A Tale of Two Parks
Who can design a better park: your local landscape architect or an out-of-town
consultant with twice the budget?
By Adam RegnArvidson, ASLA
Photography by Wilbur Montgomery
There are two types of landscape architecture firms: those that ply their
trade primarily within the immediate vicinity of their offices and those that
step outside their region on a regular basis to take on national and international
work. When seeking work, the hometown firm often touts local knowledge and
a level of service unachievable by the out of towner for the same price. The
outside consultant usually trots out a deep portfolio of applicable work, suggesting
unassailable expertise gained from years of working all over the place. Inherently,
these two approaches end up at loggerheads when competing for the same projects.
There can also be tension when an out-of-town firm steps into someone else’s
region and grabs a job with a local firm’s client. That tension is further
exacerbated because the “national experts” usually get the high-profile, high-dollar
This scenario has been happening over the past few years in Carmel, Indiana,
an affluent suburb just north of Indianapolis. The players are the Carmel Clay
Parks & Recreation District (the client), JJR’s Chicago office (the big-name
out of towner), and Schmidt Associates (the local firm). No, the story of Central
and West parks has not come to fisticuffs on the Midwestern prairie, but the
tension is in evidence, though one-sided (the big-timers never begrudge the
locals their smaller bread-and-butter work). Schmidt did some master planning
for Carmel Clay back in the 1990s, then was hired to design the system’s first
major showpiece, 75-acre West Park, which was completed in 2003. Schmidt’s
West Park cost about $2.5 million. In the midst of that project, Carmel Clay
went national for the master planning and design of 161-acre Central Park,
the system’s crown jewel. That facility was completed in 2006 for a landscape
construction budget of just under $10 million.
Did JJR plus $8 million make Central Park better?
The Home Team’s Design
Carmel’s average household income sits right about $100,000 per year,
and the average home value is approximately $200,000. Carmel Clay Parks District
is only 12 years old and has grown astronomically over the past decade. Having
started at zero, it now has 600 acres of parks. The community has regularly
and literally bought in to building parks: JJR cites regular attendance at
project meetings of more than 200 people, West Park is built on donated land,
and a bond referendum was passed to build Central Park. All the designers interviewed
for this article specifically cite the deeply involved park board, describing
them as a direct client involved in project review rather than an approving
body. All of this seems to come together to create a unique environment for
designers, whether local or not.
Carmel is divided in thirds by two major highways. West Park, as its name
suggests, is the western portion’s anchor. As the first major facility developed
from scratch by Carmel Clay, West Park needed to set the tone for the system
as a whole. That tone is evident immediately upon driving into the park along
a sinuous boulevard that flanks a constructed wetland and ends in a parking
lot with lush biofiltration swales. From here, the pastoral landscape flows
outward toward a distant stand of woods. An out-of-the-ordinary playground
is nestled into grassy berms, and a tall, obviously man-made earthen cone erupts
from the flat landscape in the middle of the site. West Park is about re-creating
a natural landscape and placing human-use elements carefully into that landscape.
As Craig Flandermeyer, ASLA, of Schmidt Associates puts it, “We transformed
a farm field into a destination.” Schmidt is a 100-person Indianapolis firm
primarily engaged in architecture. Five landscape architects most often support
the site design and landscape activities of the architects. Flandermeyer, however,
has been working to secure some landscape-exclusive recognition, something
West Park’s 2006 Indiana ASLA award will likely help him do.
The park is divided into three zones. The southern third includes the most
active areas: the play area with its agriculture and geology theme and the
large pond with its curvaceous, nearly railing-free boardwalk. The middle third
is centered on the 25-foot-high mound, which is made of earth excavated from
the pond. Radiating around the mound are four quadrants (outlined with trees)
that could be used for baseball or community events. A straight pathway cuts
through the middle of the quadrants, a stone and gravel path climbs the mound,
and another pathway traces the large circle at the edge of the quadrants. The
northern third is completely passive, a combination of restored wet prairie,
existing forest, and forest currently under restoration.
The most striking element is the mound. “What can we do,” Flandermeyer remembers
asking himself, “to create some grade differentiation” on the otherwise flat
site? The mound serves as a sledding hill and spectator lawn and acts as a
folly in the landscape, creating a reason to move across the vast expanse between
the parking lot and the forest, offering a stunning view of the flat prairie-and-woods
landscape of central Indiana, and, hopefully, raising a few questions. “I hope,” says
Flandermeyer with a smile, “in 30 years there will be an urban legend about
how it originated.”
