Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wisconsin has a rich history of embracing sustainability in a multitude of ways. Leadership within the College consider it to be the act of building - through their daily practices and educational programming - a thriving, resilient, and just community now and in the future. Western's La Crosse campus, about seven city blocks in size, has been designed to be a "living laboratory," where students in many programs learn about sustainability from the buildings and the grounds.
Focusing on the importance of the living lab and the impervious context of this urban campus, the RDG Planning & Design team envisioned the campus as a sponge for collecting stormwater and allowing it to slowly percolate into the ground, rather than being channeled to the adjacent Mississippi River. This sponge would be made up of green infrastructure installations and in the case of the 8th Street streetscape, this stormwater management system would harvest water from both public and private properties to benefit the College and the City of La Crosse.
Logistically, this was no easy task. There were negotiations between local government officials and Western's representatives to establish comfort in the proposed vision. The City vacated 15' of right-of-way on each side of the street to allow for the implementation of the green infrastructure, which was funded by the College. An easement was then granted through this zone for utility coordination and access. The right-of-way allows for the treatment of stormwater landing on the public street as well as the adjacent private parking areas and in turn, Western earns a credit toward their stormwater fees.
On the surface, this system appears to be repetitious and fairly simple. However, coordination of the underground utilities, of which there are many, was a large part of making this arrangement successful. Custom precast concrete planter walls were manufactured with existing utilities in mind, and allowed the contractor to efficiently install built bioretention basins during summer months when the population of campus users is much less than when classes are in full swing. The constructed basins were sized to manage specific drainage areas and where substantial treatment was not required, a smaller profile of planter wall was installed to create at-grade planting areas, while maintaining the design aesthetic and sense of safety that the curbed planter walls provide pedestrians traversing this major north-south corridor through campus.
Underfoot, students and visitors alike can enjoy a pattern created by using a series of colored pavers which draw your eyes forward. The pavers within the walkway not only provide visual interest and connectivity to other campus materials but are permeable and therefore allow additional infiltration of stormwater beneath the surface.
Western staff and the design team created a vision for 8th Street that focused on the experiential quality of students with recruitment and resiliency in mind. Creating traffic calming measures to slow vehicles along this corridor was of utmost importance in ensuring a safe environment for students, faculty and staff who are frequently crossing campus street. Lane adjustments and a speed table were implemented in strategic locations as well. The street's lighting and signage were significantly improved to provide appropriate visual clarity for passersby and motorists. These items paired with a major component of the streetscape; the focus was on using native and regional plant material, in structural ways, to provide more green space for this urban campus. While the green space provided isn't a traditional lawn area, it is still transformational in the way it connects with regional ecosystems and habitat.
The strategic implementation of plant heights, colors, and textures provides a scale to the design that is more easily relatable for pedestrians while the plants' root zones are prepared to collect and store stormwater - an essential part of this campus sponge.