The debut of the Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center will be on Saturday, June 11 in the park located at Forest Avenue and Ontario Street in Oak Park. Construction on the project began in September 2015.
The main attraction will be the education center itself, a 2,100-square-foot multiuse center that will host children’s nature day camps, environmental education programs for adults and children in addition to other community events.
A “learning garden” will have birding scopes, nature imprints, native plantings and a social gathering area with game tables for group picnics.
“While we are still working out the details, we will have both youth and adult activities planned for the day,” Park District of Oak Park Executive Director Jan Arnold said. “We will have presentations by park district staff, including a ‘yard tips’ presentation by Travis Stephens and ‘tree tips’ by John Borland. We think the adults will enjoy this opportunity to get some advice for their homes.
“We’ll also have some hands-on activities for children such as crafts and nature activities and yoga for adults.”
The Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center will be a LEED Platinum-certified facility with sustainable design elements including a geo-thermal system for heating, air conditioning and comfort control; a photovoltaic array — a power –generating unit — on the roof to supply projected energy needs of the building; a green roof; storm water harvesting via a cistern; a raingarden and bioswales to control storm water, and energy-efficient mechanical systems.
The exterior of the building, though it looks like lumber, is actually clad in a sheathing called LP Smart Siding, a product made from 100-percent recycled wood. And the wood finish trim for the building will be ash milled from trees taken down in Rehm Park, casualties of the emerald ash borer.
According to Arnold, work which will be completed by June 11 includes the environmental education center, installation of educational garden areas with rain gardens and some walking path work.
The total cost for Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center is about $1.3 million, said Arnold and is being funded from a variety of sources. The project was awarded a $400,000 OSLAD grant, which is being held up in Springfield as legislators battle the governor over the budget.
Last year, the park board amended its capital improvement plan in order to free up funding for the Austin Gardens work and not jeopardize the OSLAD grant should that funding become available in the future.
The project also received a $115,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and about $125,000 from the Austin Trust Fund, which is administered by the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation and is used to fund programming and improvements to Austin Gardens.
The Park District of Oak Park’s is responsible for the balance of the cost.
In terms of a long-term view of Austin Gardens, the park district held community meeting on Jan. 5 at the Brookdale Retirement Community in Oak Park. The meeting, which drew approximately 80 community residents, provided a review of the existing master plan and gathered input from the community regarding improvements.