Trendsetter Cities - David F. Watkins Memorial Park
WINNER - Environmental/Green Management Practices
Nestled amongst the forested Ouachita Mountains in central Arkansas, Hot Springs is as rich in history as it is thermal waters. America's Spa City, first Federal Reserve, and only municipality located within a national park, Hot Springs is renowned for health, recreation, and wellness. The two sides of the thriving Central Avenue Historical District with the National Park’s Bathhouse Row on one side and a variety of shops, restaurants and attractions on the other offer tourists and residents a win-win. However, the two sides of the picturesque landscape offer a sense of awe on one end of the spectrum, which is offset by a typography ripe for flooding.
Historical flooding of downtown Hot Springs dates back to 1885, and this corridor has endured seven 100-year floods since official records began in 1910. In the flood of 2008, nearly 2,000 property damage claims in the downtown commercial district exceeded $5.3 million, with untold effects on the more than 1,000 employees and the tourism-based economy of the city.
Located 254-feet upstream from this floodplain is the City of Hot Springs’ most recent addition to its parks system – David F. Watkins Memorial Park – which was dedicated on March 25, 2021. On the surface, this community green space will do wonders as the first park in the low-income Park Avenue Neighborhood. Its impact goes much deeper as the low-impact design of this rain-to-recreation urban park will mitigate flooding impacts on the more than 200 businesses and nearly 1,000 residential structures in the downstream floodplain.
The park is situation on a half-acre site, 256-feet deep by 92-feet wide, which is bisected by the late nineteenth century Hot Springs Creek Tunnel. This tunnel continues from Park Avenue to run directly underneath the bustling Central Avenue, and it serves as the flood-prone area’s primary means of conveying stormwater. The City acquired the property at 811 Park Avenue in 2014 after an inspection of the tunnel system noted a significant structural failure in the tunnel ceiling that could not be stabilized from below. Vehicle traffic and residency along a 50-foot wide corridor above the tunnel, including the vacant Wheatley Courts structure where the park now resides, were ceased on Jan. 10, 2013, in the interest of public safety. The City went through the appropriate procedures to have the former motel razed and removed on Dec. 15, 2014, to protect public safety and prevent further structural degradation of the tunnel. The lot was leveled and left otherwise unimproved as an impervious surface. The structurally-unstable portion of the tunnel was barricaded.
For the century old neighborhoods in this valley, the underground tunnel conveyance system overtops during 25-year rain events. A 2015 flood analysis study concluded it unfeasible to increase the tunnel’s capacity. Federal lands that surround the area preclude construction of large-scale detention basins to reduce downstream volumes. It was also determined that removal of the arch over the tunnel on this property would have no effect on the floodplain. In July of 2015, the portion of the tunnel under the vacant lot collapsed. Within weeks, the Park Avenue Community Association formed a citizen-led committee to communicate with the City regarding their neighborhood’s needs for a public park to provide recreational opportunities for the growing number of families in that area. They proposed this property for the future park, and worked to submit an application for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds just months later in October.
Sustainability became the operative word for the design of this park. The creek was daylighted by removing the damaged top of the tunnel. An ADA-accessible, concrete-tiered amphitheater and stage were designed to extend 30 feet from the creek out to the permeable park space to temporarily fill with and detain stormwater during significant rain events. This will prevent overtopping and provide runoff reduction in an otherwise impermeable system. The amphitheater doubles the use of the space by creating an extraordinary quality of life opportunity for neighborhood concerts, meetings, and other events in a natural setting.
Clean water, clean air, native pollinator habitat and edible landscaping were also vital design elements. The landscape plan is comprised of vegetation management practices using native, drought-tolerant and pest-resistant plants and trees with wildlife habitat and water quality filtration properties. Bioswales, native plantings, and trees included throughout the site allow for absorption and filtration of runoff before watershed re-entry. Butterfly and pollinator gardens aid in insect and animal diversity, enhancing local home landscaping and fruit and vegetable production, including from one of Hot Springs’ largest community gardens just three blocks away. Bicycle racks, a play mound, open green space, and the City’s first all-inclusive playground and are incorporated to encourage physical activity.
The park is dedicated to David F. Watkins, whose leadership and support as Hot Springs City Manager from April 2012 until his untimely death in August 2015 helped inspire the revitalization of the Park Avenue Neighborhood. “This is probably the greatest honor of his life. I cannot think of anything that would have made him more happy than to have a park here in Hot Springs named after him. I know he and the City did have to weather a lot of storms to start revitalizing the downtown area in Hot Springs and this Park Avenue area. And I know even getting this park built was a storm in a lot of ways.” David Watkins’ eldest daughter, Laura Watkins, said at the park’s dedication.
Significant public safety, traffic calming, walkability, accessibility, cycling, and public transportation improvements in this neighborhood began during Watkins’ tenure, and have continued. Much of the area is located within the 100-year floodplain, and due to the limited tunnel conveyance capacity, Park Avenue has suffered frequent flooding. This park project is a rain-to-recreation approach that transforms stormwater management methods into an essential community asset.
The Hot Springs Stormwater Division is considered to be the state's preeminent stormwater quality and control organization under the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. Hot Springs also boasts the most technologically advanced flood monitoring system in the state. In cooperation with the United States Geological Survey, six water height flood monitoring gauges and two precipitation gauges are strategically located in creek areas surrounding downtown. One such monitoring station is located 2,000 feet downstream of the park. The Stormwater Division uses these gauges to check water levels along the creek. They also perform regular testing of the creek’s water at David F. Watkins Memorial Park for IDDE, or illicit discharge detection and elimination, which includes pH, dissolved oxygen, water temperature, dissolved solids, and chlorine. Not only is the Stormwater team using its expertise and technology to monitor the park’s effectiveness on flood mitigation, they are also partnering with the Parks & Trails Department to host elementary school educational field trips at the park. The facility is perfectly suited to host these cadres of kids with the greenspace and amphitheater, and all the park’s environmental amenities provide inspiring, hands-on learning opportunities.
At its core, The David F. Watkins Memorial Park project reflects the best in community engagement and leadership. The Park Avenue Community Association has been the driving force behind neighborhood revitalization and park creation. Many City departments, initially under the direction of David Watkins, have been excited to bring their areas of expertise to help make it a success for both the community environment, as well as the natural environment. The park provides ecologically functioning benefits, such as flood mitigation, clean air, and clean water, and neighborhoods with shared community space are proven to perform better socially, economically, and environmentally.