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Bringing Play Downtown

Renovation of Albuquerque's Civic Plaza

by Jitka Dekojova, ASLA, SITES AP, Dekker Perich Sabatini

Bringing Play Downtown

Located in downtown Albuquerque, two blocks north of Route 66, the Civic Plaza, designed by Dekker Perich Sabatini (D/P/S) offers families a place to relax and cool down, with a splashpad for children to run through and an outdoor TV system for parents to watch sports games.


Civic Plaza was built in 1974 to host large-scale outdoor events in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. Designed for a capacity of 20,000 people,skeleton watches it was the largest public space in the center of the city. Similar to other public spaces designed during this period, Civic Plaza was an expanse of hot, deteriorating paved space with unclear accessible routes and abrupt or absent transitions in scale to smaller spaces. The planting was dated and did not reflect the local desert flora and aesthetics. Contributing to the unwelcoming feeling of the space was a lack of programming and an inaccessible monolithic fountain that did not adequately serve the adjacent Convention Center visitors or local needs for a vital downtown gathering spot.

The initiation of changes to the Civic Plaza started with the renovation of the Convention Center in 2014, which opened to the plaza with a more engaging streetscape and faA?ade. Concurrently, management of the Civic Plaza was turned over to SMG, a national venue management group, which also manages the Convention Center. SMG initiated workday programming with food trucks accompanied by movable seating and temporary shade structures. These modest changes created a spark and set the stage for major renovations. SMG and the City of Albuquerque approached Dekker Perich Sabatini (D/P/S), the same firm that had worked on the Convention Center remodel, to develop renovation ideas to make Civic Plaza a vibrant Albuquerque destination and a true heart of the city.

Designing A Local Place
D/P/S, a multi-disciplinary design firm, developed six different options for transforming approximately 30,000 square feet of the southeast quadrant of the plaza. The options included replacing the existing large and inefficient concrete fountain with an interactive water feature using contemporary water conservation equipment and energy efficient mechanical filtration. Other proposed elements included improved accessibility, public art, a new playground, renovation of landscape planters, and a shade structure. The design team, headed by landscape architect Ken Romig and architect Beau Baker, used hand sketches and plans, AutoCAD, and Sketchup to create initial models of each concept within the context of the urban fabric. The design program Lumion was utilized to render the models and create animation for the fountains and lighting that illustrated the look and feel of each concept.



Bringing Play Downtown

The twenty-two spray heads on the splashpad can vary the height of the spray, going from low enough to jump over to high above children's heads.


Bringing Play Downtown

LED lighting in the splashpad jets illuminates the water as it shoots into the air.


Bringing Play Downtown

Bringing Play Downtown

The fountain comes alive at night as the spray heads and acrylic cubes are lit with LEDs. The cubes have a base footprint of 4' x 6' and range from 5' to 9'. The light show is programmable.


The concepts were developed to be viewed both from the ground and from above, as seen from tall adjacent buildings overlooking the plaza from the south and west. Ultimately, to facilitate solutions to the programmatic and hydrological challenges of the concept design, a landscape architectural firm specializing in aquatics, Aqua Design International out of Tucson, Arizona, was brought on the design team.

The new fountain design utilizes the circular shape of the original fountain basin with new, amphitheater-like seating along the rounded perimeter for concerts or other performance events when the fountain is not in operation. This added multi-functionality and flexibility to the space. Programmable, interactive jets with LED lighting are arranged in bands mirroring the new shade structure banding. Translucent acrylic cubes are positioned to terminate each band and provide an opportunity for water display. Water pours over the cubes, spray jets shoot from the cubes, and fog periodically erupts from the tops to drift across the plaza. The acrylic cubes light-up at night with color changing displays. The LED light effects pay homage, with the neon dA(C)cor, to the history of Route 66, which is a mere two blocks south of the plaza.

A custom Prickly Pear Playground was installed at the plaza to bring families and children into the urban core. The playground design evolved from an abstraction of a locally ubiquitous cactus: Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.). The Prickly Pear exemplifies the beauty of New Mexico's high desert. Its sharp clustered spines protect the cactus, and its exquisite blooms attract bees, butterflies, and beetles. In the fall, enticing red fruits (called "tuna") ripen, producing a feast for desert tortoises, birds, and coyotes.



Bringing Play Downtown

The original concrete fountain was plagued by costly maintenance and a brutalist design typical of the 1970s era.


Bringing Play Downtown

Several concepts were developed for the fountain design. The final design included a turf area with new tree plantings and five acrylic cubes. All concepts incorporated the existing circular fountain shape.


Bringing Play Downtown

Acrylic cubes bring a playful space and scale to the plaza. Water sheets flow down their smooth sides or rush up through jets placed on top. The jets can shoot approximately 30' above the top of the cubes.


