In the Park

The new Tilton Park becomes the latest in a city full of beautiful public spaces.

When Clara Zahradnik learned the city would be forced to replace the Cool Spring reservoir—a feature not unlike a rectangular concrete pond—with an underground tank, she, like many neighborhood residents, was nervous. The seven-acre reservoir had not only provided drinking water to the city since 1875, it had also served as a social and visual focal point of the historic community since its construction.

“You could always stand by the reservoir and see the city skyline rising behind it,” says Zahradnik, president of the Cool Spring-Tilton Park Neighborhood Association. “We wanted Public Works to preserve that very special water feature,” a place residents could use “for concerts and picnics, or just for a quiet walk in the evening.”

For its part, the department of public works wanted the same thing. Now, after seven years of planning, a year of construction and $22.1 million, the reservoir area has been turned into a beautiful new park—a jewel in a city blessed with historically significant parks. The new reservoir and Tilton Park is the largest public works project in city history.

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“This has always been a signature space for the city,” says Public Works Commissioner Kash Srinivasan. “We knew we needed to keep the 125-year visual that the open reservoir provided the community there.”

From initial community meetings, smaller working groups of city officials and area residents were formed. “What came out of those working groups were a lot of ideas generated by residents, which became the criteria of what we wanted the park to look like,” says Zahradnik.

Those criteria were sent to seven engineering and landscape architectural firms, who competed for best design. The winner was Pennoni Associates in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The winning element of its design was a promenade over the old reservoir, which created a pedestrian walkway through the park from Eleventh Street, Srinivasan says.

“There were other designs that were interesting, but we were somewhat worried that the costs might be higher than estimated,” Zahradnik says. “We felt the Pennoni design offered the best preservation of the water feature, and, by keeping it located at street level, would also be the most cost effective.”

With a total of $22.1 million allocated for the underground tank and park construction ($4.5 million for the park itself), construction on the tank began in 2005. It was completed in March 2008. Construction of the park began in July 2008. It was completed in September.

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The old open-water reservoir, defined by a berm, occupied a rectangular area of almost 7 acres. It had a capacity of 40 million gallons. The new pond, a half moon shape with a fountain, covers 1.3 acres. It contains about 320,000 gallons of water. A raised lawn over the new underground tank occupies the rest of the property. An outer footpath, open to the public at all times, is nearly a half-mile long. An oval path within the park is just over a quarter-mile around. Half the oval defines the pond. The other half leads through the lawn. A pergola stands in the middle of the oval. The park is gated to regulate dawn-to-dusk use.

Page 2: In the Park, continues…


The design preserves a quiet environment, one that would be attractive to elderly residents.

“What we noticed from the beginning was that there was a strong, active neighborhood association in place, and that the city had done an excellent job of outreach to the community for input on the park,” says associate planner Angela Dixon of Hurely-Franks and Associates, a Philadelphia-based urban planning and design firm. Dixon led facilitation for the project. “Everyone kept their eye on the ultimate goal.”

“One of the most important things we learned about this project was the importance of advance notice of impending disruption” such as construction noise and traffic detours, Dixon says. “Open communication created an atmosphere of compromise and cooperation that is sometimes lacking in projects of this scope.”

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One of the most effective communication methods was an e-newsletter that kept residents informed of upcoming events, construction milestones, parking impact notices and other news.

Greg Rishel, a project landscape architect with Pennoni Associates, was impressed with the scale of the Cool Spring project.

“It was great to be involved with something you don’t often see in a city like Wilmington or a neighborhood like this,” says Rishel. He points out that Pennoni employees live and work in Wilmington, so they are potential users of the park.

“The community knew what it wanted,” Rishel says. “The surrounding schools were looking for more open space for recreation, and that gave us the idea for the Great Lawn that covers the underground tank.”

Rishel says that keeping open water in the design not only met the community’s criteria, it has also proven to be attractive to wildlife. “There are families of ducks that have already made Cool Spring their new home,” he says.

