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Hardscape installations for homeland security

Wm. Roger Buell, P.E.
Director of Public Services
Grand Blanc Township, Michigan
Chair, APWA Utilities and Public Right-of-Way (UPROW) Committee

Effective right-of-way management is usually obtained through a balance between the needs of the right-of-way users and those of the adjacent property owners. Since 1995, some of those property owners have been tasked with retrofitting buildings with external hardscape to mitigate the potential of a domestic terrorism attack. With new building construction, the options are numerous and many of the countermeasures don't necessarily require intrusion into the public's right-of-way. However, retrofitting buildings in a built-up urbanized environment will most certainly involve the placement of hardscape in the public's right-of-way.

This article is intended to provide a brief glimpse into one particular city's experience with the installation of non-standard items in the street right-of-way to minimize the effect of errant vehicle intrusion and providing standoff distance in the event of an intentional act of violence utilizing an explosive device.

The threat scenario is most frequently described as a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling at 50 miles per hour headed towards your building or a vehicle loaded with 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate sitting just outside your building, or both.

To minimize this threat, companies and right-of-way managers have had to work with structures placed in the way of these errant vehicles to protect the building and its occupants. One aspect of the countermeasures is their appearance. Most installations are a compromise between the suit of armor and the bulletproof vest. The suit of armor appearance is one that looks and acts like a fortress. This look can cause unnecessary economic shockwaves through the community that many would say would deter the pedestrian street-level commerce due to its overbearing nature. Bollards, concrete seat walls, and jersey barriers fall into this category.

On the other end of the scale is the bulletproof vest appearance. This look blends the structure in with surrounding structures and presents a more palatable view. They're still effective; they just don't have to look like it. Decorative seat walls, hardened street furniture, and large diameter maple trees fall into this category.

Hardscape installations in the right-of-way are placed into two general categories: temporary and permanent. The temporary measures can be classified in terms of duration, short-term and long-term.

  Public Works protects the President

One example of a short-term duration temporary measure is when the U.S. President comes to town. In 2004 when the President came to Charlotte, North Carolina, personnel from the Charlotte Department of Transportation (CDOT) were tasked to provide vehicles capable of withstanding the errant vehicle targeted at disrupting the event. Since the majority of the police department's vehicles are limited by their mass, the crews called in the heavy metal. Several 10-yard dumps were placed strategically around the President's meeting area and provided an acceptable level of deterrence.

Long-term temporary measures include water-filled or concrete jersey barriers, detached planters and rotating wedges, among others. When CDOT was asked to come up with a non-permanent measure to surround the federal courthouse during the trial of a suspected terrorist, our field division came up with enough concrete jersey barriers to surround the building. The federal officials liked them so much that they stayed long after the trial until a more permanent restraining fence system could be procured and installed.

The permanent solution to retrofitting an existing building in the city where buildings were built right up to the edge of the right-of-way rests with some type of installation of a fixture within the public right-of-way. The most prolific of these devices is the ever-present bollard. Prior to the war on terrorism, bollards were used as a pedestrian guidepost and generally conformed to the standard of being somewhat breakaway. Nowadays the bollard is an eight-feet-in-diameter, half-inch-thick steel post filled with concrete planted six feet in the ground and four feet high. Spaced four feet apart, they tend to stop all but the thinnest of vehicles.

As an alternative to bollards, planter walls are usually requested. These walls are usually three to six feet wide, about six feet high and as deep in the ground. Unfortunately, these walls tend not to be too pedestrian friendly except for sitting.

In the City of Charlotte, a mitigation effort started with the hardening of the City/County government building. After 9/11, the building manager developed a plan that would provide a level of protection for a medium threat. The installation of bollards and decorative seat walls provided a balance between the overt show of force and the good-looking but effective appearance.

  Charlotte Federal Courthouse with temporary jersey barriers

Another example is when the County's new courthouse was designed and ready for construction. The owner hired a blast engineer to evaluate the design and make recommendations for hardening the structure. Although most of the recommendations were going to fault the original design, the final installations would be a blend of decorative bollards and planters. In retrospect, it's best to hire your blast engineer before you design your building.

Shortly after these two installations, a local downtown bank determined a need to install a series of bollards at the back of the curb. By retrofitting and upgrading some of the existing street furniture and taking advantage of the existing hardscape, a cost-effective and functional balance was achieved. Decorative bollards that blend in with the surrounding fixture themes have been met with a level of transparency with the non-motorized crowd.

The proposed retrofitting of the Federal Reserve Bank's Charlotte branch would be the fourth hardscape installation proposal to be reviewed by the CDOT Right-of-Way Management Team. Once the confidential nature of the installation's operations was overcome, discussions on balancing the pedestrian needs against the safety and security of the nation's monetary supply were undertaken. For municipalities it's important to understand the federal government's role in the public's right-of-way. It's best to consult with your legal council and check with the cities where the other 24 branch banks are located to get an understanding of the limits of local authority. In general, though, the city's rights will be limited to what is actually city/state right-of-way. Beyond that you're on federal government property, and local zoning laws and right-of-way best practices are left up to them to consider.

Of all the installations under review in the Charlotte area, the underlying focus was to balance the needs of the property owner with the effects that the measures would have on both the pedestrian and vehicular stakeholders.

These examples are a result of one right-of-way manager office's ability to plan, coordinate, cooperate and communicate with local property owners to effect a compromise solution to the latest right-of-way issue. To find out more about this program and other right-of-way management techniques, please contact the APWA UPROW Technical Committee.

Wm. Roger Buell, P.E., was the Right-of-Way Manager for the City of Charlotte and is the Chair of the APWA UPROW Technical Committee. He can be reached at buell@twp.grand-blanc.mi.us.