Fountain Design and Programming Challenges
Bringing the design team's vision of an interactive feature to fruition was the most complicated facet of the fountain design. It required custom linear lighting behind acrylic panels, each with custom designed baseplates with an integrated high-pressure fog system.

To have spray nozzles with a programmable capability required an underside supply system powered by a battery of pumps with energy efficient variable frequency drives (VFD's). The sequencing solenoid valve used is identical to those used on the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Aqua Design International and D/P/S decided to use the old fountain's surge tank in the parking garage below and design the equipment necessary around the perimeter of the surge tank. The entire surge capacity was designed with a one-hour filtration turn-over, a primary disinfectant, pH control, full-flow UV sterilization as a secondary sanitizer, and y-strainers to protect debris from clogging the brass and plastic spray nozzles. These technologies coalesce with a chemistry control device capable of maintaining clean, safe water while integrating the lighting system, fog, spray nozzles and anemometer into the controller's purview and capability. All of these elements are programmable and fully interactive with over 1 million combinations of light, fog, spray nozzle height, and sequencing.



Bringing Play Downtown

Due to a presence of a parking garage underneath the plaza, light-weight structural foam was used as infill underneath the pavers where the fountains were placed.


Bringing Play Downtown

A newly added shade structure is visible behind the fountain area, offering a second, dryer choice for cooling from the New Mexico sun.


Structural Challenges
Site investigation was a key element of this project because of the cost and technical challenges of developing on top of the 1970s era, two-story, below ground parking structure. The design and construction had to contend with the limited available structural capacity. While maintaining normal operations in spaces surrounding Civic Plaza (Albuquerque's City Hall also abuts the plaza), the design removed as much extraneous concrete and soil as possible, replacing the heavy materials with structural foam to limit the stresses to the structure to those at or below existing levels.

As heavy materials were removed from the structure, the shoring had to be continually readjusted to ensure construction could continue. New steel towers were designed to support the new shade structure columns and were structurally supported and stabilized by attaching to the existing parking garage.

Water in the Desert
In addition to construction and technical challenges, the design team had to address water use concerns. Water is a precious resource in the Southwest, and a perception of unwise water use and water quality can be problematic. Yet, water, its sound and the ability to physically touch urban water, is an important aspect of built environment - especially in a place where water is not ubiquitous, like downtown Albuquerque. The design team proactively addressed this issue by designing the fountain feature with contemporary water conservation equipment, including the installation of an anemometer tied to the recirculation system to automatically adjust spray heights in wind speeds in excess of 15 miles
per hour.



Bringing Play Downtown

The Prickly Pear Playground is designed as a series of climbing nets stretched across frames representing spiny cactus pads, called "cladodes". The Prickly Pear fruits are incorporated as bright red accents, with "fallen" fruit functioning as stepping stools along the bottom of the structure.


Bringing Play Downtown

The splashpad area can be seen from the amphitheater seating, where the outdoor television is located.


Another Expansion
Plaza visitation of families from nearby affordable housing complexes seeking relief from hot summer temperatures has been extraordinary. The sound of water is also drawing many out-of-town visitors into the plaza. The city has expanded programming to include a Wednesday lunch market for downtown workers and improved the stage on Civic Plaza with a custom 31' x 16' 1080p LED video wall and audio equipment. These improvements have allowed the city to offer movie nights on the plaza. SMG expanded its offerings to include a Civic Plaza Beer Garden, which was heavily utilized during 2018 World Cup soccer matches broadcast in the plaza. Collectively, this has had an ancillary effect with increased food and beverage revenue for the adjoining Convention Center.

D/P/S and Bradbury Stamm, a local general contractor, recently completed work for the city of Albuquerque on design and pricing for the playground expansion. The construction, currently under way, adds shade structures, two slides, rope climbers and several swings to the playground, widening its capacity. Included in the expansion is also additional planting within existing landscape planters, locally appropriate for the high desert urban setting. With a successful start to the Civic Center, the services to the community are expected to continue with new additions and amenities.

Team List
Dekker/Perich/Sabatini - Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Structural Engineering
Bridgers and Paxton Engineering - MEP Consulting Engineers
Aqua Design International - Water Feature Consultant
Crystal Fountains - Consultant to Aqua Design
Water FX - Consultant to Aqua Design
Bradbury Stamm Construction - General Contractor
Miller Bonded - Mechanical, Plumbing, & Electrical Subcontractors
Hanna Plumbing & Heating Company - Subcontractor
Heads Up - Landscape Contractors
ExerPlay - Playground Installer



As seen in LASN magazine, July 2019.



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September 20, 2019, 10:26 am PDT

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