Extending recreational opportunities for kids

Stephen J. O'Neill, P.E., Associate and Vice President, and John C. Vancor, P.E., Senior Principal Engineer
Fay, Spofford & Thorndike, LLC, Burlington, Massachusetts
When municipal leaders from Malden and Melrose, Massachusetts got together to discuss ways to solve an acute shortage of playing fields, they never dreamed they would wind up being trailblazers. But that's exactly what happened with the development of a new synthetic sports field that is being used today by local school children, youth athletic leagues, and even a local adult rugby club.

When planning for the new field at Pine Banks Park began, planners faced a complicated administrative task. Pine Banks Park, which was established by a local private nonprofit foundation more than a century ago, straddles the borders of two cities. As a result, planners had to develop an approach that would meet the unique needs of each of the cities and its residents. Fortunately, the mayors of the two cities, Richard Howard of Malden and Robert Dolan of Melrose, took a personal interest in the project, working closely with the park's Board of Trustees to make sure that the process went as smoothly as possible.

An aerial view of the Pine Banks Park Complex, with the new synthetic field in the foreground.

Also invaluable was the support of numerous local organizations, including The Bayrd Foundation, Eastern Bank, the Malden Redevelopment Authority, and the Mystic Valley Rugby Club, which underwrote a significant portion of the cost of developing the field. Together, these private groups raised more than half a million dollars. Finally, the field would not have been completed without the ongoing commitment of three local legislators: Senator Richard Tisei and Representatives Michael Festa and Christopher Fallon, who worked tirelessly for its approval and funding.

"This could have been a tricky project," said Hank Kezer, a Pine Banks Park Trustee. "The project's success was due, in large part, to the commitment of Mayors Dolan and Howard and their ability to work together, as well as their ability to work with all of the local public and private groups who had stakes in the project. This really was a model for how public and private entities can work together for the public good."

The project began with the hiring of Fay, Spofford & Thorndike (FST), a Massachusetts engineering firm, to create a master plan to determine what type of field should be built. For starters, two issues had to be addressed: where to locate the new fields, and what type of fields should be created.

Because land was at a premium, there were limited choices when it came to location. Working closely with Canton, Massachusetts-based Nangle Consulting Associates, an environmental consultant, the development team was able to reclaim park land adjacent to existing fields that had sat unused since the site's use as a municipal burning dump decades ago.

"A synthetic athletic field is the perfect cover for a landfill," according to Stephen Wishoski, executive director of the Malden Redevelopment Authority, whose agency agreed to coordinate and administer this project for the two cities. "It creates a nice barrier between the people who use the field and the soil."

Since Pine Banks Park already had several baseball and softball diamonds, the decision was made to develop a rectangular multi-use field that could be used for soccer, rugby, football, and field hockey. The original plan called for a 140,000 square-foot sand-based natural grass field, and the team soon got to work with site grading and construction of a subdrainage system.

In the midst of the project, just as the grass field was ready to be installed, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs announced that Pine Banks Park had been awarded a $500,000 Urban Self-Help Grant. Options for the best use of these funds were reviewed and the development team approached park administrators and city officials with an alternative suggestion: instead of a grass, why not install a synthetic field? With approval of the concept, Boston-based Geller Sport Inc. was brought in to provide additional expertise in synthetic turf fields.

"At the time, synthetic municipal fields were virtually unheard of in Massachusetts," said Malden's Mayor Howard. "There were several privately-developed fields, but no city had yet taken such a step."

Young athletes playing soccer. Because the synthetic field is impervious to weather conditions, youth spring leagues were able to start earlier in the season.

The synthetic field has turned out to be the perfect solution for Pine Banks Park. Because these fields are far more durable than natural grass, athletes can use the field all day long, every day. Furthermore, the new field is easier and cheaper to maintain than natural grass. While grass has to be mowed, aerated, and re-striped regularly, synthetic turf needs little attention. Also, because there is no need for intensive use of fertilizers to support heavy play, the field is environmentally friendly. An added benefit is that the field can be used in nearly any weather conditions. Spring seasons can start earlier and fall seasons can end later.

"This facility has given the city significant room to expand our playing fields and give other fields some rest," says Melrose's Mayor Dolan. "In a city like Melrose, it is almost impossible to keep fields in shape, and we don't have a lot of available land to create new fields. The new synthetic field provides a durable alternative that permits local athletes to play every day, virtually all day long."

Unlike the synthetic fields of just a few years ago, state-of-the-art fields like the one constructed at Pine Banks Park look, play, and feel like plush natural grass. The space between individual "blades" of grass in the surface carpet are filled with a mixture of sand and rubber providing an attractive, realistic, and resilient playing surface.

The new field at Pine Banks Park opened in the fall of 2003, and immediately experienced heavy use. High school soccer and field hockey, adult rugby, and Pop Warner football teams began to use the field as soon as it opened, and the athletes and their fans immediately fell in love with it.

This spring, Pine Banks Park received a second grant of $306,000 from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to fund additional improvements. These funds are being used to install sports field lighting, an accessible parking lot, and other site improvements.

The new multi-use field at Pine Banks Park is part of a trend that is becoming more common in New England. Construction of this field has helped alleviate the local playing field shortage. And because of the field's durability and low maintenance costs, the two cities will enjoy the numerous benefits provided by the field for years to come.

Stephen O'Neill can be reached at (781) 221-1000 or at SONeill@fstinc.com; John Vancor can be reached at (781) 221-1000 or at JVancor@fstinc.com.