input to ensure a quality outcome. The economic downturn, meanwhile, has had an impact but not necessarily for the worse. In some ways it has made this well-planned project proof-positive that leaner doesn't have to be meaner—just smarter.

The $10.2 million dollar project, when completed, will house a 7,000-square-foot bathhouse, several pools including a zero-depth activity pool, shallow toddler pool, eight lap lanes, a tube and body slide for the teen community and a much-anticipated lazy river.

While the roughly 22-acre site is sure to please its residential community of more than 32,000, it is really just the latest project in the master plan of this nationally award-winning park district to demonstrate that careful attention to community input counts for more than bells and whistles.

"What is very successful about this is the planning," observed Tom LaLonde, architect for the project and principal of 16 years with Williams Architects of Carol Stream, Ill. "It takes careful planning to achieve something for everyone involving teens through tots with large slides, a lazy river and a family compound with a state-of-the-art changing facility with family rooms."

A further example of a design-done-right, the space will not only include something for everyone but pay special attention to layout, traffic patterns and proximity of one area to another to ensure that younger users will be kept far from deeper water.

With a mandate to please everyone from parents and teens to toddlers and taxpayers, features and amenities had to be selected with care. "Parents like the shallow water and fenced-in toddler pool design," said Holly Cabel, superintendent of recreation for the St. Charles Park District. "We wanted to give an area of the pool for toddlers that's gated so children can't run off without their parents to catch them. It's also close to a zero-depth pool for families with multiple aged children."

The aquatic park is not the first to feature water for family recreation in this suburban community, however. Starting with a master plan in 2003, the community surveys and focus groups made it clear that an aquatic space was high on a list of wants. Rather than begin with the full-blown aquatic park, however, the city began with the Campton Hills Splash Park built in 2005.

"The Otter Cove project will be connected to the existing spray park," LaLonde said. "It was a success—this whole project was always in the plans. It is a little like the tail before the dog but it worked well. The park district has done an excellent job of planning future needs of the community."

After scores of community surveys and many ad-hoc groups created and consulted over the years, the park district's resulting design is decidedly more programming-based. "We realized we were looking at youth and multiple-child needs and began asking questions like, 'Can you see all your family members? Is it safe for toddlers? Are we keeping deeper water where only older users walk?'" Cabel said of the design planning process. "We went through many surveys. Anytime you go without them, it's going to be harder. You have to make sure you have all the information."

Good sleuthing and information gathering also resulted in what Cabel admits was a main area of concern—cost estimation. In an economic climate that would tolerate no waste or unwanted frills, making sure that needs and wants were clearly identified as well as the costs to achieve them was paramount.

When the design team recognized, for example, that a portion of the original design was going to put them over budget, cost-cutting changes didn't sacrifice community-dictated amenities. "There was a separate pool originally intended for the slides but it was a little more economical to meet the budget to combine the slides with the activity pool," LaLonde said of the amended plan. "It works."

But a bear market wasn't all bad news. With the economic downturn, bids for the project were also very competitive. The park district was able to get a great value for their money and be picky in the process. "We re-bid this," Cabel said. "The first bid was denied because it came out over budget, then it re-bid and came under."

The Otter Cove Aquatic Park hasn't hurt PR, either, in a community that sees this project as one that is putting people to work. And in these challenging times, that otter make anyone happy.


St. Charles Park District:

Williams Architects:

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