But What Are You Doing About the Owl Habitat?!

Lessons learned from a multiuse stormwater project in Colorado

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Credit: Greeley GIS
What seemed simple on the surface became complicated in a hurry. In May 2015, we had a plan to resolve persistent flooding issues in the Rolling Hills neighborhood (Figure 1) through a series of stormwater projects involving large box culverts and open channel work. Work was phased from the upstream end to downstream due to flooding issues. Unfortunately, during approximately the past 10 years, there have been multiple instances of 12 to 18 inches of water in homes in this neighborhood (Figure 2). The existing stormwater system from the park north (red line on the map) looks like a textbook example of what not to do, cutting between houses and through backyards. It is the shortest point between two lines but makes maintenance exceedingly difficult.

The original plan to resolve the flooding in this corner of the neighborhood was to construct an open channel along the east side of the park and between two houses on the northeast corner of the park. The flow would then spill into the street, which was thought to have adequate capacity to carry the overflow from the pipe. That plan was short-lived. The family that would have had the open channel immediately next to their foundation did not approve, though the hope was that the water would flow in the channel and not into their house.

Next came a plan wherein the City would purchase the house just north of where that open channel would have been—the family there was putting the house on the market. That would have entailed demolishing the house, which was also a frequent flooding location, and creating an alternate entrance into the park. That “trailhead” would have been the end of the open channel, a wide overflow swale design. Given the location at the end of the cul-de-sac that limited parking, the requirement for an additional easement to make that park entrance happen, and some skepticism that this corner was the true flow path, that plan was also scrapped.

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Credit: Cindy Gormley
Figure 2. The highwater mark on a home
adjacent to the park after a 2013 storm

Building the Project Team
By late summer of 2016, the neighborhood experienced more flooding, and we decided to determine the feasibility of what was a very long-shot alternative. Detention had been bandied about but would require a complete demolition of the existing park to achieve enough volume to really have an effect. Figuring that we were about out of other options, we held a meeting with the Parks Department and asked to dig a giant hole in their lovely neighborhood park in 2017.

The good news: They had planned to completely replace the playground, restroom/picnic shelter, and irrigation system. Even better was that the Parks Department had recently updated its Parks, Trails, and Open Lands Master Plan and had received a Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Inspire grant to assist in efforts to better connect our residents to nature. Another plus for the neighborhood was that the old City method of each department operating separately would have resulted in two separate projects and multiple years of construction and limited access to the park. The bad news was that the Parks Department didn’t have any money for a complete park redesign; Parks staff was a bit skeptical of the idea, and none of us knew how the public would react to such a drastic change. With a large dose of caution, we proceeded to look for an engineer who could detain as much water as possible in that 6 acres and a landscape architect who could make it look and feel like a park, with the caveat that these designs must work together as one cohesive product.

Two things worked in our favor when we found Matrix Design Group. First, they were already a team and had designed several similar projects together, with both engineers and landscape architects on staff. Second, their proposal to construct over the winter when park usage and stormwater levels are both low was huge—truly a “why didn’t we think of that ourselves” moment and a major reduction in disruption for the neighborhood.

By the spring of 2017, we had dozens of concepts supported by the team. It was time to see which one the public would support. In addition to the creative consultants, it was time to call in the City’s Community Engagement Office (CEO). As luck would have it, members of the CEO had just been to a conference and had a great idea to market our park renovations.

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Figure 3. The front of the first mailer, sent to 4,089 homes in roughly a 1-mile radius of the park

The creative theme suggested by our CEO was just the start. Following their lead, we engaged in a multi-faceted outreach campaign. Our team put together a schedule of three public meetings: one to gain feedback on all of the ideas we had for the park, the second to vote on three alternatives, and the last to debut the final concept. Each of these meetings was advertised on social media and our website. For the first meeting, we created a mailer (Figure 3), published a brief article in the local newspaper, and placed yard signs in the park. We sent an additional mailer to residents within a 1/2-mile radius of the park for the final design reveal meeting.

With the help of these attention-grabbing mailers, we had nearly 100 neighbors attend the first meeting, hosted in the park shelter. That was the most-attended meeting our division has had in the past three years. At that meeting, we asked residents to select their favorite ideas and fill out a survey about how they use Greeley’s parks. The informal vote used sticky dots on pictures of potential park features. Residents could vote as many times as they wanted, and some of the results may have been skewed by kids with entire sheets of dots, but we encouraged their passion for an idea.

The survey was also available online for two weeks to anyone in the community. Almost two dozen more surveys were received online. That total number of survey responses for a small neighborhood park was about twice as many as we received for our stormwater master plan for the entire Downtown and North Greeley area.

