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Jersey Student Sanctuary
Union City, High School

Landscape Architecture by Borst Landscape and Design
LASN Editor Steve Kelly

Wedged at the junction of J.F. Kennedy Boulevard and 24th Street in Union City, N.J., was a triangular 17,000 square foot urban area, now transformed into a landscaped gathering space and main entrance to Union City High School. This pedestrian plaza packs plenty of amenities in a small space, but most importantly is designed as an enclave or sanctuary for students, faculty and the community, a respite from the tumult of living in one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S.

If you drew a line west to east from Manhattan's Upper East Side and the southern portion of Central Park across the Hudson River, you'd be in Union City, New Jersey (pop. 66,455). Geographically, Union City is small (1.283 square miles), but manages to pack in 66,455 Garden State inhabitants (2010 census), a homo sapien density of 52,326 per square mile, making it the second most densely populated city in the U.S., barely beating out its northern neighbor, Guttenberg, N.J., which squeezes 58,821 humans onto the head of a pin, well, really about one-fifth of a square mile.


Security and safety were high priorities for this project. Sturdy black steel fencing and gates enclose the sanctuary. The fencing is 10 feet above grade and atop a beautiful rock wall of 'Colonial' bluestone with chiseled thermal bluestone caps. Brick columns are interspersed.

It's hard to image this area as woodlands populated by a modest population of Lenni-Lenape Algonquians, as seen by English seaman Henry Hudson during his voyage of exploration here from 1609 to 1610. Those long lost woodlands are but a dream of Eden, however, in today's urban jungles we still seek sanctuary. And so it was that the Union City High School Board of Education sought a contemplative space for its students, home of the "soaring eagles"--well, it was home for that species once. The outcome is a landscaped pedestrian area at the main entrance of the high school, a 17,000 square foot small triangular site at the intersection of J.F. Kennedy Boulevard and 24th Street in Union City, N.J. This pedestrian plaza is designed as an enclave or sanctuary to give students, faculty and the community a refuge and gathering space from the urban tumult.


A rain garden was created on site for stormwater management. The garden features rushes, sedges and iris varieties. A bridge crosses over the rain garden connecting bluestone pathways and inviting pedestrians to stroll. The tree left is a 'Clump Heritage' river birch; one of six 'Crimson Sentry' Norway maples is at right.

While Union High School was under construction on a 4.5 acre lot, which included a rooftop football field, the Union City Board of Education sought to create a beautiful and functional space on the precious little left over triangular piece of land. The board asked for a lot within that space: a garden, an amphitheater, classroom, sitting areas, water fountain, garden structures and a walkway that invited all to enter. Flowering trees, shrubs and seasonal colors of nature was what administrators wanted the students and people of Union City to see, experience and enjoy. The design features landscaped and hardscaped areas to foster large and small student gatherings. The outdoor amphitheater includes a bi-level outdoor seating area overlooking an open bluestone patio and sculpted lawn. The patio space is created of natural cleft bluestone (sandstone) in a multitude of beautiful colors. Presenters and performers use the patio. Marriage ceremonies have also been held here, as the natural stone and plantings make for an inviting space and photographs well. The sculpted lawn has raised elevations, a change in topography that gives the impression of more space within this small site. A sculpted lawn is edged with rocks, creating an attractive area to sit, read and relax. An oak tree provides shade; ornamental grasses at the edge provide both color and movement. There is also a more spacious center lawn, surrounded by a bluestone hardscape, and highlighted by a curving pergola and a series of curved bench seating. The pergola defines the space, while adding an architectural element to the design.


Whence the site amenities? The bridge over the rain garden is from Columbia Cascade (TimberForm). The birdhouse is by Walpole Woodworkers, Morris Plains, N.J. The security fencing is from Superior Ornamental Steel Fencing & Gates, Philadelphia. Cedar Hill Nursery in Mahwah, N.J., supplied the plants.

