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Long-Envisioned Railroad Park Takes Shape in Birmingham

Wed August 11, 2010 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley


Birmingham’s rail tradition is celebrated in a leafy green space that construction crews have been working on since January 2009.
Birmingham’s rail tradition is celebrated in a leafy green space that construction crews have been working on since January 2009.
Birmingham’s rail tradition is celebrated in a leafy green space that construction crews have been working on since January 2009. Planting ash trees in the newly created Railroad Park. Railroad Park features 21 acres of grassy lawn, a water stream system and a backdrop of freight cars Crews prepping the site for planting elm trees.

Construction crews in downtown Birmingham, Ala., are near completion on the new Railroad Park, an eight-block green space that was first envisioned in the 1970s.

Located along 1st Avenue South, between 14th and 18th Streets, the 21-acre park is a joint effort between the City of Birmingham and the Railroad Park Foundation. The park will provide space for local recreation, family events, concerts and cultural happenings while connecting Birmingham’s downtown with Southside and the busy campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

A major ongoing capital campaign helped raise the money needed to construct Railroad Park, which blends history with modern-day conveniences. The project was designed to revitalize neglected property and also stimulate cultural, economic and social activity. Earthwork started in January 2009 followed by the installation of storm lines later that spring. Actual park construction did not begin until October 2009.

At Mother Nature’s and

History’s Mercy

“We have probably had 140 workers on-site at various times; however, I doubt we ever had any more than 80 or so together at any given time,” explained John Soule, estimator of the general contractor on the project, Brasfield & Gorrie LLC. “We had to work many weekends during the winter due to rain delays. We are now starting work at 6 a.m., due to the extreme heat.”

Weather, in fact, has had a major impact on construction, according to Soule.

“I believe we have had somewhere between 65 and 70 rain days due to the wet weather this past winter. The summer heat also has slowed productivity,” he stated.

As for some of the biggest challenges of the project, Soule pointed to the fact that the property has two major utilities running through it.

“Alabama Power Company has two 115,000 volt transmission lines that run the full length of the park right down the middle and Birmingham Water Works Board has an old 30-in. water line that runs through the site perpendicular to the power line. Both provided unique challenges. We were not able to cross the water line with any trucks or equipment and the power line had numerous items installed all around it that required excavation. Both utilities remained in operation the entire time.

“Also, the site previously had a steel mill and foundry on it which resulted in a great deal of foundry sand throughout the site,” Soule continued. “This material was not suitable for use under any structures and had to be over-excavated and buried in other areas of the park. There were also numerous old foundations, footing and underground pipes that were found.”

Early on, workers began excavating century-old cobblestone at the site to prepare for construction. The stones are being reused as pavers at the park. Equipment used during the site work phase included several off-road dump trucks used for hauling, as well as two Komatsu PC300’s. Typical site work equipment such as bulldozers, skid steers and mini excavators have been used throughout the entire project for grading, material hauling and excavation.

“We moved around 50,000 yards of dirt during the site work phase in creating the amphitheater and berm along the north property line,” Soule explained. “There are close to 200,000 individual grass plugs that have been planted in the native grass areas.

“The most rewarding part of this project has been taking an old, dilapidated piece of property and turning it into an attractive, safe and family-friendly park for the city that also will have a long-term positive economic impact in the area for other retail, office and residential developments,” Soule added.

Working the Land

John Lawrence, project manager, Vision Landscapes Inc., said the scope of work consisted of drainage, topsoil installation, structural soil installation, site amenities installation, steel edging, root barrier and erosion fabric, irrigation and plant materials, sub-grade issues and minor erosion-control work.

“January was a very difficult time in the project because of the every other day rains which slowed every contractor on the site. May was also difficult because our irrigation well went dry and sink holes developed in the south lake. This was a challenge because all of our water came from the lake which was fed by the well. We had to devise a plan to keep plant material already installed alive without using the pump station and still keep progress moving on-site. The construction manager helped us with the water issues by tapping into the city water main and running a PVC line above ground back to the pond. We later found out there was enough pressure in the line to still run irrigation once both lakes were dry. We delayed installation of sod and focused on different areas around the site that did not require water or small amounts until the sink holes were repaired.”

Vision Landscapes crews used backhoes and dump trucks to load and haul soil materials, while a mini excavator installed drainage, structural soil and root barrier. The structural soil is a specially formulated mix of gravels, clays and a wetting agent for trees, and is used in areas requiring load bearing weight and compaction but which still can offer sustainable root growth. Workers also relied on two Bobcat T-300s and a D-5 dozer for working the grades and topsoil. After topsoil was installed, several different types of erosion fabric were installed depending on elevation changes on the slope.

Multi-Purpose Beauty

According to Katherine Billmeier, the executive director of the not-for-profit Railroad Park Foundation, “Railroad Park has been in development for some 15- plus years. The park is a game changer for Birmingham. It completely revitalizes a once blighted industrial area.

“The park offers a site for concerts, plays, festivals and weddings, but I think the vast green space to lounge in downtown is probably my personal favorite. It’s like an oasis out there that just invites you to lie down on that lush green grass with the city skyscrapers and the historic statue of Vulcan as a backdrop,” said Billmeier.

Railroad Park is a public/private partnership, benefiting from local and federal dollars, as well as corporate and individual donations.

Its location is ideal, according to Billmeier.

