By Dennis J. Kennelly, P.E., M.ASCE, F. Jack Buholtz, P.E., and Lynn M. Williams
A $65-million capital rehabilitation project improved attractions, facilities, and services across the 400-plus acres of New York State's Niagara Falls State Park. Throughout the five-year construction phase, the park remained open, and attendance actually increased.
To appreciate the significance of the State of New York's $65-million Niagara Falls State Park Transformation Initiative, one must understand its magnitude. This comprehensive capital rehabilitation effort spanned more than five years and touched nearly every major location, feature, and attraction within the park's 400-plus acres. Niagara Falls itself consists of three waterfalls along the Niagara River Gorge: Horseshoe Falls (also known as Canadian Falls), American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. The transformation project included work at Terrapin Point, an observation area on the western tip of Goat Island, which is located between Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls; the Cave of the Winds, which is a series of wooden walkways and an observation deck close to Bridal Veil Falls; and Prospect Point, which provides views of the American Falls and is home to the park's visitor center.
In addition to work on Goat Island, the project also involved efforts on Three Sisters Island, just south of Goat Island; Luna Island, on the north side of Goat Island, between Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls; and the Lower Grove, Gorge Rim, and North Shore Trails. The rehabilitation implemented a series of more than 16 full-scale, interconnected projects—all while maintaining the accessibility and safety of the millions of guests who visit the park each year. This work—which upheld Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Calvert Vaux's original, yet never fully implemented, vision for the nation's oldest state park—completely revitalized the site to reflect its distinction as an international tourist destination and a national treasure.
No longer the forgotten neighbor of the "Canadian side" of the falls, Niagara Falls State Park is a destination that brings visitors within feet of the amazing falls and the mighty Niagara River. For the design community, the revitalization highlighted the power of teamwork. The global engineering firm T.Y. Lin International (TYLI), the project's design team leader, worked hand in hand with its client, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, to remedy years of disrepair, undersized overlooks, inadequate pedestrian circulation, and antiquated systems. Everything—attractions, infrastructure, buildings, parking facilities, lighting systems, pedestrian and vehicle circulation routes, and behind-the-scenes utility, mechanical, electrical, irrigation, and stormwater systems—was upgraded with state-of-the-art design and technology.
Technology triumphed over the icy challenges presented by the harsh environmental conditions at the site. This technology was combined with designs that included material selection to support green infrastructure, sustainability, and longevity. The project encompassed site/civil engineering, landscape architecture, geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, architecture, environmental permitting, mechanical and electrical engineering, and surveying. The intensity of the project partnership, from planning and design through construction, created a new definition of "project team." Key officials from the lead organizations involved—the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, TYLI, and the LA Group Landscape Architecture & Engineering P.C., based in Saratoga Springs, New York—met on-site every two weeks for five years for in-person progress updates involving designers, park managers, project managers, contractors, and construction managers. This unique collaboration allowed in-the-field redesign of river walls, utilities, and surface features along several river gorge areas to maintain public safety and keep construction moving ahead without delay.
TYLI managed a core team of consultants that, in addition to the LA Group, included McMahon & Mann Consulting Engineers P.C., of Buffalo, New York, the geotechnical engineer; Foit-Albert Associates, Architecture, Engineering and Surveying P.C., with offices in Buffalo, Albany, and New York, New York, which was responsible for the architectural design and surveying; PGAV Destinations, of St. Louis, which led the Cave of the Winds exhibit design; and Pittsburgh-based Design Island Associates, which handled the media design and production for the exhibits at the Cave of the Winds area. With seven additional subconsultants aiding on select projects, TYLI ultimately orchestrated the efforts of 12 individual firms.
During the programming phase, the team conducted workshop sessions with park administrators and operators to establish program and facility needs. Integration of the client with the design and construction team ensured strong communication on project schedule and delivery. The team continually vetted solutions and material selections throughout design development and contract document preparation to confirm the decisions were economical and cost-effective and achieved the project maintenance and budget goals. As a true measure of success, the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation was so pleased with the early phases of the project that it added assignments and funding and extended the timelines to maximize the revitalization effort, increasing the original budget from $25 million to $65 million. (TYLI's work represented roughly $40 million of that total; for information on other aspects of the overall Niagara Falls State Park Transformation Initiative, see "Enhanced Entrance," on page 56.) The project exceeded the client's goals and was completed in accordance with the expanded schedule and budget.
