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The Ol' Water Tower Gets a Plaza to Stand On

J2 Engineering and Environmental Design, LLC o Stephen Kelly, Editor

The view to the northwest of Water Tower Plaza in Gilbert, Ariz. reveals the new outdoor dining area, the refurbished 120-foot tall tower and illuminated water walls. The top of the water tower is lit by 'Scarab' LEDs. The tower itself is uplit with 70-watt metal halide spotlights. Two lights are attached to each tower leg at the first cross bracing, about 28 feet off the ground. One light illuminates the tower belly, the other the outside of the tower leg. At the ground level, each leg is uplit by a 70-watt MH 'Paradox' light. In addition, two of the legs have 150-watt MH spotlights to light the outdoor stage and dining area. These lights are manually operated and turned on during outdoor performance events. A Fraxinus velutina 'Rio Grande' tree is in the foreground. The large concrete planters (Kornegay) hold Caesalpinia hybrid 'Sierra Sun. The trees (left background) are Vitex agnus-castus 'Montrose Purple'.
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The objective: Gilbert, Ariz. wanted to develop a three-quarter of an acre parcel of land in the town's Heritage District. Dominating the plot was a 120-foot tall water tower constructed in the 1920s, beneath which was an old adobe pump house that once served as the town's first jail.

The mirror-like granite floating sphere (Kusser Fountain Works, Germany) clearly reflects the runnel above it and the nearby water tower.

The Problem: There was a decade of data and design initiatives for this tract of land, including, count 'em, five master plans. Somehow these plans had to be reconciled, while gaining community consensus.

Design Challenge: Address the dominating presence of the water tower and relate its stature and scale within a relatively small space against a backdrop of an existing active commercial area that surrounded the plaza, included restaurants, retail shops, a theater and a transit center.

Recycled glass pavers (Wausau Tile, Terra Paving Type 9) under the water tower reflect the shadow pattern cast by the tower's structure and guy wires. Socializing, people watching and quiet contemplation are strongly encouraged on the plaza through the use of permanent seating (Victor Stanley), seat walls, turf berms (hybrid bermuda turf, Tifway 419, known for "excellent wear") and moveable seating and tables.

Public Consensus
Gaining consensus on this project required J2 look at innovative techniques that could help blend over 10 years of design and debate over this site. Naturally, this included extensive public involvement and master planning efforts.

A major challenge was gaining consensus from the citizens on a single vision for the plaza. Often, regional cultural icons are deemed disposable when their usefulness as functioning elements are no longer viable. The water tower holds an immense sentimental significance to residents and business owners in Gilbert's Heritage District of Gilbert.
The team's goal was to combine the designs of the past with the desires of the future.

Prior to restoration this was the view looking east: fenced off land, overhead power lines and dilapidated light posts.

Virtual 3D
The increased use and dependency on computer programs has been a cornerstone of the engineering and design professions since IBM first introduced the PC in the 1980s. Expanding their use beyond the common drafting and number crunching was clearly demonstrated on this project. A first crucial step for the design team was partnering with Arizona State University's Decision Theater to develop 3D virtual imaging. The software helped the community participants navigate through and "fly over" the various design ideas and give instant feedback to the design team. This technology eliminated the need for a layperson to interpret a plan view drawing. It also allowed the team to explore its use on every aspect of the project, including gaining the community's input on what was the most relaxing and appealing sound of water! This project demonstrated how technology can be more than a device that only draws lines and calculates earthwork, but can be an interactive tool that allows a project to be virtually reviewed, with modifications in design made to reflect the owner's concerns or reflect citizen input. The virtual imaging technology immersed the committee in a visual experience of the final plaza prior to excavation of even one shovel of dirt.

An overhead runnel drops water onto the floating sphere. The polished sphere (4'11" dia.) and base stone (5'11" by 1'7") were fabricated in six weeks at the Kusser factory in Aicha vorm Wald, Germany using "Blues in the Night" granite imported from Namibia. The sphere weighs 10,518 lbs.; the base stone weighs 9,920 lbs. The system is certified to operate with 21 psi and 44-gpm flow. The equipment package included turning equipment that causes the rotation of the sphere to be altered every 7-9 minutes. Incandescent water lights illuminate the sphere.