All of these responses helped our team understand what the community was looking for in this park. We knew they would like the new shelter, but were quite surprised when they responded so favorably to “nature play,” or unstructured activity encouraging interaction with native materials and areas. This is not your traditional swings-and-slides kind of playground and did not exist anywhere else in Greeley.

Nature would become a key element of our new playground as well as a stream feature. Other items in which meeting attendees and survey respondents expressed interest were a looped sidewalk to go all the way around the park, space for soccer or other formalized recreation, and even sand volleyball. All of these items were incorporated into the three complete park concepts presented at the second public meeting. There were several similarities among the three alternatives presented; the main difference was actually just the layout and location of the shelter.

By the third meeting, the crowd dwindled to just a dozen or so, but that was more than we get at many other public meetings. We received positive comments on the final concept for the new park features and layout, and residents were anxious for these plans to become reality. This was helped in no small part by the large rainstorm that Greeley experienced on May 8, 2017. In particular, the homes at the northeast corner of the park received another damaging blow. The rain was approximately a 50- to 75-year storm, but this neighborhood also received hail, resulting in an iceberg flowing into their backyards and homes (Figure 4). After the storm, the neighbor who had previously opposed the plan of the open channel next to his house asked us how quickly we could start moving dirt.

Credit: City of Greeley
Figure 4. Hail from the May 8, 2017, storm was approximately 2 to 3 feet deep and damaged fences and homes.

The Team Grows Again
About this time, Matrix suggested that the best people to design and install the nature play element would be a company out of Canada, Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds. It is the only firm in North America that will certify a cut tree as a piece of playground equipment. This certification is known in the business as the “who to sue” sticker and is on all other standard playground equipment such as swings and slides. The company joined our team and began to design our dream natural playground, with the City risk manager’s blessing. Without approval from Risk Management, that dream would have been shattered.

Another program in the City of Greeley is our public art program. One percent of each capital improvement project budget is taken right off the top to be used for public art. After several years of building projects in this neighborhood, we had contributed more than $50,000 to that fund. Previous projects were box culverts and pipes, with no opportunity for art on those projects, but it was time to cash in on our contributions.

Once again, Stormwater approached another City department and asked if they would like to play in Woodbriar Park. The Art Commission was excited by our ideas for the park to date and agreed to search for an artist to complement the theme. Many talented artists submitted portfolios of earthworks, but one rose to the top. Laurie Lundquist had previous experience working with parks and engineering projects as well as natural elements, so she was a natural fit.

Once we had a 50% level plan, the City approached Matrix to determine if they felt the project would benefit from being run under the construction manager at-risk (CMAR) process. Together we determined that this would be a positive step and moved forward with a qualification process and then a request for proposals from contractors. Although there were several qualified contractors, ECI Site Construction had an outstanding proposal, had recently completed a park very similar to the one we were proposing to build, and was willing to work with our chosen playground contractor and artist.

Credit: City of Greeley
Figure 5. Three neighbors before they toured the construction site

With ECI on the team, the value engineering process began. A careful assessment of constructability and cost to build helped us determine which items might be out of our budget and which we could keep. This became critical as the design of the art feature evolved into a much bigger idea. The artist’s concept was to incorporate the history of water usage in Greeley by showing how water is diverted off the river to irrigate crops and the impact that the area has had on water measurements, particularly the Parshall Flume. We spoke to both the landscape architect and the artist and reduced the scale of the installation by about half the square footage and kept within the budget.

Another of the great elements of the design was the proposal to use more native plants and grasses. The previous park had been 7 acres of bluegrass, and though it had numerous mature trees, the grass required a significant amount of water every summer to stay lush and green. As we worked to keep our design dreams within the reality of our budget, Stormwater approached yet another City department to join the team—and to provide funding.

The Water and Sewer Department had started its Water Efficiency Tactical Team to target areas in the City where there was the possibility of saving significant amounts of water. These savings could then be translated into drinking water for future Greeley citizens. Our pitch was simple: We planned to replace 40% of the turfgrass in the park with native grasses. These grasses would be irrigated for one to two years to become established, but those irrigation zones would be shut off after that, reducing their water usage to zero. In addition, this aligned with recent planning and conservation efforts by the Parks Department. This was all music to the Water Department’s ears, and they were happy to contribute to our budget and join the team as landscape advisors.

Credit: City of Greeley
Figure 6. Excavation and hauling in the shadow of a preserved cottonwood

One last financial contributor that shouldn’t be overlooked is the Poudre Heritage Alliance. Another member of our Parks staff who focuses on trails and natural areas took the initiative and applied for a small grant for the project. This grant was enough to produce three interpretive signs. The signs educate visitors about the water conserving landscape, the stormwater flood reduction aspects of the park, and the heritage of water usage and measurement as highlighted in our environmental art element/diversion plaza.

