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Feature Story - May 2009

Gas Tank Park: Queens Creates Green Space at Former Gas Storage Facility

The Parks department planted over 500 Asian Longhorn Beetle-resistant trees and shrubs on the site, including several crab apple trees to honor Elmhurst as the birthplace of the famous Newtown Pippin apple, a favorite of George Washington.
The Parks department planted over 500 Asian Longhorn Beetle-resistant trees and shrubs on the site, including several crab apple trees to honor Elmhurst as the birthplace of the famous Newtown Pippin apple, a favorite of George Washington.

The six-acre Elmhurst Park at 57th Avenue and 74th Street, scheduled for completion next fall, is an exercise in inexpensive greening of the borough of Queens. With an artificial hillock designed to created the illusion of space, a woodland area, a crab apple orchard, winding walking paths lined with rocks recycled from excavation sites on other projects, and a high-tech playground that will let kids hand- and leg-power some of the park’s lights, it’s the type of project that had the local Community Board saying "Yes!" from the very start. Few visitors will recognize the park for what it once was, however--a KeySpan gas storage facility.

For decades, 270-foot-diameter gas tanks sat on the property--with the advent of new storage technology, the site became obsolete and KeySpan handed over the land to the New York City Parks Department for $1 and did its own cleanup of the area, according to Helen Ogrinz, one of the New York City Parks Department’s chief landscape architects on the project. The grid method was used for the remediation--subdividing the entire area into blocks, and then digging, cleaning, and testing each one individually. The site was brought to residential-level safety; the Department of Environmental Conservation approved the cleanup and signed off on a soil management plan.

"We had a blank slate when we started," explains Ogrinz.

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  • The $5 million Phase I included topping the cleaned-up site with 4,000 cu ft of clean fill that was "borrowed" from several other projects around the city. The formerly contaminated soil is separated from the clean fill with a "warning net" in the shape of a soil barrier--digging past it requires approval from the DEC and following hazmat procedures.

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    The theme of sharing and recycling, as with the fill, extends to other landscaping aspects. The decorative boulders, the smaller ones lining the soon-to-be paths and the more substantial, climbable ones sitting invitingly by the future playground, came from a construction site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the crew found 12 tons of glacial erratic rock.

    The $12 million park will eventually be planted with over 500 trees, perennials and shrubs, all native to the North East--and will even include a crab apple orchard lining the hill in a nod to Elmhurst’s past, which is rumored to be home to the Newtown Pippin, a most famous American apple once cultivated by George Bush and Thomas Jefferson. All of the trees in the park are of a variety resistant to the Asian Longhorn Beetle.

    Originally the site of KeySpan gas storage tanks, the park's earth was remediated and covered with a soil barrier and additional clean fill.
    Originally the site of KeySpan gas storage tanks, the park’s earth was remediated and covered with a soil barrier and additional clean fill.

    More ground had to be moved to adjust for the retaining walls to the rail road track that runs below the level of the park, in part to also contain the water on the site. Over the entire site, storm water is collected in a retention-detention system, and more water is saved at the proposed fountain, where it will be recirculated. An RPZ (reduced pressure zone) system for stormwater will prevent backflow from entering the city’s sewers.

    The park’s playground, scheduled to be completed in the next phase, will have a stationery bicycle that will generate electricity, stored in capacitors, and provides a hands-on learning medium for kids to learn about green power: the bike and other power-generating devices are hooked up to lights that can be turned on with enough generated electricity.

    The park will also have an oval-shaped comfort station, and an existing one-story building will be converted to facility storage space as well as an office for the Queens chapter of the city’s Parks Department.

    Gas Tank Park: Queens' Friendliest Playground

    The plans for the park were meant to channel Frederick Law Olmstead and his design for Manhattan’s Central Park: the hill in the center, now wrapped in a thin biodegradable cotton net to prevent erosion, as well as the winding walkways, is meant to make the 650-ft-long site stretching between the Grand Avenue metal entrance gate and the 57th Avenue gate (the park will close at night, as has been the standard for New York open spaces for several years) seem larger than it is. To what extent the team succeeded will be determined, ultimately, by the people who use the park. The hill, rising approximately 15 ft above ground, looks like it could have been designed to block the Long Island Expressway from view from the Grand Avenue entrance. Right now it doesn’t, and the addition of several additional feet planned for the next phase will not get it there, either. The reason the mound cannot go that high, explains Ogrinz, is the need to accommodate said users – a taller heap would make the slope around it unbearably steep.

    The boulders for the park have been donated from a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, construction project in which the dig unearthed 12 tons of glacial erratic rock.
    The boulders for the park have been donated from a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, construction project in which the dig unearthed 12 tons of glacial erratic rock. (Image courtesy of NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation)

    It didn’t look like much in early spring--on the 57th Avenue side, the most prominent color came from a large billboard for the Hustler night club in Manhattan; at the Grand Avenue entrance, it was Johnny Walker whisky. But the park is such a success story for the entire borough that Borough President Helen Marshall herself promised to do something about it, according to Ogrinz.

    Anything resembling a park is a welcome addition to Queens as the borough has very little green space with the exception of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. While the area is hard to access by public transport – the closest subway station is several bus stops away – the neighborhood has been particularly receptive.

    Elmhurst Park occupies a six-acre site at 57th Avenue and 74th Street in Queens, modified with an articfical hillock a la Frederick Law Olmstead's design for Central Park to give the illusion of more space.
    Elmhurst Park occupies a six-acre site at 57th Avenue and 74th Street in Queens, modified with an articfical hillock a la Frederick Law Olmstead’s design for Central Park to give the illusion of more space. (Image courtesy of NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation)

    Community Board 5 members and residents had no objections, according to public accounts--more than that, the community was able to intervene in naming it Elmhurst Park instead of say, Gas Tank Park or Elmhurst Gas Tanks, both actual names proposed by the city. It’s a fortunate turn of events. Some of the park’s areas feel distinctly rural, regardless of the traffic noise, and its petroleum-soaked past is but a distant memory.

    "I have to confess," says Ogrinz. "When I started in landscape architecture, I always wanted to design a forest. This is pretty close."

     

    Team:
    City of New York Parks & Recreation Landscape Architects, Architects and Engineers.
    Charles McKinney, Chief of Design
    David Carlson, Deputy Chief of Design
    Hasan Rashid, Director of Engineering
    Kevin Quinn RA, Queens Team Leader
    Landscape Architects: Leeann Beauchamp, Helen Ogrinz and Nancy Prince,
    Assistant Landscape Architects: Imelda Bernstein, Shani White and Peter Witke
    Architects: Adam Anuszkiewicz and Harrison Chang ,
    Yelena Lyubarskaya, Environmental Engineer
    Vincent Alfano, Queens Construction Director
    Robert Gantzer, DPR Site Construction Engineer
    Contractor: William A. Gross Associates, New Hyde Park, NY
    Environmental monitoring: Shapiro Engineering, Valley Stream, NY
    Boulder Donations: Scorcia & Diana Associates, Floral Park, NY

     

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