VERC Brightens ’Crown Jewel’

Tue February 17, 2004 - Midwest Edition
Dick Rohland

Aging facilities, dwindling finances and rising costs on government construction projects are issues challenging officials nationwide.

Yet, administrators of Como Park in St. Paul, MN, continue to forge ahead with improvements to their 37-acre (151 h) park.

Construction is underway on the park’s latest upgrade, a Visitor Education Resource Center (VERC) that will be connected to the park’s historic, domed conservatory. The VERC will add 73,500 sq. ft. (6,828 sq m) of exhibit and classroom space to the glimmering glass and aluminum Victorian-style conservatory, often referred to as the “jewel in the crown” of Como Park.

Thanks to the Metropolitan Parks Act passed by the state legislature in the mid- 70s, administrators began to make much needed improvements to their park. The act annually sets aside state grant funds to improve metropolitan parks throughout Minnesota.

Shaw Lundquist Associates, Eagan, MN, is general contractor for the construction phase. It just finished a $42-million project at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Hammel, Green and Abrahamson Inc. (HGA) designed the VERC facilities and Cost Planning Management International (CPMI) is the owner’s construction representative.

CPMI, a construction management firm with 30 years’ experience and based in Des Moines, IA, has a satellite location in Bloomington, MN. Past projects include the Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota History Center and the St. Paul Public Library, all in St. Paul.

More than two million annual visitors enjoy Como Park and its dozen or so attractions. There is no admission charge to the park, which is located just a couple of miles from the downtown business district of St. Paul.

Construction on the two- story, $16.5-million Como Park VERC began last year. More than $13 million has been spent to rehab the historic conservatory itself. These projects include refabricating steel supports for the domed structure and replacing the conservatory’s glass panels.

According to the park, the VERC is “intended to serve the park’s estimated 2.3 million annual visitors more effectively,” with the goal to “create new educational opportunities for the diverse neighborhood, city and statewide groups who already visit the park for recreation.”

The building will house classrooms, a 120-seat auditorium, and a “Tropical Encounters” exhibit with plants and animals. Amenities will include a bookstore/gift shop, and indoor and outdoor restaurant. An approximately 475-ft. (144 m) pond will surround the building.

Como Park is among the top three public attractions in Minnesota, and includes a 72-acre (29 h) lake stocked primarily with freshwater fish indigenous to Minnesota. Bicycle and pedestrian paths follow the lake’s shoreline. A 36,400-sq.-ft. (3,381 sq m) pavilion sits on the lake’s western shoreline.

The park also includes one of the nation’s few remaining free-admission zoos, an amusement park, an 18-hole golf course, a pool, picnic areas and athletic fields and Cafesians Carousel. The carousel spun for 75 years at the Minnesota State Fair and does so now at Como Park. It is named after a private donor who helped save it from destruction.

The conservatory, which houses more than 3,000 varieties of plant life, attracts nearly a half million visitors each year. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique Victorian-style construction, and is the only freestanding crystal palace conservatory in Minnesota. Como Park’s first superintendent, architect Frederick Nussbaumer, played a major role in getting the conservatory built. It is one of few structures of its kind in the world.

Tourists from all 50 states and 65 countries have visited the conservatory. Park administrators have gradually spent $48 million over the last quarter century to improve various park attractions, including major renovations to the zoo, structural and panel replacement at the conservatory, upgrades to the golf course and pavilion, major road upgrades, renovations of the picnic grounds and historic streetcar station and construction of a pedestrian bridge and building to house the carousel.

Since excavation began in December 2002, Shaw Lindquist crews tore down two conservatory greenhouses and the restroom of the existing conservatory. Work on footings, the foundation, walls, and concrete columns continued from winter through summer.

For excavating, Jacobson brought in a Kobelco MARK IV SK 130LC and a CAT 943 owned by Ingram Excavating of Eden Prairie, MN.

Ironworkers recently raised the steel framework for the structure. Work is underway on the stone facade, mechanical systems and sheetrock to be followed with glass installation, said Claude Jacobson, construction superintendent.

An estimated 320 tons (288 t) of rebar, 431 tons (388 t) of structural steel and 4,800 cu. yds. (3,648 cu m) of concrete will go into the steel and concrete structure, according to Jacobson. Nearly 50 contractors will eventually help with construction.

Workers cut a temporary road through a small stand of trees to provide for the site’s only loading access for trucks.

“It’s a real tight site to work with. All the trades have worked well together as far as maintaining access so everybody could continue to do their work,” said Jacobson.

“Steel erection went real well,” Jacobson continued. “With that 80 ton Link-Belt, they could reach the majority of their work while sitting in one place.”

The Link-Belt had a 130-ft (39 m) boom supplied by Danny’s Construction of Shakopee, MN. Danny’s also supplied a 70-ton (63 t) Grove hydraulic and a 40-ton (36 t) Grove boom truck for the aerial work.

When tying into an older structure, most problems arise underground, Jacobson said.

“Like any project when you’re tying into an existing structure, nobody really knows until you start excavating what you’re going to find; how it’s actually put together,” Jacobson said. “Some of the footings and bearing walls were not in the plan location.You just have to readjust your tie-ins and design minor room-size changes; whatever it takes to make it go together.”

Jacobson credits HGA and CPMI for facilitating design revisions based on existing site and structural conditions.

“HGA staff have made it fairly easy to get through any of the problem areas. They came right out, made minor design changes and walked you through the redesign to make it all work out,” Jacobson said.

Many elements in the final design of the VERC were intended to prevent it from visually detracting from the historic domed conservatory, said Kara Hill, senior project designer from HGA.

Accordingly, Hill said, the portion of the VERC connected to the domed conservatory consists of three rectangular glass houses of varying heights and mullion spacing.

Construction is set to be complete in December 2004.