Rishel says schools adjacent to the park will be able to incorporate the water feature into educational programs about nature and the water cycle. “The water cycle tells the story of precipitation, evaporation and percolation as rain water is filtered through the precipitation of the lawn and back into the pond,” he says. “The fountain symbolizes the completion of the cycle as the water is returned to the atmosphere.”

Signs in the park explain the cycle to students and other visitors. Rishel says there was a real buzz around the neighborhood as the park began to take shape.

“I got a lot of thumbs up from residents looking with enthusiasm at the progress we were making,” he says. “And kids were asking questions and telling me how they couldn’t wait until it was opened.”

Zahradnik summed up the community’s response to the park with one word: “Spectacular.”

And, she notes, “You can still see the city skyline rising from behind the reconstructed pond.”

Page 3: A City of Parks | Wilmington is rich with great–and historic–parks. Here’s the short tour.


A City of Parks

Wilmington is rich with great—and historic—parks. Here’s the short tour.

Brandywine Park

With a growing population of laboring families in the 19th century, Wilmington realized a need for open, public green space to provide a respite from the typical 70-hour workweek. Beginning in 1883, the city began looking at available parcels along Brandywine Creek. No less than Frederick Law Olmsted, who had established a renown for park development that included New York City’s Central Park, recommended the creek for its natural amenities of “river, rock outcroppings, trees, hills and undeveloped spaces.”

By 1910 all 179 acres of what would become known as Brandywine Park along North Park Drive in the city had been assembled. Stone quarried on site was formed into beautiful retaining walls, the famous Monkey House of the Brandywine zoo and a good portion of Van Buren Street. Footpaths meander along the bans of the creek and a historic millrace. And a swinging suspension bridge delights walkers. The zoo occupies 13 acres, where 150 animals—including a pair of captive-bred California condors—welcome visitors year round. Also home of Baynard Stadium and the Josephine Fountain, Brandywine boasts two annual floral explosions with the Jasper Crane Rose Garden and a copse of cherry trees that pop about two weeks after the more famous bloom in Washington, D.C.


H. Fletcher Brown Park

Adjacent to Brandywine Park, this tiny park is named after a famed Wilmington chemist and philanthropist. Its location at Market Street and South Park Drive is the site of a former vocational high school also named after Brown. A great place for lunch, the park features a contemporary pavilion, as well as an overlook on Brandywine Creek and a millrace that still provides much of Wilmington’s water supply. During summer look for the “nature on the go cart,” a science education exhibit on wheels.


Rockford Park and Tower

Initially snubbed by the city in its search for a public park, local industrialist William Poole Bancroft eventually persuaded Wilmington to accept his donation of 59 acres high above Brandywine Creek, which would form the core of Rockford Park.

The centerpiece is 110-year-old Rockford Tower, built atop a hill to distribute water pumped from the Cool Spring reservoir to the surrounding Highlands neighborhood. The tower overlooks a long sloping lawn with mature trees that rises to tennis courts and athletic fields.

The tower was built on land originally donated by the DuPont Co. (forming the remaining acreage of Rockford Park) and included an observatory to provide a place to view the Brandywine Creek. Before allowing visitors to mount the steps to the observatory, however, the city had to accept liability for any harm done by a gunpowder explosion from nearby DuPont facilities. The tower opened to the public in 1903. Renovated and reopened in 2002, the observatory is again open to the public during concerts and other education programs conducted in the park. The observatory offers an unparalleled view of the city.

Until 1929 Rockford Park was served by a trolley line. At the dawn of the Great Depression, the roadbed was converted to a bridle path. The annual Wilmington Flower Market on Mother’s Day weekend remains a major attraction. The park is also the most popular area of the city among dog owners and their pets.


Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park

Named for Thomas Garrett, a Quaker Hill resident who sheltered runaway slaves traveling the Underground Railroad, and the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Tubman-Garrett is among the first sites seen by arriving Amtrak passengers. As a result, it is a jewel of the Riverfront Development Corporation, as well as the city’s first and best foot forward for visitors traveling the rails.

Used mainly to host concerts, including the Riverfront Blues Festival and the Bob Marley festival, the park is home to the annual Hispanic Festival, DuPont Riverfest, Vendemmia and the August Quarterly.

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