Despite the active uses, West Park is relaxing. The pieces of the landscape
seem to flow into one another. Hard surfacing is limited. The icons—the silo
slide and the great mound—are gentle interventions.
The Out of Towners’ Design
How could JJR’s Central Park hope to top West? Perhaps with more amenities.
Here’s a quick rundown: 10 miles of trails; a 10-acre lagoon with a boardwalk;
a skatepark; an outdoor aquatic center featuring a lazy river, two waterslides,
a leisure pool, a lap pool, and a kiddie pool; and the Monon Center by Chicago-based
Williams Architects, a community building that is home to four gyms, a fitness
center, an indoor pool with waterslides, a café, conference rooms, classrooms,
and banquet facilities. Though that seems like a lot, Central Park remarkably
follows closely the tone set at West: It is more pastoral than developed, more
natural than built. The high-intensity facilities nestle onto just 30 percent
of the park’s 161 acres, shouldering right up against existing woodlands and
taking advantage of both natural and constructed grading to minimize their
bulk. The outdoor waterslides descend from a constructed mound reminiscent
of West Park’s rather than from some towering steel structure. The skatepark
is down in a hollow behind the building, out of sight but with its own excellent
views of the woods. And the site is dominated by undulating grades that lead
the eye and foot around the broad curving lagoon.
The key organizing principle is the Monon Trail, a once controversial and
now well-loved rail–trail that runs right through the middle of the site and
bisects Carmel on its way down to Indianapolis. Gregg Calpino, JJR’s project
manager for Central Park, remembers long discussions about how to address this
linear element within a park that seemed destined to be more naturalistic.
The final solution is that the Monon Center is split in two, with buildings
on either side of the trail and a skyway linking them overhead. Nothing in
the park crosses the trail at grade level. The trail, then, becomes the demarcation
line between recreation and socialization, between forest and prairie.
The entire park has a “green” focus. The building uses recycled and local
materials. The lagoon is essentially a large stormwater facility that treats
all the site’s runoff before discharging it into Carmel Creek. Preserving existing
woods and restoring locally appropriate prairie were always priorities. The
parking lots feature bioswales. The outdoor aquatic center is able to discharge
graywater into a holding basin for chlorine removal, then into the lagoon for
further purification. Roadways are narrow and include heavily planted roundabouts
Like West Park, Central feels very relaxed out on the trails near the lagoon
or on the fringes of the woodlands. From out there, the aquatic center is barely
visible and the Monon Center seems more a small park shelter than a 146,000-square-foot
recreation center. Nearer the building, however, the activity level heightens.
A festive buzz brings an intensity not present at West Park. The Monon Center
is the kitchen in which everyone wants to gather during a dinner party.
Head to Head
Back, then, to the question: Which is better? Out-of-town expert or
local knowledge? Big budget or small? “Better,” of course, has multiple definitions,
so we’ll take them one at a time.
Implementation of Program. West Park and Central Park actually have
a lot in common with regard to program. Setting aside the Monon Center itself,
both parks have a passive focus centered on the natural landscape. “The way
the [West Park] master plan is set up,” says Flandermeyer, “forces people out
of their cars.” The short entry drive and noncentralized parking lot accomplish
that goal. Whether most people will walk all the way back to the woodland and
prairie restorations (through the somewhat monotonous quadrants of turf), however,
is a concern.
Central Park manages to let people drive through both forest and prairie ecosystems
on their way to the Monon Center, then also provides trails that offer a deeper
immersion into those landscapes. The only drawback to this approach, however,
is the long drive that cuts through the site to the west, bisecting the prairie
and crossing the lagoon on a stained concrete bridge that is the most prominent
built element on the entire site and infringes on the pedestrian experience.
Without it, Central Park would have a vast West Park-like uninterrupted natural
area as well as the excellent drives through the native landscapes.
Ease of Collaboration. A typical concern when working with out-of-town
consultants is the communication factor. Today, technology is the great equalizer.
JJR used video conferencing to save travel costs and strove for efficiency
during trips. Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation District Director Mark Westermeier
even suggests that his staff more readily set aside meeting times and created “intense
visit days” when Calpino and his team were in town. “I never had an issue getting
answers or getting a call back,” remembers Westermeier. “Sure, there were times
they were in a meeting [when I called], but they could be here in Indianapolis
and be in a meeting.” Granted, JJR isn’t really that far from Carmel, but it
seems there was no logistical disadvantage to the out of towners.