“With the beautiful setting, plenty of nearby street parking and vast open space it is perfect for all sorts of events, both public and private. From concerts and festivals of all kinds, to theatrical performances and movie screenings, Railroad Park has been designed to host events of all types.”

According to Billmeier, construction has been a fairly seamless process.

“While the major feature of the park is a wide open, unstructured space, a number of specific features are represented on the conceptual plan. The broad strokes of the plan include a rectangular artificial lake at the northeast corner of the Phase I site. A series of four dramatically sculpted hills are shown pushed against the raised railway area, planted with native trees in a loose arrangement.

The park’s first phase includes the manmade lake and stormwater reclamation ponds, a lawn, tree-shaded areas, flower and vegetable gardens, fitness stations, a 1/3 mile rail trail, a paved plaza and a space for administrative quarters.

“There are a variety of special events being planned and we hope everyone will come out and enjoy outdoor movies, concerts, plays and our southern heritage. The park will be monitored by park rangers along with a state-of-the-art security system,” said Billmeier.

Reclaiming City Life

The total cost of Phase I, including some land purchase, is $23 million. The funding has come from the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County Commission, federal support and private funding. The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham helped raise $8.7 million through the Three Parks Initiative.

Billmeier said, “An active and vibrant city center is critically important for economic development and quality of life. Green space is always at the top of the list for reasons to relocate to an area. I’m thrilled to be a part of this, and I can’t wait to celebrate the opening of the park to donors, residents, students and all in the Birmingham region.”

A Work of Art

The well-regarded California-based landscape architecture firm Tom Leader Studio has played in major role in the project for quite some time.

“For five years I’ve been coming to Birmingham to work on the master planning and other aspects of the park,” said Leader. “There’s a lot of urban land that includes abandoned rail, but this is active rail. Birmingham doesn’t really have a natural feature like a river or a bay, so that’s what the rail is here for. We wanted people to be able to experience trains one-on-one, at the same level. We developed strategies, not to distribute artifacts and relics, but to bring visitors directly to the train, which rolls very slowly, almost lumbering.

“We scooped out the south end and pushed it to the north end to create a series of hills interconnected with pedestrian walks. Those coming here can get all types of views of the the rails and city below,” Leader explained.

As part of the planning, Leader’s crews created a large irrigation reservoir for grass planting, which is fed by harvested rain water and well water on-site. The biggest challenge came when it was discovered the city didn’t own a particular strip of land included in the plans.

“Norfolk Southern didn’t want to give up the title, so we had to do some rearranging as far as that ’wall’,” said Leader.

Lea Ann Macknally, president of Birmingham’s Macknally Ross Land Design added, “We are very excited about the storm water aspect. The focal point of the systems is a 1 AC lake that flows into a stone creek bed and runs for approximately three city blocks through a series of check dams and small pools. The water is then pumped four blocks to the east to the beginning of a created wetland area. The wetland is planted with native vegetation that filters the water as it moves through back to the lakes.

“We prepared the concept and hired a hydrologist / civil engineer to work with us on defining the capacity, overflow and check dam features. Our pump system consultant worked with us to specify the recirculation systems, as well as the feed for the aeration jets at each of the pools and to a separate biopond that collects roof runoff from the structures and overflows to the lake system. We worked closely with TLS to design the hardscape features such as the headwalls and checkdams, so that they are integrated into other hardscape components of the site, such as pedestrian walks.

“The earthwork contractor, electrical contractor, stone contractor and landscape contractor were all heavily involved in this effort. We were in the field a great deal of time working closely with them in the layout of the creek, stone and planting. All that had to occur prior to us releasing the water in the stream and testing the recirculation,” Macknally said.

Officials said park construction has already prompted development in the area and could spark the completion of a planned linear park near Interstate 65. Railroad Park will officially open to the public on Sept. 18, 2010, with plans for Phase II still in the works.

“I hope it becomes a place to gather and have parties of 40,000 or even four. Trains are cool and watching them within the context of the park will be very interesting. It’s more active than watching the water. There’s quite a culture, some of it underground, involving train watching. I like the movement. And in this case it’s the life blood of the city. This is where it came from,” said Leader.

From Design to Reality

The idea of creating a park centered on the Railroad Reservation has been discussed for several decades. Years ago, a federal grant was secured through the state department of transportation. With the funding, the city purchased the bulk of the property in 1997. The Friends of the Railroad District was formed a few years later to bring together community leaders for the purpose of promoting the revitalization along the railroad corridor and to raise funds for the development of a linear park. After years of negotiations, detailed studies and discussions over design, actual plans to build a park became a reality.

A so-called “hickory forest” winds up a hill near 14th street, connecting to the adventure playground. One end of a planned artificial lake consists of garden plots, a greenhouse and an engineered wetland. The fourth hill protrudes into the lake. A rail bridge and trolley stop are accessible from the main entry at the east end of the water.

South of the lake space was designed for an arts plaza and amphitheater, yet to be constructed. A promenade connects the terminus of 17th street south with a planned restaurant at the southwest corner of the lake, as well as a raised stage facing the lawn. Three pavilions at the park entrances from 16th, 15th, and 14th streets were included in the planning, along with a strolling garden. Acres of open lawn, walking trails and bike racks complete the project, along with the Eastgate Emporium, a covered event space that simulates a railroad depot, with wood-paneled boxcars designed specifically for concession stands, public restrooms, security and offices.

CEG