Finally on to Construction! Or Not…
In early December, just as we were about to break ground, we received an email from two area residents via our project website. These neighbors were not excited about the project in the way that most of the other neighbors were. They lived upstream of the park and hadn’t experienced flooding. Worse still, somehow they had not received the first mailer nor seen any of our many social media messages about prior meetings. Their first notification of the project was the “Construction Coming Soon” sign we posted in the park about two weeks before we planned to break ground.

After they saw the signs, and with no other background, they visited the website to look for the project. Because they were already feeling as though they had been ignored, they were upset and contacted me and my co-project manager from the Parks Department. Their email indicated that they were quite concerned about the owl habitat, which neither of us project managers knew anything about. Those of us on the City side of the table went into the meeting with high anxiety levels but willing to listen. The residents came in and shared the story of finding an injured Great Horned Owl in their backyard and how the Fish and Wildlife staff released the bird into Woodbriar Park and it immediately flew into a mature tree. Of course, they were concerned that we were going to level the park.

In the end, it turned out they had misunderstood what was on the website. They interpreted our picture of the stream near their condo complex as something we saw as a problem rather than what we sought to emulate. Once we explained our commitment to keeping as many of the existing trees as possible, and planting more than 2:1 for those we had to remove, they were somewhat reassured. After we shared that we planned to reuse as many of the materials from the site as possible, they were even enthusiastic to see the finished product.

Given this experience, we reaffirmed our decision to aim for a high level of outreach all the way through construction. Here again, we tried as many methods as possible to reach people. We posted a project information board on the construction trailer, including a general project schedule, for anyone who passed by the site. We updated the website a couple of times over the course of the construction. Possibly the most fun thing we did was to offer a tour of the site to anyone interested at about the half-way point of construction (Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 7. Signs were tacked to each tree to be used for the playground and edging.

This tour was a great way for us to explain some of what the residents had seen over the past four months, as well as to celebrate all of the progress made. We posted the latest design mock-ups for the playground, art/diversion plaza, and landscaping. The tour also served to let them know that though much had been done, there was still about half of the project left to finish. This can be especially difficult to understand once most of the big dump trucks stop running and all they can see are a few guys with irrigation pipes. This event had about two dozen attendees and received several very positive comments.

Challenges and Lessons Learned
One difficult aspect of almost any construction project is the impact to surrounding neighbors. Keeping the noise and dust levels down were concerns easily dealt with by our competent contractor, and the excitement of many in the area made them a bit more forgiving. One issue they did not forgive was road closures. Weather and part-delivery delays caused road closures to go on longer than initially planned. This was compounded by additional City crews in the neighborhood working on sidewalks and patching streets. We got through that with multiple updates on the Nextdoor website and only a few resident complaints.

In addition to all of the usual suspects, two unexpected things occurred with respect to the residents. The first occurred when our forestry contractor began cutting down trees before the construction fencing was up. There were a few neighbors who thought that the City was giving them an early Christmas present in the form of free firewood. Luckily, our City forester and his great staff got out to the site quickly with signs to claim the trees for future use in the playground (Figure 7).

The second surprising thing occurred during the halfway tour. One resident told us that she heard that we hadn’t listened to what the neighborhood had asked for—though of course she couldn’t provide any specific examples nor had she attended any of the meetings herself. In the end, we chalked that up to “you can’t please everybody.”

Credit: City of Greeley
Figure 8. During construction

Another regular challenge on construction projects is utilities. We had two unique challenges on this project. The first was during the design phase when we tried to map the existing stormwater system flowing directly north out of the northeast corner of the park. Historical mapping showed this line went about 200 feet and stopped, so we theorized it collected water from the backyards to deliver to the system heading to the northeast. Several neighbors had said that during large rain events it actually turned into a geyser. However, when we went to clean it and inspect it with a camera, we found that the line ran more than 700 feet and we could not determine the end, nor which direction it ran, without going and digging up at least one backyard. We decided to leave it as is and design our overflow system to connect to the known system in the street.

Just prior to beginning construction we located a gas line and a fiber line running right through the middle of the park. This was approximately the third time locates had been called for this site, and no one knows why the lines weren’t found until that point. Looking at the original plats for the subdivision made it obvious, though, that these had originally been platted as house lots with back lot utility easements, and they were later converted to parkland.

In addition to external issues, we had a few internal City challenges. The biggest one was the limited experience of our staff with the CMAR process. This was only the third project in City history to be done using the process, and our procurement person had never executed this type of contract before. Unfortunately, we also ran into a lack of available City inspectors just before breaking ground. This led us to seek quotes from outside inspection and construction management services, and the issue was solved, but with extra expense and headache.

