Site Engineering Helps Revitalize Urban Areas

When tackling site engineering projects in urban settings, such as downtown Birmingham, the areas we are working on typically have been developed multiple times in the past. This means that they frequently involve environmental remediation or rehabilitation. Redevelopment of these old sites is a very sustainable approach for planning a project or revitalizing a city. As we focus on sustainable design, cleaning up and improving sites in decayed urban areas can be a real benefit to the community and environment.

But doing this presents quite a few challenges. Sain Associates has experience performing site engineering in downtown Birmingham for the Greyhound Building, Magnolia Avenue, Alagasco-WBA, the Treasury Building and Social Security Administration Building, DEA and ATF Buildings, and the FBI Building.

When we have older sites that have been developed multiple times in the past, the remnants of those prior uses can impact the project budget and schedule. Collaboration between the property owner, engineers, architects, and surveyors is very important to the success of the project. It is also crucial for the design team and the contractor to build a good project schedule and budget which accounts for all the steps that will be involved. It also takes collaboration between the property owner, design team, attorneys, and the City to obtain or vacate streets, alleys, easements, etc. for the project to come to fruition.

In addition to collaboration, due diligence is a very important element to site engineering in urban settings. It is much better to know what you are dealing with at the beginning of the project, rather than discovering something mid-way through the project. If we can identify and anticipate challenges on the front end, we can have a plan and schedule in place for handling them. Then, the challenge simply becomes another step in the project schedule.

So what are some of these challenges and obstacles we face? Underground utilities and other structures we may not have known about, building structures, and old railroads are common. Sometimes we can simply demolish and haul off these structures, but if it is a utility that is in operation relocation may be necessary.

Old railroads, alleys and street rights-of-way are common. These may need to be vacated to accommodate the new project. Vacating old easements or rights-of-way can require legal assistance and adds another layer of coordination with entities you may not have anticipated. Most every project we have done in downtown areas involve platting the property, which often assembles many parcels into one, or vacates rights-of-way or easements. After the rights-of-way are vacated, we still need to coordinate with each respective utility company to legally terminate their rights to the vacated easements.

We once encountered a railroad right-of-way that belonged to an old railroad company that did not exist anymore. Records at the courthouse indicated that this railroad had been bought by another very large railroad, and we had great challenges in reaching the necessary people to get this right-of-way vacated.

We have also vacated roads and alleys which had sanitary sewers that we had to relocate. In one instance, the existing sewer line was so flat that it did not allow any room for the contractor to deviate from our design, or the sewer would not function properly.

We had another project in Homewood which has a sanitary sewer running beneath the proposed building location, and we had to collaborate extensively with the Sewer Department to get approval to relocate this line.  If we had not been able to do this, the project would have died.

In older cities, which were originally developed before our current methods of storm drainage design, we may find that the existing drainage system has a combined sanitary and storm sewer. These types of sewers are forbidden under current environmental laws, so it is not very common to experience this condition anymore, but they do still exist in very old areas that have not had any new development for many years. This would be another challenge we would correct with our design plans.

As urban areas focus on revitalization efforts, site engineering will be a critical component to delivering quality projects. We look forward to additional opportunities to be involved in helping transform urban landscapes.