Visitors travel from all over the world to see Niagara Falls, so the client required that the park never close its gates throughout the transformation project. For the design and construction teams, this meant that the greatest challenge involved the careful planning and phasing of the construction efforts to minimize disruption to tourists, restricting access to only one major viewing site or facility at a time. Success on this account is evident from the park's attendance numbers. At the start of the project, the park welcomed some 8 million visitors per year. During construction, the visitor counts rose—reaching more than 9.5 million annually today—and excitement grew as each phase of the transformation was completed.
At the start of the project, the park showed little appreciation for design consistency, public accessibility rules, or provisions of green infrastructure and sustainability. Pedestrian facilities and vehicle circulation have been revamped, and circulation enhancements have expanded and improved the pedestrian queuing zones and safety. In addition, the aesthetics at the multiple plazas were enhanced to provide overall infrastructure and landscape improvements, and the visitor experience at the point of arrival has been significantly transformed. All trails and walkways were also reconstructed and expanded from 6 ft wide to a minimum 12 ft wide, with increased widths in high-volume zones.
Along the north bank of the Niagara River, a historical aluminum railing system was refurbished and reconfigured to improve structural performance under ice loading and to address issues associated with excessive thermal expansion and contraction. A new stainless-steel railing for Terrapin Point was designed to accommodate the significant ice buildup that occurs as the mist from the falls freezes and accumulates on the railing during winter months. This new railing system features 316L stainless steel and a glass-beadshot matte finish. The stainless steel is coated with a clear siloxane anticorrosion treatment to ensure that the material will maintain its structural integrity and appearance through heavy use, abuse, and environmental exposure.
All new and refurbished railings were installed on new continuous wall foundations with curbs; the existing railings had been supported on individual piers at each post. The new foundations help address past issues with erosion and settlement of the pedestrian paths toward the riverbank and help reduce the amount of debris that gets blown into the river and the falls. The designs conform to the current building codes while remaining sensitive to the historic fabric of the park.
At Prospect Point and Stedman's Bluff, new paving stones made from native limestone and natural granite were introduced for aesthetics and longevity. The granite paving stones also boast a textured thermal finish to provide a durable, slip-resistant, easily maintainable surface. In addition to improving public safety, the new surfaces ease the winter maintenance burden of work crews. New architectural shelters were designed for several stops along the park's trolley system, which loops its way around Goat Island, across the American Rapids Bridge to Prospect Point, and eastward to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center and the nearby aquarium.
Additional Insight: "Enhanced Entrance"
Although treacherous terrain and steep walkways previously prohibited access to several park sites for visitors with limited physical abilities, new and upgraded pathways have opened these areas to all visitors. Indeed, the entire park is now designed to improve visitor safety and meet the accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), with continuous, accessible routes leading to all major viewsheds, including Luna Island, the lower North Shore Trail, and Terrapin Point. In addition, new retaining walls and railings along the river's edge blend safety with accessibility, while the overall design provides closer public access, capitalizes on the unique characteristics of the site, ensures efficiency of movement, enhances sustainability, and requires less maintenance.
Circulation routes were examined to improve the separation between pedestrians and vehicles, including trolleys and maintenance and delivery trucks. Terrapin Point was completely regraded, and trails and overlooks were surveyed and modeled to ensure the new infrastructure complied with the ADA. Alignments of the new retaining walls were reevaluated with the geotechnical engineers during construction to ensure that the walls were constructed at safe distances from erodible soils along the American Rapids, just upstream from the brink of the falls.
While each aspect of the project offered unique challenges, the structural engineering components tested the design team the most.
