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Feature - Urban Oasis: The Overbrook Environmental Education Center
Jerome Shabazz, Executive Director of JASTECH Development Services

By Linda Dottor, Community Design Collaborative

Most entrepreneurs sizing up a former quarry near 61st Street and Lancaster Avenue saw strip retail in its future. But not Jerome Shabazz, Executive Director of JASTECH Development Services.

He envisioned the scrubby brownfield site as the Overbrook Environmental Education Center—complete with native plantings, outdoor biology labs, and “green” architecture.

“Most environmental centers are in parks or natural areas. This one will be on a commercial corridor—you can’t get any more urban than that!” he says.

JASTECH is entering its third year of teaching environmental studies at Overbrook High School using a curriculum inspired by Overbrook’s natural history, development patterns, and industrial past.

The Overbrook Environmental Education Center is the next step in JASTECH’s efforts to change how urban kids view their surroundings.

Shabazz says, “I like to use the term “oasis”, particularly for children. The center will be a refuge from the harsh texture and grit of an urban environment and offer a different environment that expands their imaginations. It will demonstrate what the area was originally like... and teach urban dwellers that you too can become a catalyst for creating more spaces like this.”

A “Green” Environmental Education Center

After Shabazz acquired the quarry site, he approached the Community Design Collaborative for preliminary design assistance.

The Collaborative organizes volunteers from the design professions to provide pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit organizations in greater Philadelphia. Shabazzz wanted to explore the potential for a LEED-certified environmental center.

“LEED” stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a building rating system that promotes sustainable design and construction. Projects can earn credits—and a Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification—by conserving natural resources and improving the environment through choice of location and development practices, water and energy usage, and building materials.

The Collaborative’s multidisciplinary project team developed a series of alternatives and quickly ruled out one alternative—renovating an existing building as the permanent home for the environmental education center. The mechanical system was not efficient enough to salvage, the footprint did not meet the long-term needs of the teaching program, and the structure could not support a green roof.

Michael J. Paul, a structural engineer volunteering on the project, recalls, “You primarily gain LEED credits from materials and the use of resources. Reuse of the building would have yielded the largest number of credits, but was not ultimately the best decision.”

The volunteer team moved on to “Plan B.” Volunteers Todd Woodward and Tavis Dockwiller worked closely on conceptual designs for the new building and site improvements.

“The natural environment and built environment, when sustainable design is done well, are integrated,” explains Woodward. Conceptual plans for the two-acre site include a new environmental education center, an existing building to be leased as retail or office space, off-street parking, outdoor bio-labs and restored natural areas.

Built-In Learning Opportunities

Both the center and the site incorporate built-in opportunities for children and adults to learn about sustainability.

Students will study the heat island effect by comparing temperatures on the center’s green roof with conventional roofing or measuring stormwater runoff from different parts of the parking lot, which will be surfaced with a combination of porous pavers and asphalt.

The wooded slope at the back of the site will be restored with multiple layers of native plantings to teach homeowners about native landscapes and offer new models for landscaping backyards or community gardens.

Shabazz even sees the construction of the center as a learning opportunity. Kids will observe the nuts and bolts of development process—soil work, reclamation work, and survey work. “Sometimes we look at the goal, but I look at the process—whether the process itself is meaningful and tells us something about where we are going,” he says.

Next Steps

The Collaborative’s volunteers set JASTECH on the right path, and also helped Shabazz establish relationships with firms who could help him move forward. Following the Collaborative’s preliminary design assistance, JASTECH hired Rolf Sauer & Associates and Susan Maxman & Partners for additional services; each firm had staff members on the Collaborative’s volunteer team.

Rolf Sauer and Associations and F. X. Browne, Inc. are currently providing design development and construction documentation for Phase 1: a bio-retention system for the courtyard/parking area, an urban garden on the slope at the rear of the site, a green roof, and outdoor bio-labs in the six concrete storage bins left over from the site’s quarry days.

Shabazz expects to put the project out to bid this fall.

The work is being funded in part through grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Growing Greener Fund and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The following organizations also provided technical assistance and grants to develop JASTECH’s curriculum and environmental education center: Architects in Education Program, Fairmount Park Commission, Friends Central School, National Forestry Department, Overbrook High School, Penn State Cooperative Extension, Pennsylvania Coastal Zone Management Program, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Philadelphia Commerce Department, Brownfield Redevelopment Program, Philadelphia Water Department, Office of Watersheds

US Environmental Protection Agency, White Dog Café, and the New Profiteers Business Plan Project.

Volunteers on the project include: Todd Woodward, AIA, Architect, Susan Maxman & Partners; Erin Powers, Intern Architect: Susan Maxman & Partners; Tavis Dockwiller, Landscape Architect, Rolf Sauer and Associates; Michael Paul, PE, Structural Engineer, Thornton-Tomasetti Group; Dean Sherwin, Cost Estimator CCM; Ted Dillon, Energy Analyst, Scott Wagner, Energy Analyst both from the Energy Coordinating Agency.

Jerome Shabazz can be contacted by sending email to: or by calling 215-519-8532.


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