Running peacefully through a Naperville park with plenty of trees and shady, winding paths is a natural resource Naperville Park District will be highlighting as it builds its first staffed nature center.
A groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday will launch construction on a 5,000-square-foot nature education center at Knoch Knolls park, 336 Knoch Knolls Road, to be built not far from the confluence of the east and west branches of the DuPage River in southeast Naperville.
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The center will allow visitors to learn about the plants and animals of the DuPage River watershed inside an exhibit space and two classrooms, and then journey outside on more than 4.5 miles of trails to experience the wildlife firsthand.
"It's really a hub for community members to visit the site and learn more about nature and the benefits of nature and plants and animals," said Eric Shutes, the park district's director of planning.
The new nature center also will foster greater collaboration with the Conservation Foundation, based just west of Knoch Knolls at McDonald Farm.
"We're excited to team up with the park district to do joint programming at both McDonald Farm and the nature center," said Brook McDonald, CEO of the Conservation Foundation, which focuses on watershed preservation and education about sustainable living techniques. "It's an opportunity to partner to offer more and in a more efficient way."
As the nature center is built over the next year, the park district will add new connections to the trail system, renovate a canoe launch on the river, double the length of the disc golf course from nine to 18 holes, and construct an 87-space permeable paver parking lot slightly further from the west branch of the river, Shutes said.
The project is budgeted at $5.5 million, with a construction management contract not to exceed $5.2 million awarded to Wight & Co. Shutes said final costs are likely to come in lower than both those amounts.
Park board commissioners say they have been anticipating development of a nature center right along with residents who have been calling for such a facility in surveys since 2005. And they look forward to the day in fall 2014 when students, families and park visitors can learn, experience and "Celebrate Water" along the shores of the DuPage River.
"I think the DuPage River is a local treasure. When I was growing up as a kid, we knew better than to set foot in it, but it's cleaned up, and it's actually quite a fishery," said Commissioner Gerry Heide, who grew up in Naperville. "I think it's another unique feature of Naperville, and that's going to be the focus."
When plans for a nature center first formed, Knoch Knolls stood out as the perfect site. A former farmstead, the 224-acre property is home to more than 120 species of native plants and animals -- like the deer, snakes and snapping turtles Commissioner Bill Eagan said he's seen on his long runs through the park.
The confluence of the DuPage River on the site also led to an instant focus for educational endeavors. The space will celebrate water with a river aquarium, graphic displays featuring the types of fish that can be found in the river and an interactive watershed map showing all the areas that drain into the DuPage.
"We used to fish for carp when that's all that could live in it," Heide said about the waterway. "It's made a real comeback."
The nature center will be staffed so school groups can visit on field trips, and it will host programs in the evenings and on weekends, park district officials said. While the Seager Park Interpretive Center opened in 2011, it lets visitors learn at their leisure without offering staff members for guidance.
"This will be the first staffed nature center in Naperville," Shutes said. "And we could not think of a better site."
The Naperville Park District's south maintenance facility is its first building to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, status from the U.S. Green Building Council, and it's certified at the silver level. But the agency is aiming two steps higher, or in this case, greener, with the new nature center.
"If you're going to build a nature center, you might as well build it nature friendly," McDonald said.
A $255,693 grant the park district received from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation will help reduce costs as the nature center is built to the highest level of LEED standards -- platinum.
"It comes close to being what we call the holy grail of green buildings: It comes close to being a net zero-energy building," said Bob Romo, senior program officer for energy efficiency at the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. "It might even at times be producing energy that is sold back to the electricity grid."
The building will have a partial green roof with plants growing atop the exhibit space, solar panels above the classroom spaces and a deck overlooking a recently dredged pond. A cistern that will reuse rainwater will be visible on the nature center site, and the building will use a highly efficient heating and cooling system, Romo said.
The nature center is the marquee element of the Knoch Knolls improvement plan, but other aspects of the open space will be getting a face-lift as well beginning Wednesday.
The disc golf course is the only one the Naperville Park District offers, and it will be expanded to a full 18 holes.
A canoe launch along the west branch of the river will be renovated and a nature-themed playground with climbing rocks and a rubberized surface will be built adjacent the nature center, Shutes said. A parking lot with permeable pavers will run parallel to Knoch Knolls Road, staying further out of the flood plain than the current gravel parking lot aligned perpendicular to the road.
To be named Knoch Knolls Nature Center pending completion of a 60-day approval period, the new facility is sure to provide a safe place for families to enjoy nature in all seasons when it opens next fall, park board President Rich Janor said.
"Naperville is definitely known for its unique amenities with the Riverwalk and Centennial Beach," Janor said. "This nature center will certainly be another great amenity for our residents to enjoy."