Barett Steenrod, community planner for the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program, points out features in South Kiwanis Park, where he’ll help a Brookfield task force come up with a plan to make the park a recreation and educational resource. | BOB UPHUES

Will South Kiwanis Park, that isolated 15-acre woodland hemmed in by the east bank of Salt Creek, Arden Avenue and the BNSF Railroad in the South Hollywood section of Brookfield, ever be more than just that?

The federal government, for one, is willing to give it a go.

In late June, the village of Brookfield announced that it had been awarded a technical assistance grant from the National Park Service to develop a plan to restore the woodland and design a walking trail system to make it a sustainable recreation area.

“I think there’s a really good chance that this is going to be a really loved park once it’s implemented, and we’ve figured out what all is appropriate and where it ought to go in a way that will last for years,” said Barett Steenrod, a community planner for the National Park Service’s Riverside, Trails and Assistance Program, who has been assigned to the Brookfield project.

While the project is just getting off the ground, Brookfield residents will soon be able to find out more about the process and provide input to a task force, led by former Brookfield Conservation Commission member Megha Patel.

Megha Patel, who chairs the South Kiwanis Park task force, talks about the challenges and opportunities in making the wooded wetland area a usable space for recreation during a walkthrough of the park on July 6. | Bob Uphues/Editor

In the next month or so, Patel said, the group will have a table at the Brookfield Farmers Market to introduce the project and the park itself to residents. They’re also putting together a questionnaire to get input on what kind of amenities people might like to see in the park, which will remain a wooded wetlands area.

Patel left her post on the Conservation Commission to lead the task force, because she felt it needed the full attention of a specific group of people to get something accomplished.

“If we really want to drive this forward, this is something we shouldn’t just dabble in,” Patel said.

In addition to the outreach at the farmers market, the Conservation Commission’s annual Meet the Creek event will be another way to spread the word about the planning effort and gain public input.

Brookfield Conservation Commission volunteers have spent several years clearing out buckthorn in the north end of South Kiwanis Park, revealing the oak savanna it obscured for decades. | Bob Uphues/Editor

There will also be at least two community meetings, Patel said, one focused on reaching out to South Hollywood neighbors and one for the greater Brookfield community.

“I feel like this is something that can actually change the landscape of Brookfield in general,” Patel said.

Some neighbors have been wary of making what has been a quiet woodland a recreation attraction. Two residents, Marie Duffek and Sonya Galuski, appeared at a village board meeting in April, voicing opposition to such a change after it was announced the village had applied for assistance from the National Park Service.

Others, like Rich Godlewski, support of the effort.

“I’m not worried about the traffic. I think it’ll probably be mostly residents, locals,” he said. “To me, there’s so much potential to make this community accessible. It’s really unique, I think.”

The National Park Service assistance grant isn’t a monetary award. Rather it promises 12 months of expertise and collaboration in the form of Steenrod, who is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has met virtually with the task force twice already. 

Steenrod was on the ground in South Kiwanis Park for the first time on July 6, joining members of the task force, which includes village management, planning and forestry staff; members of the Brookfield Conservation Commission; volunteers and at least one South Hollywood neighbor.

As luck would have it, Steenrod got an up-close look at how the woodland acts as a floodplain after heavy rains the night before. The marshy area closer to Salt Creek was inundated and the bare earth path that winds along the perimeter of the park was saturated.

But South Kiwanis Park was also lush with vegetation and alive with wildlife and work the Conservation Commission and volunteer Larry Pulice have done in recent years to clear invasive buckthorn revealed the park’s potential.

“My observation so far is that there’s a lot of great work that’s been done in terms of making the site visible,” Steenrod said.

In terms of creating a trail system in a floodplain, Steenrod said it posed some problems to be solved, but that it also presented opportunities.

“Obviously, hydric soils, soils that develop in a saturated state, can make certain infrastructure challenging,” he said. “There may be a mosquito component to this place and that’s something to try to manage for.

“Putting thoughtfully designed trails or other appropriate infrastructure in a floodplain might not be a bad thing. … The flipside is that you’re investing in more maintenance or it could be disruptive depending on how bad the flood is, but it’s really hard to damage a floodplain environment because of their very nature. It kind of cuts both ways.”

The existing trail winds from a clearing on Arden Avenue through the north end of the woodland and then atop a man-made berm along the river to higher ground on the south end. At that location, where part of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Deep Tunnel sewer runs underground, there’s evidence of other man-made structures, including a brick access path.

“There’s a lot of history to this site that’s maybe not entirely clear,” Steenrod said.

The existing path may inform how Steenrod and the local South Kiwanis task force weigh trail design options.

“I think the trail that’s here is a product of opportunity, either work people are doing or where it’s easy to go to,” Steenrod said. “Ideally, when you would lay out a trail system, you figure out where your constraints are, you figure out where your opportunities are and you try connect the points or avoid the points in a way that the trail will not erode over time.”

Ideally the trail would meander through the woodland, revealing interesting vistas. The way flood water flows through the park will also influence where trails will be located. Whatever trail is designed, it won’t be a paved surface or one that’s easily washed away.

“We’re talking a natural surface trail, [where] obviously there’s nothing shielding the soil from falling away, so you have to design the trail to essentially catch water and shed it in a way that doesn’t cause the water to kind of pile up and run strongly downhill and scour,” Steenrod said.

Exactly what the final product will look like or how long it will take is hard to say. While the technical assistance grant is for 12 months, it can be extended if Brookfield can demonstrate that they’re making progress.

Patel indicated they’re also thinking fairly big. Because the site is so isolated, connectivity is a key part of planning. Is there a way to connect South Kiwanis Park via a bridge to Creekside Park on the west bank of Salt Creek, just steps from the Prairie Avenue Metra station? How might you connect Kiwanis Park north of the tracks with its sibling park to the south?

“We like the aspect of having this site accessible not only from Arden Avenue, but accessible to the rest of the village of Brookfield,” Patel said. “It would make it more accessible to everybody else in the village of Brookfield and not so isolated.”

Of course, the planning process is just that. Finding the funding to hire firms to do the engineering, design improvements and build them will be a separate challenge. It may take years before a plan becomes reality.

“Our goal is to be a good planning partner and to help them develop a world-class facility with the best consulting advice the park service has to offer,” Steenrod said.