Our last internal hurdle was one that we face every year: coordinating schedules with our paving group. This group gives us a list of streets that it will be working on, be it for overlay or chip seal. Then the Stormwater group has to try to repair what we can ahead of the work. The good news was that our project was scheduled for substantial completion in early to mid-June. The bad news was that the paving group planned to overlay the street in front of the park in mid-June, and delivery of the heavy new restroom building was delayed by several weeks. The paving group was good enough to work with us and provided suggestions for how to deliver the building pieces without damaging the newly overlaid road.

The finished park

On a project of this size, with this many team members, communication is tough. One thing that helped was our construction kickoff meeting. We did a few team-building exercises to make sure that everyone knew everyone else by name, to build some trust, and to ensure that they would feel comfortable contacting one another when necessary. Nothing is more awkward than having to contact someone with bad news and not being able to remember their name.

The last challenge we expected but didn’t know how to prepare for was the budgeting and accounting issue. As mentioned above, we had five different departments contributing funds, and for the Parks Department, three different accounts those funds were pulled from. As you might imagine, some funds had restrictions and could be used to pay for only certain line items. In the end, color-coding a copy of the pay item list (pink for irrigation funds, blue for water, and yellow for furnishings) and a detailed spreadsheet were key in processing payment requests.

The playground plan and major features

What Went Well
In the end, we created a cohesive project. The pond is functional from a stormwater standpoint, but also functions and feels like a park. Most important is that these functions, which so many times are separated, work together and even complement each other in this park.

The second major success was minimizing the disruption for neighbors. They were without their park for six months, but most of that was over the winter and spring. Careful design of the structures also limited impacts to neighboring properties. In the end, we impacted only one private residence, and this was due to a structure being too close to a property line to safely excavate without removing the fence. Here again, the property owner was very gracious and received a partial new fence for the inconvenience.

Perhaps the most exciting and biggest successes are all of the new features of the park. From a stormwater perspective, it stores 5.48 acre-feet of stormwater, more than the zero acre-feet it stored previously. From an engineering perspective, a major benefit is that we have multiple flow paths into and out of the pond. This redundancy ensures that only the largest of storms will affect the local streets and insurable structures.

The Water and Sewer Department was gracious enough to fund a portion of the new landscaping and will reap the benefit of reduced water usage for years to come. Low-growing native grasses, combined with the use of drought-tolerant trees, decrease water usage. Several species of rush and sedge are planted, as are trees such as catalpa and cottonwood (non-cotton producing). By our estimate, the change in landscaping should save approximately 700,000 gallons of water a year once the plants are established. The increase in plant diversity will also provide more visual interest and attract a wider variety of birds and other urban wildlife—so our owl-loving neighbors should be happy too.

From the Parks Department’s perspective, the new restroom facility is also a win. The restroom building will be easier to maintain, is better lit, and has more maintenance storage and modern fixtures, such as a water bottle filler. In accordance with requests from neighbors and the police, the new location provides better visibility from the street and the playground. The Parks Department also appreciates that the revised park programming meets the needs of more users, that the new irrigation system will be worry-free for years to come, and that because of the native vegetation, the mowing hours are reduced.

And speaking of that playground, there are many new features to engage children (see photos on page 48). Those reclaimed trees turned into climbing structures, stumps for sitting on or jumping off, and root balls for watching bugs or breaking roots off. However, our landscape architect was correct when he stated that the feature that would hold children’s attention the longest would be the sand play area with the water pump. This allows kids to manipulate their environment through digging, building dams or castles, and just ­letting their imaginations run wild. The old playground did provide one last benefit: the pea-gravel play surface became bedding for all of
our new pipes.

At the request of the neighbors and the Parks Department, the bottom of the pond contains an open turf field. This is enough flat square footage for two and a half youth practice fields and for a great game of tag, Frisbee, or baseball. For those who want something a bit less strenuous, the walking path is mostly level and affords views of the playing field as well as the creek area. This has been enjoyed by those with strollers and senior citizens alike.

Lastly, the chance to use those art dollars has really paid off. The incorporation of the history of Greeley, water law, water measurement, and play has been amazing to see. While we left some of the creek in a more naturalized state, the opportunity to educate has really drawn visitors in. Additionally, we were able to reuse the old restroom foundation by saw-cutting it for use in the artist’s vision of agricultural land being irrigated by the creek diversion.

Although there were challenges, this project overall was more enjoyable during and afterward than most. The biggest lesson learned was to try new things and ask more people to play. After all, it is a park! SW_bug_web

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