By: Kate Cerone, WPL
In 2016, Virginia Beach, Va., reaffirmed its strength in parks and recreation by revealing a new reason to visit the city and enjoy the oceanfront—the Hillier Ignite Fitness Park. Local businessman Luke Hillier formed the Hillier Ignite Foundation and approached architectural firm WPL with an exciting idea: give the community an outdoor park with play equipment geared toward adults with health and fitness as the focus. WPL began by researching local gyms, trending workout equipment, potential user groups, and successful projects throughout the country. Through its research and design, WPL revealed how this outdoor gym might work and exposed some unmet needs in the community.
Before this park concept, there were no outdoor public parks or recreational facilities in the city that catered to active adults. Adult fitness was often focused on specific workout plans in a structured interior space. In this case, the fitness park was designed around the idea that fitness can be achieved through play—one of the most important parts of human development that is often lost as people enter adulthood. For locals and visitors, this brought a whole new meaning to “going to the beach.”
A Place To Meet
Located on 36th Street between the Sheraton and the Belvedere hotels, the park is centrally located for runners and bikers coming from various neighborhoods. Public parking is within walking distance, providing an opportunity for a great meet-up spot for those living elsewhere in the city. Garages and on-street parking spaces were important factors for the location of the park.
Within the first month of opening, the park surpassed expectations for attendance with lines of people waiting to enter. The park was visited by the local Tide Swim Team, the CrossFit Gym, members of the military, and even enthusiasts traveling from California to try out the new gymnastic rings. Social media posts with #VBfitnesspark expressed gratitude for the new park and helped spread the word. Considering all the excitement, the Hillier Ignite Fitness Park made the “Top 25 Must-Try Places in Virginia Beach” by the Virginian Pilot for 2016.
Another hurdle the design team encountered was an aggressive project schedule. The city has a policy of requiring that all oceanfront projects on public property must be completed seasonally by June 1. Due to this cutoff date and constraints for planned tourism events at the oceanfront, the project had to be fast-tracked. On top of the accelerated schedule, there were also delays with the delivery of the exercise equipment. Consequently, the design team and general contractor had to work nights and weekends to make up lost time and have everything installed within the pre-season window.
Because the project was located on the beach and in front of the seawall, high winds and occasional storms had an impact. The sand was always shifting. By the time a land survey was completed and design had occurred, the topography had changed significantly in various parts of the site. This caused adjustments in the design of the footings and access points into the park. If the equipment was set too high, it could be undercut from storm surge. If too low, then it would be partially buried and un-usable. Luckily, WPL had completed other projects with these conditions, so the team knew how to handle sand migration and deposition/undercutting from storms. The solution to negotiate these conditions and project expectations was set early so all parties understood the site conditions and that additional design and survey were potentially required. After construction, the city was to routinely maintain proper sand elevations and inspect equipment to ensure that safety requirements would continue to be met.
The temporary placement of sand during construction had to be strategically located to avoid impacts to the upcoming beach soccer tournament. By looking early at construction equipment routing and mobilization, as well as the beach events calendar, the team was able to accommodate the tournament and retain a controlled construction footprint.
The design team worked through numerous technical questions:
What percentage of the beach does this park occupy?
What is the tallest piece of equipment?
Is it ADA-accessible?
What are the hours of operation?
What level of maintenance is involved?
How is the park to be used?
Having the research done prior to city council’s review was extremely important. Of greatest concern was the potential for blocking the views from nearby hotels. This concern was alleviated by clear design drawings and design precedent imagery, which allowed hoteliers to get a feel for the simplicity of the structures. As a condition for approval, the fitness park was to operate during the same hours as any city park (sunrise to sunset), and the equipment maintenance and repairs were to be performed by the Hillier Ignite group.
Equipment And Layout
The park design includes equipment that offers the widest variety of opportunity for users. The equipment flanks an open path that allows beach-goers access to the water from the boardwalk stairs and ramp. The equipment is clustered based on typical use and accessibility. In addition to the existing concrete boardwalk ramp, there is now a wood deck for wheelchair access over sand. The deck has bump-out areas for observation and plenty of seating, including for wheelchairs. The equipment directly adjacent to the deck was designed to accommodate people who may be in a wheelchair or who need to be sitting for a workout. This equipment includes parallel bars, a low bar, pull-up bars, a balance beam, and a multi-purpose post.
Away from the deck, the equipment increases in challenge and size to include a horizontal ladder, a rope climb, travel rings, a fitness climber, level rings, a low slackline, and taller versions of the parallel bars, low bar, and pull-up bars.
City-planning staff members were very supportive throughout the process. The Hillier Ignite Foundation and WPL worked through public outreach and numerous design revisions based on feedback from various stakeholders. With vision and passion, Luke Hillier saw this project through to the end; his enthusiasm for improving people’s lives made this project a reality. The park has ignited a flame for healthy and active communities in a way like no other park has in this region. Virginia Beach continues to rank annually within the Top 5 “fittest cities” in America with parks like the Hillier Ignite Fitness Park.
Kate Cerone is the Marketing Director for WPL, a Virginia S-Corporation offering a full range of professional services in landscape architecture, land surveying, and site engineering throughout southeastern Virginia. Since 1960, the SWaM firm has performed engineering and surveying for all levels of government and private clientele. The firm takes great pride in its old-fashioned work ethic and applies it to improving the design and implementation process.
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