More Sites for SITES

September 1, 2012, Department, by Beth Beard

 Sustainable parks are popping up in New York, Texas, and elsewhere as part of the SITES initiative.Thirty-five park and open space projects are now participating in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot program, all in various stages of completion. SITES is a sustainability rating system for landscapes, which is often compared to the LEED rating system for green buildings, and is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

Hunts Point Landing: A Park Lands in the Bronx   

The most recentto be completed is Hunts Point Landing in the Bronx, New York, which opened on August 23. Hunts Point is in a heavily industrialized area of the South Bronx, known more for its food distribution warehouse, power plant, and sewage treatment plant than for its open space or waterfront access. The site for the new park is a former street that ended at the East River.   

“We’ve noticed over the years when we were doing the master plan that a lot of people would come here for lunch,” says Signe Nielsen of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. “They would just literally drive and park at the end of street and just sit in their car and look at the view.”

Hunts Point Landing is part of the larger, long-term South Bronx Greenway project, which will bring a network of connected waterfront parks to the Bronx. It joins two other new parks recently constructed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. However, Hunts Point Landing was built by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.   

“Once completed, Hunts Point Landing will include a new fishing pier, ecological restoration through tidal pools, a kayak launch, and passive recreational areas,” says Kyle Sklerov, senior associate in public affairs for the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “These amenities, along with the rest of the city’s South Bronx Greenway initiatives, will vastly improve outdoor recreational opportunities for residents of the South Bronx.”   

The main sustainable feature of the unusual 800-by-100-foot park is that 100 feet of the park at the water’s edge has been reworked into a gradual slope including a vegetated wetland. The lowest tier, covered by water most of the time, features “reef balls”—honeycombed concrete balls designed for restoring mussel and oyster habitat. Several levels higher is a spartina-vegetated tidal pool, and then finally at the top level is a freshwater wetland featuring native, food-bearing plants that attract birds.

Soil dredged up to create the new sloping shoreline was reused to construct a small hill, hosting an amphitheater for use by school and tour groups. Interpretive signage explains the park’s water systems, wildlife features, and the estuary. No benches were put in the park; instead, all of the seating is provided by large stones recycled from a nearby bridge that was being dismantled.   

“We made an effort to make it distinctive from the other two parks,” Nielsen says. “I think that the first people who will come are the fishermen. I think the second people who will come are the folks who have watched it being built over the past year and half at the food distribution center…And I imagine from there word will trickle back—although we did this project in very close collaboration with the community. They know it’s happening.”   

Wimberle y, Texas: The Town with a Hole in It  

The adaptabilityof the SITES pilot program is evident when you make the jump from the Bronx to the Hill Country of Texas. Blue Hole, in the tiny town of Wimberley (population 2,626), is one of the most famous swimming holes in Texas, thanks to cold water bubbling up through a fracture in the aquifer.

“Going back to Native American settlement, the Blue Hole was a treasured area,” says Steven Spears, RLA, principal with the Design Workshop in Austin. “The Blue Hole is a stretch of Cypress Creek that generally ranges about 15 feet deep…People since European settlement have swum in this area and used it for recreational and cultural purposes.”

However, access to the hole was threatened when the 126-acre private property was sold to a developer. Spears explained how the community rallied together to save the site and buy it back from the developer. The effort brought together long-time residents and recent arrivals from the Houston area, with one man buying the property and holding it in a conservancy until the city and the group Friends of Blue Hole could raise the funds to make it into a regional park, including funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Land, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and Hays County.

“Before we got involved, it was basically ruined by humans—it was loved to death,” Spears says. He explains that people were using the roots of the 300-year-old cypress trees to climb in and out of the water, and there was no streamside vegetation left within 50 feet of the creek.

In the first phase of the project, a significant stream restoration effort brought native plants back to the area, while rope swings, picnic facilities, a cistern for rainwater harvesting, and new bathrooms helped to improve the visitor experience. In the second phase, an already disturbed area of the site which had been used for ranching was turned into basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts and soccer fields. The final phase includes development of a 90-acre nature preserve with trails, an amphitheater, interpretive signage, and habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

Spears notes that Wimberley’s first park is also financially sustainable, thanks to a long-term operations, maintenance, and monitoring plan. Funds raised through programs such as memorial benches are used for an endowment to sustain the park. The town is sustained only by a sales tax and hence is very protective of this important tourist resource. The number of swimmers has doubled over the past two years, despite a capacity limit of only 150 people, but the ecological functions are still performing well, according to Spears.

“At the time we started the project, SITES had not started asking for projects in their pilot program,” Spears says. “But we knew that this project had the opportunity to be a pilot program, given what we were trying to accomplish and given that we had a community that didn’t need to be convinced from the time the Earth cooled why the environment is important. They were absolutely on board with what we trying to do—there was very little convincing that needed to be done.”

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: The Real Bat Cave 

Out in the Chihuahuan Desertof New Mexico, more than 400,000 seasonal residents make their home underground in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Those residents are the 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats living at Bat Cave Draw, an important tourist site since the 1930s. In fact, the Civilian Conservation Corps built walls around a terraced parking lot at the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns in Bat Cave Draw and directly above major portions of the vast cavern system.

“The National Park Service never would have done such a thing in later years once a critical scientific approach was adopted into the management of resources such as the delicate cavern environment,” said John Benjamin, superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. “However, in those early days the only goal was to get tourists to see these spectacular underground wonders in the quickest and easiest way possible.”

“After a number of years, they started doing tests and finding that there were various containments from the vehicles—antifreeze, gas, and other pollutants that were actually leaching down into the cave,” explains Jessica Brown, a landscape architect and horticulturist with the National Park Service in Denver, Colorado.

A planned road construction project provided a good opportunity to fulfill an environmental assessment that recommended removing the parking lot. A small number of paved stalls were kept at the original site for accessibility, maintenance and emergency purposes. The new, drastically reduced parking lot features a drainage system leading to a catch basin with oil/grit separators, which are cleaned out as needed.

The site of the old parking lot was ripped to a depth of 12 inches and new topsoil was added from a nearby town, to avoid disturbing any other sites within the park. One of the most intensive parts of the project was replanting the site using plants and seeds found within the park in order to maintain the genetic and ecotype make-up of the vegetation. Areas of the park were surveyed to make sure the site had a natural ratio of the various types of grasses and succulents. Now a new walk leads past the area, full of plants rather than parking stalls, with the historic CCC walls still intact.

As this project was more than a decade in the making, Brown notes that it began well before the SITES pilot program started.

“Our office consists of a lot of landscape architects, we were aware of the SITES program, and thought this might be a good fit. We applied and were accepted, I think partly because of the unique conditions, the years of planning and effort made by a multi-disciplinary team, and our strong desire to preserve the genetic integrity of the plants,” Brown says. The recognition provided by SITES is important, she says, because “now there’s a value associated with the efforts that we made.”

Superintendent Benjamin summed it up this way, “The immense resource protection value of this long sought after and planned for project needs the recognition of the SITES program to help encourage other managers, both inside the National Park Service and at other federal, state, and private entities with land management responsibilities, to take on the challenging and difficult yet vital projects that are needed to protect fragile, irreplaceable resources.”