Great blue herons bully great egrets for the best positions on the fringes of a backwater. A raft of 20 cormorants swims on a shallow river pool. A red-tailed hawk swoops over a road, a furry brown morsel in its beak. In other circumstances, such scenes would seem too commonplace to mention. But this location makes them special—less than a mile south of downtown Columbus, Ohio, nearly in the shadow of Interstate 70-71, on acreage that housed an impound lot, rows of warehouses, a concrete factory, and a city dump.
The site is the Whittier Peninsula, a stretch of hard-used land wedged between the Scioto River and the city’s gentrifying German Village. Overlooking a backwater is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, opened in August 2009 and dedicated to restoring the peninsula while bringing outdoor education to city kids lagging in science achievements. “We love the idea of taking these neglected urban areas and reforesting and making healthier habitat,” says Heather Starck, the center’s director until she became Audubon North Carolina’s executive director. “If we really want to get people engaged in conservation work, this is where we can do that. We’re right at the core of the city. We can get all kinds of people involved.”
The center stems from a cooperative effort by Audubon, the city, the metro park authority, and the business community to remake an industrial brownfield into natural space for city residents and wildlife. “We think it means a lot to take an area that was a run-down industrial site, kind of misused for a long time, and make it a premier attraction for the city,” says John O’Meara, executive director of Metro Parks, which manages the fledgling Scioto Audubon Metro Park on the peninsula. “It’s going to make downtown and the nearby environs an even better place to live and work. With the Audubon center there it’s going to have a very strong environmental education program targeted at the inner-city neighborhood and schools. We think that’s a great asset.”
About a decade ago, Columbus, like a lot of other cities at the time, developed a riverfront plan to re-invent its neglected industrial waterfront. The Whittier Peninsula figured in several proposals—including a ballpark and an amphitheater. With pressure from conservationists, some form of open space figured prominently.
Metro Parks, the regional park authority that develops and manages large natural recreation areas for Franklin County and other adjacent counties, badly wanted a park in central Columbus. There were more than a dozen regional Metro Parks in seven central Ohio counties, but none in urban Columbus.
Audubon Ohio saw conservation potential in restoring Whittier Peninsula, where some members bird-watched. Despite the long-term neglect and degradation, a three-mile stretch along the river retained a fringe of hardwood forest and had been recently designated an Important Bird Area. It remained an important spot for waterfowl and shorebirds and a stopover for migrating songbirds. Not long ago, it had been a nesting area for yellow-crowned night-herons, birds rarely seen here at the northern edge of their range. At least 212 species of birds have been spotted in the area, more than any other stretch of the 200-mile-long section of the Scioto.
So the Whittier Peninsula presented an opportunity: riverfront rehab for the city and a park for the park authority, and a chance for conservation work and outreach for Audubon. In 2003, the three parties signed an agreement to create a natural park with the Audubon center as its centerpiece. When plans for nearby mixed development fell through, the city asked Metro Parks to manage most of the 160 acres, leased from the city for $1 for 25 years, and they have contracts for the next 50 years, bringing the grand total to $3.
Some of the work and expense fell to the city, which removed old buildings and underground storage tanks, and paid for soil remediation. Elevated levels of lead and arsenic caused concern, but on the five acres surrounding the Audubon center the concentrations were low enough and buried deeply enough to allow the property to be used for recreation, says Amy Yersavich, manager in the site assistance and brownfields revitalization section in the division of environmental response and revitalizationfor the Ohio EPA. “In this case, it wasn’t a superfund type site by any means,” she says.
Audubon Ohio set a fund-raising goal of about $8 million for its new center. Then Philip Urban received an invitation.
Urban, a self-described “corporate vagabond,” is recently retired CEO of Grange Insurance in Columbus, a $1.5 billion company with policyholders in 13 states. Jan Rodenfels, an Audubon Ohio board member and friend, invited Urban and his wife to dinner in nearby Dayton. On the way, they toured the Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm just north of Dayton. Rodenfels talked about how Grange Insurance might support a new center on Whittier Peninsula.
The timing was fortuitous. Grange, says Urban, had been searching for “some iconic way” to commemorate its 75th anniversary in 2010. The company had always been located downtown and a nature center committed to community education in central Columbus seemed to fit the bill. “We’re in the business of insurance where longevity and strength and being there when customers need you—that’s who you want to be as a brand. We wanted to have some way of saying we’ve been here 75 years—we’ll probably be here another 75 years.”
Urban sold the idea to Grange’s board, which offered to buy naming rights to the center for $4 million. Then he formed a fund-raising committee and invited Rodenfels “because no good deed goes unpunished.”
Urban based his pitch to potential donors on several “compelling reasons.” A green-design center would showcase ways we can live lighter on the planet. A natural area so close to downtown would demonstrate that nature and development can go hand in hand. Finally, exposure to nature has been shown to be useful in improving early science education in disadvantaged schools. “Frankly if you drive through these neighborhoods, there isn’t a whole lot of nature,” says Urban. “So one compelling reason is the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty through early-age hands-on science–nature experiences.”
