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Drowning Office Park Rescued by Students During High Tide

by Jon Kugel, Dennis Dalbey, Amy Reese, Shane Godshall, and Kate McGovern
Department of Community and Regional Planning
Temple University

In December 2004, an earthquake at the bottom of the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that swallowed whole towns and villages in an area of the world caught completely unprepared or protected. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina left a wake of destruction along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and further inland along the banks of the Mississippi, ramming home the lesson that even prepared and protected regions are vulnerable to the threat of inundation. Consequently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is encouraging local officials to take this lesson to heart by funding special projects for historically flood-prone areas to reduce the likelihood of significant property damage and loss of life. One flood-prone site that grabbed FEMA's attention is the Fort Washington Office Park in southeastern Pennsylvania.

This 536-acre business campus is nestled in Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley just north of Philadelphia. It plays host to a major convention center plus a wide array of corporate offices, service facilities, educational institutions, infrastructure, and amenities. More than 14,000 men and women work there. In less than a decade, the office park has experienced three 100-year inundations and one 500-year inundation. Furthermore, the office park is in dire economic straits due to this flooding. Regional vacancy rates for office space are about 19 percent, but the office park suffers from a telling 30 percent vacancy rate for its newly constructed premium office space. This site offers a perfect opportunity to study the nuances of how built environments influence the natural environment and vice versa.

At Temple University's Community and Regional Planning Department, located just north of Philadelphia in the Delaware Valley (a historically flood-prone area) and only a few miles from Fort Washington, graduate students are looking critically at the office park using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to identify these causes and produce sustainable solutions under the supervision of GIS coordinators Mahbubur Meenar and ASM Bari. In the first semester of study, the students performed a methodical in-depth site analysis taking into consideration everything from hydrology and topography to infrastructure and economic issues. Following the site analysis, the team performed a suitability study and produced a proposal complete with 3-D GIS modeling to redesign the office park for a competitive, sustainable future.

The office park is itself a natural basinThe office park is itself a natural basin, with wide floodplains and several meandering streams. The slightly raised eastern campus has poorly percolating soil (it does not absorb water well) while the slightly lower western campus has soil well suited for absorption. Many of the built features encroach on the 100-year floodplain, and some are even in the floodway. Worse still, these buildings were constructed prior to a ban on building in the floodplain and are not outfitted with stormwater management system. Stream segments were diverted underground to accommodate this early development. The campus-wide stormwater management system fails to collect this runoff and convey it back to the stream network to be dealt with naturally during a heavy rain event. Many of the inlets can become submerged themselves, and rushing water gets so forceful it can sweep away vehicles and people, and streambeds are eroding from heavy water flows.

Vast, empty parking lots The most striking features of the office park are the vast, empty parking lots. Every building has its own surface-level parking, contributing to a 47 percent impervious surface. Even on a normal business day the campus seems half empty. Whole parking lots go unused and not just next to the many vacant buildings. The high volume of paved, unused space contributes heavily to runoff amounts and velocities within the office park, and parking lots can become submerged during a heavy rain event. This also affects the water quality in the streams.

The final built/natural feature the students identified as a problem is the transportation system. The roads not only contribute to total impervious surface, but many roads actually invade the stream environment. Numerous stream crossings pepper the office park, traveling through the floodplain and following along the floodway. This increases the risk of traffic accidents during a heavy rain event. Roads are also unnecessarily winding (several 90 degree turns) and dangerous with heavy truck traffic, especially at the posted speed of 35 mph.

Putting together the parking lots and the amount of roads, it becomes clear this office park was built for cars and with not much thought given to any other mode of transportation. The park fails to provide for access to the nearby regional rail station. A single commuter bus line services the park, but benches are uncommon and bus shelters are rare. No bicycle lanes are provided. While most parts of the office park have sidewalks on at least one side of the road, walkability remains poor. The sheer size of the 536-acre campus makes walking between buildings undesirable even if the weather is cooperating. Roads are designed to provide access to as much buildable land on campus, not get people from one place to another efficiently.

The suitability studyUsing suitability modeling, the students decided which parts of the campus are suitable based on the planning decisions and best management practices. Here is a list of the layers: 100-foot riparian stream buffer, no development in floodway or 100-year floodplain; no development on steep slopes (12 degrees or greater); manage stormwater as close to the source as possible; support multi-modal transportation; and maintain the streams as a natural amenity (use opportunities to connect to neighboring open space).

The suitability study provided the template for the design phase of the project. Students each produced a sketch of the redesigned office park based on the last phase. Each of these individual visions was boiled down to its basics, and the best ideas were combined to form a comprehensive new vision for the office park. 3-D GIS modeling of the office park helped visualize the concepts quickly and easily. In the end, students decided that the site was too big to fully redesign the park, so they worked in depth on two specific areas.

-D GIS modeling of the office parkThe first area is reminiscent of the small towns and villages that characterize the region. The Main Street Plaza is situated off a tree-lined boulevard and 24-hour street in the western campus. Several new buildings with green roofs have been added to enclose the plaza and retention basin. Trees have been planted in the plaza to give the street and plaza cohesiveness. Sidewalks provide for the primary mode of transportation in this section of office park: walking. Two bioretention swales have been added for stormwater management. The project team envisions retail, restaurant, entertainment, and residential apartments.

The Commons is nestled behind the Expo Center in the eastern campus. Designed to complement the exposition space, the Commons features three mid-rise buildings that cap off both ends of the plaza area, a gateway entrance, and a long tree-lined pedestrian plaza. Expo center parking is consolidated into two multi-level connected parking garages sandwiched between the plaza and exposition space. Again, green roofs and swales minimize run off. The project team envisions hotels, theater, restaurant, and retail uses. The plaza is adorned with sculpture, pedestrian accoutrements, and grassy areas for relaxing or picnicking.

Conclusion

The Fort Washington Office Park has the potential to become a modern, attractive, and competitive business center, but some serious issues need to be addressed. Students' suggestions can be implemented in phases to make the costs more bearable, but interested parties will have to invest significant funds to change the office park into a place that is comfortable and convenient for operating a business.

The project will continue next semester with a new class of graduate students. The office park in its current state offers a vast opportunity for planning students to learn first hand how to approach a project of this magnitude, and experience the excitement that come from having a hand, however small, in decisions that shape the world around us.