Published January 12, 2018
Putnam Way is getting a facelift.
The roadway that loops around the academic spine soon will be brightened with colorful flowering trees and columns of green foliage as University Facilities moves forward with plans to make the North Campus roadway more pedestrian-friendly.
Part of Building UB: The Comprehensive Physical Plan, the project to redesign the Putnam Way streetscape aims to improve the campus environment while addressing such longstanding concerns as trees that don’t thrive, an overabundance of sidewalk, and sunken pavers that pose a tripping hazard.
Kelly Hayes McAlonie, director of campus planning, says the project has been a great opportunity to bring together the planning and grounds staffs in University Facilities and, with limited resources, implement some parts of the master plan while tending to critical maintenance issues.
“Every chance that we get we’re trying to expand the project enough so it impacts the campus landscape,” Hayes McAlonie says. “Bit by bit, we are impacting the campus experience.”
“It’s about environmental stewardship here,” adds Christopher Donacik, assistant director for facilities operations. “We’re trying to improve the appearance of the campus.”
The Putnam Way project began in 2014 with the construction of Grace Plaza, the garden oasis outside Davis Hall. The plaza was extended across Putnam Way between Bonner and Bell halls during the summer of 2016.
This past spring and summer, work focused on Putnam Way from Hadley Road to Grace Plaza. Crews replaced a significant stretch of sidewalk, and removed a large portion of concrete as well — there is now 9,000-10,000 square feet less concrete than there was previously. Trees were removed and new ones will be planted next spring, when they have the best chance for survival.
The plan, Facilities staff says, is to continue along the entire length of Putnam Way, targeting those areas that are in the most need of repair — and that also get a lot of foot traffic — using critical maintenance repair funds while at the same time implementing some of the ideas of the Comprehensive Physical Plan.
For example, many of the asphalt hexagonal pavers installed 40 years ago along Putnam have sunk, no longer align with the curb and pose a tripping hazard for pedestrians. The pavers will be replaced with exposed aggregate. “We have to do the work anyway, so this is a really wonderful opportunity to address our landscapes while we’re doing it,” Donacik says.
Refreshing that landscape with hundreds of new trees is sure to catch the eye of campus residents and visitors.
The failure of trees to thrive on the North Campus has been an issue for decades. The key culprit is the area’s heavy, clay soil, explains Sean Brodfuehrer, an architectural planner in Campus Planning. Brodfuehrer says that when the new trees are planted, crews will use a special soil mixture that will help address the compaction of the clay and also allow road salt to wash away from the trees’ roots.
Other strategies being used to help these trees thrive include enlarging tree pits — the cutouts in concrete areas — to 8x8 from the current 4x4 pits to give the trees more soil in which to grow, and running the sidewalk between the trees and the roadway, which should also help keep salt away from the roots.
“Instead of having trees in little pits along the road, they’re going to be surrounded in areas of soil that will let the trees both interact with each other — which is what the roots need to do to be healthy — as well as have more capacity to absorb water,” Brodfuehrer says. “This will give them a more natural landscape to thrive and survive.”
Donacik says Facilities has hired a landscape architect to help with selecting multiple species of trees to plant that “will bloom at the right time — we want this to be an eventful place to be — and at the same time survive in our environment.”
Although still in the “tree-selection process,” some species being considered are cherry, katsura, yellowwood and Japanese elm.
Donacik explains that trees will be grouped along the roadway according to “precincts” that will help identify nearby buildings.
So a similar species of tree will be planted along Putnam from Hadley to Capen. “But when you approach Capen, there’s going to be something special that happens. You’ll see by the blooms and the shape of the tree that you’re at someplace important,” says Brodfuehrer, adding that more columnar trees, like English oaks, will be planted at Capen and Hamilton Loop.
Once past Capen, planners say the focus will return to the pedestrian experience, with shade trees lining the roadway up to Grace Plaza.
“This is about the pedestrian experience. We’re looking at large trees that create canopy and shade and protection from the elements so you’ll want to walk across campus,” Brodfuehrer says.
“There will be big improvements in the spring in time for commencement,” Donacik promises.
After commencement, the next phase of the project picks up, following Putnam past Furnas, the Commons and the Student Union, all the way up the hill to Clemens Hall.
Once the roadway moves beyond Grace Plaza, Brodfuehrer notes trees will be planted in tree pits closer to the curb to help slow traffic down as the road nears the busy pedestrian areas of Lee Loop and the Student Union.
Although the trees will be closer to the road in this area, Facilities has plans to mitigate the effect of salt on those trees, he says.
“The key is having the right kind of pit and the right kind of soil so that when there is salt it has a place to go and not sit at the root base,” he explains, noting the species of tree can also help. While no tree is salt-tolerant, there are some species that handle salt better than others, he says.
Plans for this phase include creating a seating area where Founders Plaza crosses Putnam at Clemens and planting native tulip trees — a large tree species — along the vast green space at the Special Events Field and up the hill toward Founders Plaza.
Jim Bielmann, supervisor of the mason, paint and roofing shops in University Facilities, points out that almost all students at UB take English classes in Clemens, and describes the “parade route” from Clemens to the Student Union to the Commons as “probably one of the most highly trafficked areas” on the North Campus, and one in definite need of attention.
“That’s a major pedestrian intersection and it’s not celebrated in any way,” Brodfuehrer explains. “We want to make it a landmark.”
He says that even though Putnam Way is a single circular road, each “precinct” along the roadway will have its own distinct character. “It won’t be a one-size-fits-all” approach to the landscaping, he says, noting that the roadway along the south side of the spine, especially by Baldy and Jacobs halls and Lockwood Library, will be “a totally different environment than the area in front of the engineering buildings.”
“Each one will feel unique and respond to its context,” he says.
Campus Planning also will be redesigning the small plaza under the overhang in front of Capen as part of the Heart of the Campus’ Global Café project.
“That’s another area that needs renewal,” Hayes McAlonie says, noting the work likely will be done in the coming year or so. “We’re using that opportunity to redesign that entry.”
“The idea,” Bielmann says, “is that every time we do something here on campus we should be moving the needle in the direction of implementing the Comprehensive Physical Plan and addressing critical maintenance needs. Whether it’s one sidewalk here, 10 trees there, you have a vision and at some point you get there.”
Restoring UB’s landscape is a multidisciplinary effort. Other Facilities staff who have helped realize the project are Bruce Buerger, assistant director, Facilities Design and Construction; Jim Scripp, landscape supervisor; Larry Poturalski, electrical engineer; Chris Fuerch, Plumbing Shop; and Marshall McGraw, Chill Water Plant.
Bielmann says faculty, staff and students “already are talking about the changes they’ve seen on campus.”
“In the next two years, you’ll see even bigger ones.”
Outstanding plans for Putnam Way! Great collaboration.