KU students building ADA-compliant platform for Wells Overlook Park after delays caused by pandemic

photo by: Earl Richardson/Douglas County

A new ADA-accessible platform at Wells Overlook Park is currently under construction and is expected to be completed in early 2021. Douglas County hired the students from Dirt Works Studio of KU's School of Architecture and Design to design and build the platform and a planned pavilion in the park.

It may have taken longer than hoped, but a plan to provide accessible views of rural Douglas County is coming to fruition.

After months of designing and building, students of Dirt Works Studio, a University of Kansas School of Architecture and Design studio, are in the middle of constructing a new platform for Wells Overlook Park that will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While the platform was originally planned to be completed in May, the coronavirus pandemic pushed the construction dates back quite a bit, said Chad Kraus, a KU associate professor leading the project. The platform is now on track to be finished by early next year. The project also includes an accessible picnic shelter that was expected to be completed this fall, but will now be built sometime in the spring.

“(The pandemic) pushed everything back in terms of construction,” Kraus said. “Because of COVID restrictions from the university, even that timeline is optimistic.”

However, Ken Lassman, an occupational therapist and member of the family that years ago donated the land to the county for the park, said he’s thrilled to see the work coming along, regardless of how long it takes.

Lassman had originally pitched the idea of an accessible platform to the county in 2018, but the County Commission at the time declined to pursue the project because of concerns about overextending its financial commitments while it was also pursuing a plan to expand its jail, as the Journal-World previously reported.

But the commissioners were later able to pursue the viewing platform project, and in early 2020 the county received a $44,000 grant to help fund it. The project will cost roughly $100,000 in total.

“This is a long-term project and it’s going to be there (for a long time),” Lassman said. “Sometimes it takes longer to do it right, and it’s better to do it right than do it on time.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

KU architecture and design students and associate professor Chad Kraus work on the roof of a planned ADA-accessible viewing platform in Wells Overlook Park on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Kraus said construction of the platform is expected to be completed by the end of February.

The park, which sits on a hill off North 1000 Road just east of U.S. Highway 59, has long housed a wooden tower that provides views over the Wakarusa River valley. But Lassman, who often works with people who use wheelchairs, realized that structure could never be adapted to become ADA-compliant, and another structure would need to be built.

With the grant in hand, the county hired Dirt Work Studios to design and build an accessible viewing platform and pavilion for the park. The studio provides third-year architecture students at KU an opportunity to design and build structures as part of their education.

The students designed the platform to include a wooden V-shaped roof over the viewing area. Along with the platform, the students designed a circular pathway, which will surround a central garden. Additionally, the platform will include information panels about the natural prairie grasses and flowers the county plans to plant in the area.

The platform is being constructed near the northernmost curve on the park’s access drive, about 35 feet lower in elevation than the top of the hill where the park’s observation tower is located. It looks out to the northeast, providing a distant view of rural land.

The county needed to cut down trees that were standing in the area to provide the view, but it also provided the opportunity for the county to revitalize the hill with natural prairie plants.

Lassman said that prairie plants mostly covered the hill when his mother was a child in the 1920s, but that they have disappeared over time. He said he was excited the county planned to bring back some of the hill’s history by reintroducing the prairie. That could take a couple of years, Lassman said, but he put it in perspective by saying that the prairie had covered the hill for thousands of years before that.

“You have to take the long view,” Lassman said.

photo by: Contributed photo

This rendering shows how an under-construction viewing platform at Wells Overlook Park may look when it’s completed early next year. The new platform will provide ADA-accessible view opportunities, which did not exist before.

KU will soon finish its fall semester, and Kraus said the viewing platform will likely be finished early next year. The students will begin their spring semester on Feb. 1, and Kraus said he hopes they will finish up the construction of the viewing platform by the end of that month.

Once that is completed, the studio will begin constructing the shelter to the south of the current parking area. Kraus said the students will soon present design plans to the county. Currently, the shelter plan consists of two wooden structures that will be built side by side.

Two of the architecture students working on the project, who are both originally from St. Louis, Mo., told the Journal-World they were excited with how the project has turned out so far. Aaron Michalicek said he felt the project gave him good real-world experience, as well as the opportunity to build something people would enjoy.

And Jordyn Tobias, who has long been interested in historic preservation and art history, said she was excited to tie the platform into the landscape and the revitalized prairie.

She also said she appreciated the opportunity to put her mark on the world while still a student.

“I helped design this, but I also helped build it,” she said. “My blood, sweat and tears are in this. It’s a really special project.”

photo by: Contributed photo

This rendering shows the planned ADA-accessible shelter pavilion for Wells Overlook Park. KU architecture and design students are expected to build the structures during the spring semester.

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