As part of the complete rehabilitation of the Luna Island Pedestrian Bridge, located a mere 80 ft from Bridal Veil Falls, the team inspected the underside of the bridge at night—using specialized rigging—to avoid conflict with ongoing construction at Luna Island and the tourists who use the nearby Hurricane Deck to view Bridal Veil's crashing cascades. Supported by a system of cables and aluminum platforms, the engineers performed their hands-on inspection of the existing stone-clad, cast-in-place concrete arch while suspended mere feet above the flowing river. Years of freeze-thaw activity had deteriorated the masonry, mortar, and anchoring system, so the team decided to replace the entire deteriorated stone facade, securing it to the cast-in-place arch with stainless-steel anchors.
New utility services—including water and sewer mains, electrical service, fiber optics, and telecommunications systems—were installed on the vehicular bridge from the mainland to Goat Island. The existing bridge consists of three spans: the main span, which reaches 450 ft over the American Rapids, and two end spans that consist of concrete counterweights to balance the main arched span, which is constructed of three built-up riveted girders. The installation of the new pipes within the confines of the uniquely designed vehicular bridge was a challenge. The piping was fed on rollers through the minimal space between the counterweights and the abutment walls. Expansion joints and insulation that accommodate the differential temperature expansion properties of the bridge were installed one section at a time. Special anchor fittings provided thrust restraint. The preinsulated pipe was designed to have a consistent outside diameter of 13 in. so it could be easily inserted into the narrow openings in the abutments and the guide brackets and would slide easily to accommodate relative movement due to pipe and bridge expansion. The pipe was assembled and pushed through the 700 ft long span, supported on rollers and custom-designed brackets spaced 15 ft apart, accommodating the 12 ft camber of the bridge.
The inspection and construction work under the bridge deck required safety harness tie-offs and specialized scaffolding—all of which required prior approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the New York State Department of Transportation. Originally, the team considered putting the pipes under the bridge's sidewalk. But that approach would have been more expensive because it involved replacing—and slightly raising—the sidewalk, replacing the railings, and providing a structurally sound sidewalk surface that was nonslippery but also easy to remove for pipe maintenance.
The park presented varying subsurface and poor soil conditions, for example, hidden pockets of soil with a consistency akin to quicksand that created design challenges and potentially hazardous conditions for the contractors. During the project, the team discovered former fill areas, buried foundations of mills dating back 150 years, and abandoned underground structures. Ground-penetrating radar and seismic monitoring equipment was used to map the buried structures to determine whether to excavate or build around them.
One unknown buried structure along a major pedestrian path was spanned using a cast-in-place concrete slab, the placement formed with temporary shoring extending through the buried structure below. Frequent site visits by the project leaders helped enable an on-site redesign to deal with these soil issues.
The complete reconstruction of Terrapin Point posed many challenges and safety concerns because of the site's proximity to the Canadian Rapids, the brink of Horseshoe Falls, and the Niagara Gorge. Other concerns included the heavy ice load, steep slopes, unknown structural conditions of the wall and railing foundations, and potential construction impacts because of the underlying rock formations.
The team incorporated specialty structural design and construction methodology and phasing to overcome the ice loading and safety issues. The use of seismic monitors helped ensure stability of the rock-support and railing-wall foundations.
It had been many years since the bulk of the park's mechanical systems, ticketing systems, and other operational systems had been upgraded. The Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation was committed to incorporating new innovations wherever possible.
For example, the project introduced a state-of-the-art, fully automated parking access and revenue control system (PARCS). The system is machine readable and features voice communication for patron service. Its automatic vehicle identification and bar code technology were used in the New York State Parks system for the first time on this project. The system reduces labor expenses by requiring no parking attendants and serves as a model for parks throughout the state.
Specialized, energy-efficient lighting was installed along the shore of the American Rapids at Prospect Point and Lower Grove Trail to illuminate the river's dramatic, turbulent flow and create an impressive, year-round visitor experience. The system's robust design and highly efficient light-emitting diode (LED) technology should withstand the ice buildup and reduce maintenance costs. At Terrapin Point, where constant mist combines with frigid temperatures to create relentless winter icing, the new detachable light poles can be removed before the onset of winter.