Design Elements
The urban plaza space created by this project was in direct response to integrating the two historic structures and the surrounding and future developments into this multifunctional civic space. The plaza needed to be a unique destination for downtown visitors and residents to walk or ride a bike to, find a place to relax, hold an intimate conversation and enjoy an afternoon lunch or dinner in a beautiful park-like setting. People needed a place to sit and enjoy the cooling and relaxing effects of shade and the sound of water.

For over a decade, design initiatives (five master plans) were put forth to develop the three-quarter of an acre parcel in Gilbert, Arizona's Heritage District. J2 Engineering and Environmental Design, the prime consultant, partnered with Arizona State University's Decision Theater to develop 3D virtual-imaging software that let community participants "fly over" the various design ideas and give instant feedback.

The social aspect of conversing, people watching and quiet contemplation is strongly encouraged on the plaza through the use of permanent seating, seat walls, turf berms, and moveable seating and tables. One of the main driving forces behind the development of the site was diversity of seating to foster social interaction and respite. From an economic vantage, the creation of an open space within the heart of downtown was designed to accommodate larger crowds.

History Revisited

This before image shows the old adobe pump house, Gilbert, Arizona's first jailhouse back in the day. Fenced off land, poor drainage in the adjacent parking lot and dilapidated light posts were just some of the design challenges. The pump house and water tower, circa 1920s, were preserved for their historical significance. Some of the adobe removed from the pump house during restoration had embedded animal footprints.

Water Features
The plaza incorporates four water features:

  1. A circular ground spray water feature at the base of the water tower is reflective of the storage tank immediately above it.
  2. A black granite sphere floats on a cushion of water at one corner of the site across from a future mixed-use development site.
  3. Spanning above the sphere is a steel runnel dropping water on the granite ball. The runnel is reflective of the tower's box girder legs and incorporates valves and fittings from the tower's original equipment. The water feature combines contemporary design, while embracing the past.
  4. A water wall with cantilever bench and illuminated blue glass windows.

  5. The circular ground spray water feature (Roman Fountains) under the water tower storage tank has integrated LEDs in each nozzle that change color as the water sprays. The fountain is also programmed for music. Each nozzle is part of an individual "pod" with its own communication, lighting, supply and drain lines. The water features on site continually recycle water through a series of filters. The design specified a concrete slab with a PVC liner installed underneath the decorative concrete surface. The trees behind the water wall (bottom, right) are Vitex agnus-castus 'Montrose Purple', with some Ulmus parvifolia beyond those to the west.

Scaling the Plaza
Relating the plaza space scale to the immense tower was accomplished through mimicking the structural attributes of the tower through the water features and for such amenities as bike racks, benches and entry monuments. Hardscape was enhanced with pavement patterns that reflect the shadow pattern cast by the tower's structure and guy wires. A circular ground spray water feature was introduced at the base of the tower, reflective of the storage tank immediately above. A five-ton black granite sphere floats on a cushion of water at one corner of the site, a contemporary feature, to inspire the community of what the future holds. Spanning above the sphere is a steel runnel, a celebration of the past. The runnel is reflective of the tower's open box girder legs and incorporates valves and fittings from the original tower pumping equipment.

The runnel is reflective of the tower's box girder legs and incorporates valves and fittings from the tower's original equipment.

The development of this three quarter of an acre site was a complex undertaking, most notably in having to work around and avoid impacts to the water tower footings and the adobe building's structural integrity. The complexity was evident in the routing and rerouting of existing and proposed utilities. The overhead power that feeds the surrounding merchants had to be coordinated and designed by APS to be re-routed to an area of the site designated as the utility hub. This redistribution effort included relocation of switching cabinets, and combining the plaza and existing businesses (and future business establishments) on a new single transformer. The water, sewer, electric and water feature pumping network of pipes and wires were continually being reviewed and rerouted during design to avoid conflicts. The phasing of construction on a relatively small site surrounded on three sides by active commercial and retail space was a constant balancing act that required an active partnership with all parties to achieve success.

This small site was full of interesting and intricate above and belowground features and linked to a web of underground utilities. Rendering these complexities understandable and constructible was one of the major tasks undertaken by the team, starting from consensus on design and extending to the grand opening.

The hydrant-like elbow pipe, a remnant of the old water works, used to have a valve on the end for fire crews. Repurposed, it now spouts Muhlenbergia capillaries 'Regal Mist' grass. J2 designed some pavement planters and pavement cut outs that resemble water splashing and flowing on the ground and filled them with these grasses as their interpretation of this.

