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          Front Page




Big I Landscaping a Challenge

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
    Start with a high-desert climate.
    Then add freeway traffic, steep slopes and chunks of land crisscrossed with frontage roads. Now try growing plants without wasting a bunch of water.
    That was the challenge facing designers, contractors and officials hoping to spruce up the Big I— the crossroads of New Mexico. So far, they're pleased with progress on a massive landscaping project, which is along Interstate 25 and I-40.
    "These are some landscape architects operating at the top of their game," Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez said in an interview. "My sense is this starts to show Albuquerque for who we really are— a very attractive city that cares about itself."
    The work— designed by Morrow Reardon Wilkinson Miller Ltd.— is more complex than it looks. For one thing, the Big I covers 80 to 100 acres. That's bigger than the Balloon Fiesta launch field, officials said.
    Workers must contend not only with the two freeways, but also with a maze of frontage roads and steep hills. The interchange itself was rebuilt in 2002, but it was never landscaped.
    The city of Albuquerque is overseeing a five- or six-phase effort to bring in thousands of trees, shrubs, cactuses and grasses. The vegetation includes native and drought-tolerant plants, but city officials say they aren't sure how much water they will consume overall.
    The first phase is just about done. The entire project should be finished by the end of next year.
    Here's a look at how officials are planning to minimize the environmental impact of project:
   
  • The landscape is shaped so that water is channeled into "small planting pockets," in some cases behind retaining walls. That helps keep it from running down the hills and into the frontage roads.
       
  • Gravel, mulch and fabric cover much of the ground to reduce evaporation, shade the soil and help the root system.
       
  • Gravel on the site before construction began has been recycled back into the project— sometimes as "base course material." Weeds and other vegetation there before was scraped off for compost.
       
  • Energy efficient LEDs provide accent lighting for the artwork.
       
  • It can't be seen by the naked eye, but beneath the gravel, the medians slope toward the center of the land, helping to get rainwater to the plants.
       
  • A type of irrigation system is being installed that will shut off easily if there's a line break.
        "We try to do a lot of environmentally sustainable measures on pretty much every project," said Gregory Miller, a principal landscape architect with the Morrow firm. "This is giving us an opportunity to do it on a grand scale and in a way that's publicly visible."
        The main areas completed so far are along I-25 north and south, said Ed Adams, the city's chief operating officer. The second phase of construction focuses on areas adjacent to I-40, mostly east of the Big I.
        It's expected to cost $10 million to $12 million altogether, with some funding from the state government.