Because the site is largely covered in concrete and bluestone hardscaping, drainage was a major concern. A rain garden was designed as a solution to the needs of water management on the site. This ravine curves along the bluestone path and features specialty plants including rushes, sedges and iris varieties. A bridge crosses over the rain garden connecting pathways and inviting pedestrians to stroll throughout the garden for a soothing experience. The natural cleft bluestone serpentine walkway, bluestone patios with brick accents, bridges and ramps provide barrier-free access to all landscaped elements throughout the sanctuary. Along the pedestrian paths are birdhouses, feeders and rain gauges.


The rectangular pool features bluestone ledges for sitting. Water cascades over natural rock and into a reflecting pool with an upper and lower fountain and color changing underwater lights. The water feature was designed by Borst Landscape and Design, and constructed by J.A. Alexander. Marson Pools was the consultant. The blue pole is one of three Emergency Blue Light stations. Pushing a large red button connects a person with a 911 operator, illuminates the station and engages a camera. One station even has a defibrillator.

Water Feature
A water feature and fountain is set close to the school to provide the tranquil sounds of flowing water, and helping block the noise of vehicles from the adjacent four lane intersection. Natural stone and bluestone ledges allow for seating and enjoying the waterfall and fountain.


At the entrance gate is a patio of natural cleft bluestone (sandstone) in a multitude of beautiful colors. Presenters and performers use the plaza space, and a few marriage ceremonies have been performed here.

Architectural Interest
A pergola, trellis, arbor and gates add architectural interest, as does the granite monument engraved with the school icon in the memorial garden, which honors those dedicated to the project. A climbing rose shrub surrounds a bronze plaque designed by one of the high school students. The plaque features the coordinates of the Union City High School Time Capsule, which is scheduled to be opened in 50 years.


A pergola (Walpole Woodworkers, Morris Plains, N.J.) curves around the central lawn. It's constructed of a composite Azek material with a steel interior core. Walpole also constructed the arbor, trellis, birdhouse and bird feeder.

Security and Accent Lighting
Security and safety were essential priorities for this project. A beautiful rock wall of colonial bluestone with chiseled thermal bluestone caps, brick columns, elegant black steel fencing and gates enclose the sanctuary. It was challenging to accommodate this enclosure, considering the elevation changes and specific site needs. Lighting, of course, was not just about a decorative element, but for added safety and security. Up lighting was used for monuments, stone columns and trees; down lighting at the radiused pergola creates a glowing effect. The water feature includes decorative lighting accents for dramatic effect.


In the memorial garden is a granite monument with the names of the officers and trustees of Union City Board of Education that made the "Student Sanctuary" possible. The memorial is engraved with the school icon, and the dedication date, May 2013. Above the memorial is a bronze plaque designed by one of the high school students, surrounded by a flowering climbing rose shrub, and features the coordinates of the Union City High School's time capsule, scheduled for opening in 50 years.

Specimen evergreens and ornamental trees, flowering shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses and annual color offer floral interest year round. Site trees include 'Deodora' cedar, 'Bakeri' blue spruce, 'Coral Bark' maples and 'Wolf's Eye' dogwood. From a distance, and while passing this corner property, flowering shrubs like 'Endless Summer' hydrangea, annuals and perennials and the movement of ornamental grasses draws the presentation of the new high school and the attention of the community, the "Corner Gem of Union City."

Architect: Becica Associates
Landscape Architect: Borst Landscape & Design
General Contractor: J. A. Alexander, Inc.
Construction Manager: Hill International
Civil Engineer: Environmental Resolution, Inc.
Electrical Engineer: Wick Fisher White
Security Consultant: Buckley Petersen Global

MSS Consultants and Engineers:
IT Consultant: Promedia Technology Services, Inc.
Audio Consultant: Banana Sound Services
Security Contractors: Access Control Technologies

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June 26, 2019, 12:06 pm PDT

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