The sustainability of the site is echoed through the preservation and restoration efforts of the adobe pump house and historic water tower. These efforts and the history of the site are incorporated into interpretative signage located at one of the main entries into the plaza.

The water features continually recycle water through a series of filters so that there is minimal water loss.

The turf areas use a combination of underground drip emitters and water harvest swales that eliminate overspray and runoff of irrigation water. These social, economic and sustainable considerations demonstrate the commitment of Gilbert to the highest level of design and responsiveness to its citizens.

Historic structures can enhance a sense of place and provide a point of civic pride when preserved and celebrated.

These aspects resonate throughout this urban plaza.

The plaza accommodates a sitting public to enjoy the cooling and relaxing effects of shade and the sounds of water.

The plaza lends itself to multiple uses, from theatrical performances and minstrels, to arts and crafts fairs and street performers. This central gathering space is spurring redevelopment throughout the Gilbert Heritage District.

Restaurants and retail shops to the east and south surround the plaza. A recently constructed transit center to the west offers true multimodal influences. A new theater and restaurants to the north have been built. Also, the project provided power, water and sewer extensions for the redevelopment of Liberty Market Restaurant.

This project is the beginning of a series of connected urban plazas, pocket parks, pedestrian corridors and open spaces within the downtown area that will provide a vital link connecting residents, visitors and commuters to emerging mix-used developments.

Two arching water walls (inset) and a larger, longer "s"-shaped stepped water wall with a cantilevered bench separate the plaza hardscape from grass areas. Water troughs atop the walls flow over the edges and down the wall to the grates (Ironsmith) for recycling. Each water wall has its own set of valves to control flow of water and the height of the spray. The custom-fabricated wavy-glass windows (four separate glass layers), lit by minivault ingrade-LEDs, decorate the larger wall. Incandescent water lights illuminate the water walls. J2 did the hardscape elements for the water features. 'Yosemite Brown', 'Rustic Brown' (Davis Colors) and 'Lava' (Solomon Colors) tones were used in the concrete and water structures. A hardscape of concrete pavers ('Sierra Blend' Plaza I & II, Pavestone) lead to the water tower and ground spray feature.

Exceeding Expectations
The greatest compliment to this project and a true demonstration that the owner's and the community's needs have been met and exceeded is that throughout the week, and especially the weekends, the park is filled with the sound of laughing children, adults talking and water splashing. Families are coming to the plaza as a destination, putting umbrellas in the turf areas, laying out blankets for picnics. Others are frequenting the surrounding restaurants.

Photographers are holding photo shoots for graduations, prom pictures and engagement photos. In short, people are coming to the plaza and really enjoying the refurbished space.

About the Firm
J2 Engineering and Environmental Design, LLC (J2) was the prime consultant for the project and provided all civil engineering, drainage design, landscape architecture and irrigation design. J2 was responsible for managing public involvement, master plan development, town departments and design review board approvals, creation of the construction documents and postdesign construction observations. Among the awards the project received was a 2010 Honor Award from the Arizona ASLA Chapter and a Certificate of Recognition from the International Making Cities Livable.

The Project Team
J2 Engineering & Environmental Design, Phoenix
Land Owner, Key Stakeholder, Client - Town of Gilbert
Prime Consultant: Landscape Architecture, Civil Engineering, Drainage Engineering, and Irrigation Design
Aqua Engineering, Fort Collins, Colo
Water Feature Plumbing & Pumps
Electrical Engineering - Wright Engineering, Chandler, Az.
Merestone Land Survey, Phoenix
Geotechnical Engineering - Ricker, Atkinson, McBee, Morman, and Associates, Tempe
Structural Engineering - JG Engineering, Phoenix
Construction Management - Parsons Brinckerhoff, Tempe
General Contractor - Valley Rain Construction, Tempe
Structural Steel Sub-contractor - Cave's Canopies and Steel, Apache Junction, Az.
Electrical Sub-contractor - Kimbrell Electric, Glendale, Az.
Water Feature Controls - Roman Fountains, Albuquerque, N.M.
Granite Ball Fountain - Kusser Fountain Works, Tampa

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October 15, 2019, 10:10 pm PDT

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