A state-of-the-art, timed ticketing system was designed and installed at the attraction known as the Cave of the Winds Experience. Visitors receive a specified entry time and are free to explore other areas of the park in the meantime, an approach that eliminates long lines. In addition, the redesigned attraction features hands-on exhibits and films to help educate and entertain visitors before an elevator transports them 175 ft down to the base of the American Falls for a close-up, "get-wet" view of the power and magnitude of this natural wonder.
At the Cave of the Winds Plaza, a combination information/ticket sales/restroom facility enhances visitor comfort and service. Other improvements—designed to reduce maintenance and operating expenses—include a high-efficiency, in-floor radiant heating system and new sanitary sewer collection, pumping, and transmission systems. The new water mains provide enhanced fire protection and maintain acceptable chlorine residual levels to protect against stagnation and bacterial concerns.
New utility services were installed from the mainland to Goat Island, including water and sewer mains, electrical services, fiber optics, and telecommunications services. The aging utility services on the deteriorating pedestrian bridges connecting Goat Island to the mainland via Green Island had been compromised frequently in the past. They were in danger of failing, which would have devastated operations. The old sanitary force-main pipes had a history of freezing during harsh winters, which created backups and system failures. To remedy this problem, the new water and sanitary mains incorporate a redundant heating system to protect against freezing and an alarm that will sound and notify staff if the pipe temperature approaches freezing. The new high-efficiency pump stations for Goat Island replace a system of submersible pump stations that were old, in poor condition, and difficult to maintain. The new centralized pump station includes a suction lift design to enable simplified monitoring and maintenance without the need to access the wet well.
At Prospect Point and Goat Island, automated irrigation systems were designed and installed to accommodate the new landscaped areas. The systems are efficient, consistent, and very low maintenance, and they require minimal staff hours to operate. The master controllers can cycle the irrigation periods among the many zones to reduce the peak flow rates and adjust according to the detected ambient moisture and weather conditions.
Throughout the park, the new landscape design, stormwater management, and irrigation improvements focused on green infrastructure and sustainable design while vastly improving the site's aesthetics. The park-wide plan instituted best management practices and sustainability for permanent stormwater management, including the introduction of new trees and planting beds, installation of stormwater quality units, and construction of vegetated bioswales and a bioretention basin to manage runoff, filter pollutants, and increase rainwater infiltration before discharge to the Niagara River.
The original Olmsted and Vaux vision of the park has been reintroduced to provide closer access for the public, capitalize on the existing unique characteristics of each portion of the site, ensure efficiency of movement, and require less maintenance—all of which will provide long-term benefits to the visiting public and taxpayers.
Today, the park is a visual model of sustainability, state-of-the-art innovation, and ADA accessibility for its millions of annual visitors. The park's systems—visible and behind the scenes—are vastly more efficient and produce extraordinary savings in cost and time. Many of the systems serve as benchmarks for parks across the state.
In addition to exceeding specific project goals, the transformation project and the ensuing increase in visitors has had a tremendous impact on the regional economy. At least six new hotels have opened in the area in recent years, and another two are planned. Truly, a new day has dawned on Niagara Falls State Park and its surroundings.
Dennis J. Kennelly, P.E., M.ASCE, is a vice president and unit manager; F. Jack Buholtz, P.E., is a senior project manager; and Lynn M. Williams is a senior marketing coordinator in T.Y. Lin International's Rochester, New York office
PROJECT CREDITS Client The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Design team leader T.Y. Lin International, San Francisco Programming, project management, landscape architectural design, and wayfinding The LA Group Landscape Architecture & Engineering P.C., Saratoga Springs, New York Geotechnical engineering Mc-Mahon & Mann Consulting Engineers P.C., Buffalo, New York Architectural design and surveying Foit-Albert Associates, Architecture, Engineering and Surveying P.C., with offices in Buffalo, Albany, and New York, New York Cave of the Winds exhibit design PGAV Destinations, St. Louis Media design and production for Cave of the Winds exhibits Design Island Associates, Pittsburgh General contractors Scott Lawn Yard and Yarussi Construction Inc., both of Niagara Falls, New York
Civil Engineering, March 2020, © American Society Of Civil Engineers. All Rights Reserved