Corporate and individual patrons were clearly convinced. Urban and other center promoters have raised $14.5 million, more than enough to build the center and begin operation.
There was never a question that the new center would incorporate green-building techniques, says Starck. A chief concern was the building’s location on the banks of a major tributary of the Ohio River. Because polluted urban runoff is a widespread problem, Audubon told its architect, DesignGroup of Columbus, not only to manage drainage from the property but also to show visitors how it could be done. The process starts with a roof that is green—figuratively and literally, planted with natives, including phlox and sedum, which suck up and transpire rainfall. What isn’t absorbed runs down chains or cutaway downspouts so visitors can see it flow into a system of drains and rain gardens positioned around the property. Porous sidewalks and parking pads allow rainfall to soak into the soil.
To cut the carbon footprint of heating and cooling, designers opted for geothermal heat pumps. A closed-loop system of 27 wells reaching 300 feet deep provides 55-degree water to cool the building in summer and help warm it in winter. The system will save the center an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 a year on heating and cooling costs.
Large banks of south-facing windows provide passive solar heat but also raised concerns about bird strikes. Bird patterns embedded in the glass, known as fritting, break up the reflective surface. A crazy-quilt of window-frame dimensions also ward off avian collisions. “It’s working,” says Starck. “We’ve had a couple of strikes and it’s always been someplace that doesn’t have anything on it.”
In front of the center stands an 800-pound bronze sculpture of a passenger pigeon, one of several figures crafted by artist Todd McGrain for his Lost Bird Project (for more on the project, click here). It's a reminder that the last known wild pigeon and last captive both died in Ohio.
Outside, Starck and Doreen Whitley, the center’s former conservation director, have contributed to a plan for the grounds, and a basis for collaborating with Metro Parks on resource management of the surrounding park. They’re reducing invasive exotics, especially plants, increasing the width and natural composition of the natural river corridor from understory to canopy, and planting and nurturing the artificial wetlands that were dug on the park property to catch runoff (from the residential-commercial development plans the were later abandoned).
They’re measuring their success by gauging the response of birds, especially neotropical migrants such as flycatchers and warblers, to the changing setting. “It’s not rocket science,” says Whitley. But it is labor-intensive, and that’s where Audubon’s conservation and community goals coincide, as students learn by gathering and recording information.
Within five miles of the new Grange center are 53 schools where more than 80 percent of the students are economically “disadvantaged,” notes Christie Vargo, the center’s director. There’s a huge need for science education, she adds. At Livingston Elementary, for instance, only eight percent of fourth graders passed the state standardized science test in 2009. Grange staff worked with the principal to develop a hands-on curriculum for the students during visits to the center, and 48 percent of fourth graders passed the exam in 2010. The Center is contracting with schools, providing students with multi-hour fieldtrips, says Vargo. “Our focus is really working very intensely with the students. It’s not one-shot field trips, but a program that really makes a difference.”
Center staffers wanted to design projects that would help kids learn while doing real work for the center. One school said students needed to learn to use dichotomous keys to identify species. Whitley wanted to identify trees along transects in a small patch of forest. So she assigned students to tally them and then do the math to determine species composition of the tract.
In another case, volunteers and staff eradicated bush honeysuckle from the area dubbed Area 51 for its frequency of invasive aliens. The dense, arching honeysuckle shaded out native species and formed getaway tunnels for local delinquents running from police. Whitley recruited students to replant the area with native spicebush, dogwood, sumac, viburnum, witch hazel, and elderberry. “The idea was to pack in as much as possible.”
To determine how successful the planting had been, she enlisted eight students from an alternative charter school “to map the hell out of it.” They came out several times a week to locate every new plant by GPS coordinate and note its health. Whitley got her data and students learned about mapping technology. In fact, one student landed a summer job with a software company based on his experience.
Now, on a given day, school kids spill out of buses and walk the trails, peering through binoculars. City residents—some Audubon members, some not—go bird watching, stand on the overlooks to the river, and stop inside the center. Last Halloween more than 150 people, mostly neighborhood kids, dropped by in costume for trick-or-treating, to see captive birds of prey up close, and to file outside to hoot for barred and great horned owls.
Teenager Elijah Thomas lives nearby and volunteers at the center. Asked what he likes best, he jumps in a dozen different directions at once. “Let me show you,” he says. He describes how sunlight streaming through a skylight draws the time on the floor like the hand of a solar clock. He begins naming the species of birds sighted at the center—great blue heron, egret, and assorted hawks and owl—their pictures hanging from the ceiling in the lobby. He describes how water runs through the rain gardens. He’s been pinched by crayfish, and nipped by assassin bugs. At the moment, he’s carrying a big northern green frog he found outside.
“It’s not just a story of city and nature coexisting,” says Whitley. As she wades through the native grasses and forbs planted along the artificial wetlands, two hen mallards jump from one of the ponds. “It’s a story of the city supporting wildlife. The depth of what we’re doing here is pretty exciting.”