Lake Norcentra Park on the Rochester College campus is open to serve the community

Many colleges and universities have beautiful campuses that are lovingly landscaped and carefully maintained…and also not explicitly open to the public. Rochester College in Rochester Hills is going to change that with Lake Norcentra Park.
Multi-phase plans for the 60-acre public green space project located on the Rochester College campus are already underway.
It all started when Rochester College alumni were looking for a volunteer service project they could do. Brad "BT" Irwin's board came up with the idea to clean up the 14-acre park area in the center of the campus.
"There was such a strong interest in the project not only from alumni but people in the community," Irwin says. "As we did a couple of volunteer days I said to the president of the college, 'I think you've got something here.'"
Rochester College President Dr. John N. Tyson, Jr. had wanted to do something that was very intentional to give to the community that would also be of great value to all of the people around the college in the Rochester region. He posed, "What if the college devoted this land to community use?"
"That started the process of us going out, having town hall meetings with neighbors and asking what would they like for us to do with this land," says Irwin, who is an independent contractor who consults on project management for community-based projects such as this one through his company BT Irwin LLC. He organized a consortium of architects and developers to do some research and development work pro bono, developing a master plan that the college officially adopted last spring.
Lake Norcentra Park will be a park open to the public and will encourage the public to use the space like any public park that just so happens to be on the college's private property.
"The college's vision is that it will be a permanent green space and nature preserve for public enjoyment," says Irwin. "The campus master plan builds around that space now."
The goal for Lake Norcentra Park is to accomplish three things for the community: to provide a space for recreation; to provide additional educational opportunities for the community; and finally, to upgrade all infrastructure on the college's campus over time to the state-of-the-art infrastructure for storm water treatment. Ultimately, the focus is on environmental stewardship.
"The park is next to the Clinton River," Irwin says. "The highest elevation is on the opposite end of campus, so we have all of the water running down-campus into Lake Norcentra and the Clinton River. We also get water run-off from Avon Rd. and the apartment complex across the street. We want to clean and cool the water so it is the cleanest water merging into the river from anywhere on the watershed."
They're also looking at ways to provide "really special" educational opportunities to the community, including K-12 science programming based in the park. "It will be a giant outdoor classroom, basically."
Rochester College is one of the largest private landowners on the Clinton River: the 84-acre campus has 22,000 feet of river frontage. As a Christian college, they intend to set the example of what it means to be a good steward of our shared natural resources.
Lake Norcentra Park is currently in its first phase of development, which encompasses that initial 14 acres that volunteers helped to clean up. This first phase includes dismantling an old maintenance building in the middle of the park and constructing a new one elsewhere on campus, installing new grass and landscaping features, adding seating and a concession garden, and daylighting the space by removing about 50 nearly-dead trees.
"These are not big, expensive items, but we want to activate this space so more people discover the park," Irwin says. "That also includes our first education programs with field trips, summer camps, and science curriculum."
Phases two and three will include a $1 million trail system and all of the green infrastructure that will transform the entire campus (which was built in the 1960s) over a period of 10 years. This is, of course, a very long-term plan that will require significant amounts of funding.
"That starts with what can we do in 2016 with the community that the community will enjoy, value, and embrace so we can get to the next step," says Irwin. "Transforming an entire college campus is going to take some time. We have to do real things in the space that people on the Clinton River Trail and in downtown Rochester will enjoy and love. The mission of the park is to serve the community, and we're only serving the community if the community uses the space. 2016 is one big experiment with the park as we start to build things and do things there to see how people respond."
There is no fee to enter the park or enjoy any of its amenities; it is totally free for the public to enjoy.
"We want people to feel magic," says Irwin. "We want them to feel love. We just have to listen, watch, observe, and respond until we get the formula right."
Irwin says that plans for the park also include festivals, food events, live music, public art, and a lot of volunteer days. They're also installing an outdoor piano in the park in addition to the concessions garden planned for this year, so even people just running by on the trail might pause for an ice cream cone or just enjoy some live music as they go by.
"We want people to feel like they are in a space that has a purpose when they're here," says Irwin.  He adds, "I never expected this to happen. It just goes to show if you volunteer, you never know what's going to happen when you do something good, you help people out and you're generous."