Waterfront location brings flood of maintenance challenges

Photos Courtesy of Waterfront Development Corporation.
Louisville Waterfront Park prides itself on being a safe, welcoming place for residents and visitors. Among its policies,the park is lit until 11 p.m. each evening, and a security guard is on duty each night.

Louisville Waterfront Park is setting the standard for what an urban park can be. Over the past two decades, the property has been reclaimed from industrial use (gravel operations, junkyards, etc.) and transformed into an acclaimed green space along the picturesque Ohio River.

Realizing what a potential jewel the site was, efforts began about 20 years ago to begin assembling parcels for construction of a park. A master plan was created to guide various phases of the project, which helped to spread the cost over time. “And it whet the appetite of the public, as well,” says Gary Pepper, who has directed grounds maintenance at Louisville Waterfront Park ( for the past 13 years. “By opening small pieces at a time every few years, people really got excited about seeing another phase completed. It’s really kept the public involved in the process, rather than just opening the entire park at one time.”

Directed by the Waterfront Development Corporation, the first small portion of the park was unveiled in 1994. The second area (a giant brick wharf that accommodates large river boats) was completed two years later. The third section was opened in 1997 and included the “Linear Park,” featuring a playground and roughly 26 acres of heavily landscaped park area. In 1998, the 10-acre “Great Lawn” was opened as a centerpiece for the park and immediately won acclaim; it has since been named the nation’s “Best Lawn for Family Fun” by Briggs & Stratton. Adjacent to the Great Lawn, a giant harbor (with free docking, water, electricity, etc., for private watercrafts) was built, actually jutting into the park itself and surrounded by grass. Together, all of these areas totaled 54 acres and comprised Phase I.

Phase II was introduced in 2004, with 35 acres located about half a mile away at the far east end of the park. Another floating dock system was added for pleasure craft, along with an amphitheatre, another large playground and signature “landforms” added by the landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates.

A harbor was built into the park, bringing the landand water together in a single space. Louisville Waterfront Park boasts a prime downtownlocation on the Ohio River. The centerpiece of the parkis the 10-acre Great Lawn.

In June 2009, the first part of the 13-acre Phase III will be opened, featuring another, smaller amphitheater and a giant bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. After that will come pedestrian bridges and more lawn and picnic/park areas. Then, after two decades of hard work, Louisville Waterfront Park will be complete and stretch over about 85 acres.

While the waterfront location is a large part of what attracts visitors (some 1.5 million a year by the latest counts) to the grand park, the river also presents significant landscape maintenance challenges. “The park is set in a flood plain,” says Pepper. “A good portion of the Great Lawn gets what is called ‘nuisance flooding.’” For Pepper and his staff, the floods are more than a nuisance, though. They’re a routine part of the workday. The flooding events can be 4 to 10 feet, and occur as many as 12 times per year. “Roughly 20 to 30 percent of the Great Lawn can be flooded in the spring,” he says.

Therefore, The Great Lawn was built on a 12-inch sand base. “The sand is blended with peat moss and a shredded geotextile material called Net Lawn,” explains Pepper. “That material was rolled and graded, and has grass growing on it.” The unusual construction helps the large, open turfed area withstand compaction from the large number of visitors (150,000 on the Fourth of July alone), but more importantly, helps the Great Lawn rapidly drain and recover from flooding.

To help clean up after flooding, Pepper has devised a system featuring two rather unusual pieces of turfgrass maintenance equipment: snowplows and a pontoon boat. “Flood debris is our main nemesis. We use John Deere Gators with plows on the front to push all the mud and debris off. [He says keeping the plow facing straight ahead rather than angled helps to minimize the tearing of turf.] The Gators have heated cabs, so even on cold winter days we can use them. Then, we have fire hose connections throughout the entire park so we can hose everything down with fresh water,” says Pepper. “The Net Lawn is an engineered turf; the root interweaves through the textile fabric and creates a very stable base so the plant doesn’t get washed out.” On the hardscape areas, a pickup truck and snowplow are used to clear debris more quickly.

There’s a fair amount of handwork that needs to be done, including trimming in the tight confines of the amphitheater. A crew of six maintains the grounds at the park, which includes about 45 acres of turf that need to be mowed.

To assist in cleanups, including the removal of large logs and other debris that float into the harbor area and along the shore of the park, Pepper bought an old pontoon boat. “We disassembled the whole thing, put the steering column in the middle and mounted a giant boom on the front of the boat with a winch,” Pepper explains. From the boom hangs a “rake-type” device that was built to allow the pontoon boat to push the floating debris back out into the river. By law, any debris that has come completely out of the river and onto shore muse be collected, placed into dumpsters and disposed of.

The park hosts 150 to 200 events per year, many of them on the Great Lawn. “You can have a 1-inch rain in an hour and then drive a fully loaded semi over the turf and only experience less than a .5-inch depression in the soil,” says Pepper.

Some areas of the park feature distinctive élandforms_ that help to break up large spacesinto more intimate areas. The grounds crew uses walk-behind mowers and followsexacting paths to ensure safety while not damaging the crisp edges of the shapes.

Of course, the sand base also means that the Great Lawn has little to no nutrient-holding capacity. Pepper explains that years of experimentation have led to a system that keeps the uniquely constructed lawn healthy: “We aerate the lawn three to four times a year with a big Toro aerator. Then we overseed with 2,000 pounds of seed two times per year. We apply granular, slow-release fertilizer in spring, late summer and winter. Then, we have an irrigation system that runs every day in the spring, summer and fall; in that, we have a fertigation system. So, every time it runs, the turf is getting a little dose of fertilizer.”

The landforms in Phase II of the park help to break up the large open areas and create more intimate spaces. “They’re incredible,” says Pepper, but they also present their own maintenance challenges. “Some are circles, some are triangles, some are long sweeping shapes. The edges have to be mowed in the same patterns, or you’ll loose the crispness of the shapes.” Throughout the park, the grounds crew uses Exmark hydro walk-behind and Scag zero-turn mowers. The walk-behinds are especially important for the landforms to ensure greater control, and even then the steep slopes can be intimidating for new employees. They also come in handy in the tight spaces of the amphitheater.

The maintenance crew at Louisville Waterfront Park includes six landscape employees and one plumber. “And we don’t do any overtime, everyone is on salary,” says Pepper. With 45 acres of mowing alone that keeps everyone moving quickly every day. To help ensure that the staff doesn’t have any unnecessary repair work to do, the park has several policies it follows strictly. For example, there are no cleats allowed in the many informal sporting games played on the lawns; a security guard is posted at night to prevent vandalism damage; and a significant damage deposit is collected for any large organized events to ensure the park is left in good condition—any turf/landscaping repairs are charged at $175 per hour per man.

These policies minimize damage and let the maintenance team focus on keeping the park in pristine condition. “Our goal is to be sure the park looks great every day, whether flooding has just occurred, or there was a big event the night before, it doesn’t matter,” says Pepper. “The park is in a very visible location, and it has to look great for every visitor who comes here.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.