Design Skill. Needless to say, this one has a lot to do with personal
taste. The parks are so similar in their overall aesthetic, however, that this
could be a dead heat, but some key comparisons can be made. The boardwalks
that appear in both parks (which should both rightly be credited to Flandermeyer)
are the design high points. They are bold, yet because of the general lack
of railings, they lay lightly on the land. If anything, West Park’s has more
interest because of the shape of the water body, which is more intimate and
allows for a greater variety of interfaces between water and walkway.
On the other hand, the overall plan for Central Park is simply masterful.
The decision to bridge the Monon Trail and separate the park into halves may
seem counterintuitive at first, but it simultaneously reinforces one of the
boldest gestures on the site (the trail) and creates a practical use separation.
The location of the center allows for a serene departure from the surrounding
town with its winding entrances.
In addition, Central Park’s aquatic center is a major break from the concrete-deck
expanses many cities are building. JJR incorporated areas of lawn for basking,
shrub beds, and even trees for shade. Though such an aggressive planting scheme
has required additional lifeguards and more maintenance, it will eventually
create a lush, shady, relaxing water park rather than a hot poolscape.
There are, of course, a couple of design flaws to each project as well. As
mentioned before, Central Park’s western drive and gargantuan bridge are out
of place with the subtle character and natural focus of the park. Even if this
eastern entrance was absolutely necessary—a debatable proposition—the roadway
could have been set down in the landscape rather than up on a slight ridge,
and certainly the bridge would have been better as a simple prairie structure
rather than the Victorian overpass it is. West Park’s mound is an excellent
landscape intervention, but the pathway up it does it no justice. As designed
it is a system of rock steps and gravel switchbacks that have become infested
with weeds and are severely eroding. Though the naturalistic character of the
gesture is in the right tone, something more solid would have been more effective.
New Ideas/Innovation. “We hired JJR and Williams Architects to bring
something fresh,” says Westermeier. That is the typical reason for hiring out
of region. The expectation is that the wider experience in a specific type
of design will lead to innovation and new ideas. Calpino focuses on master
plans for large parks. He has worked on Forest Park in St. Louis and Lincoln
Park in Chicago, among others. Flandermeyer is more of a generalist.
It is interesting, however, that JJR’s Central Park draws quite a bit from
Schmidt’s West Park. Calpino says the design team studied West Park and incorporated
several design elements that were working very well, namely the parking lot
bioswales, the naturalistic plant palette, the curb spillways, and the wetland
boardwalk. But then, Flandermeyer isn’t a purely local landscape architect.
He worked for three years in the San Francisco Bay area, where he learned all
about water conservation and stormwater management. Put bluntly, sustainable
design elements were already on Carmel Clay’s radar before Central Park got
under way—because of Flandermeyer. “[He] really introduced us to vegetative
swales and other things,” says Westermeier. “We’re ahead of the curve because
More for the Money. Here are the basic financial facts, based on documentation
from Carmel Clay and both consultants: The landscape portion of Central Park
cost approximately $10.5 million to construct, on which JJR and its subs were
paid 7 percent, which is in addition to their master plan fee of approximately
$125,000. The total estimated landscape fee, then, is $860,000. West Park cost
$2.6 million to construct, and Schmidt was paid approximately $208,000 (8 percent
of the construction cost).
But Central Park is bigger. Subtracting out the Monon Center and the aquatic
center (areas not included in the above numbers), it is almost exactly twice
the size of West Park. So the simple math is this: Acre for acre, Central Park
cost twice as much to build and just more than twice as much to design.
Westermeier says he likes to work with a variety of consultants to keep things
fresh. “When you get that diversity of thinking,” he says, “you can make each
park unique.” These two parks are unique in the world of suburban parks: Their
significant open space set-asides, native restoration, and green infrastructure
elements are excellent examples for other park systems building turfed and
guttered sports complexes. They are both also very skillfully designed.
They are not, however, unique from each other. Normally, that wouldn’t matter,
but it is questionable that Central Park cost so much more than West Park,
especially when Central Park already had the precedent of West Park in place
(and, by JJR’sCalpino’s admission, borrowed several key details from it).
Though this may not hold true everywhere, in Carmel, the local firm had already
set a pretty good table, and the out of towner, at the prices they were charging,
could have brought a lot more to it. LAM
Adam RegnArvidson, ASLA, is a regular contributor to Landscape Architecture and
founder of Treeline, a design/writing consultancy in Minneapolis.
Carmel Clay’s Next Moves
On the heels of the completion of Central and West parks, Carmel Clay
Parks & Recreation is moving ahead—and still hiring both locals and out
of towners. Two more parks are under construction—Founders Park, designed by
Michael Krosschel, ASLA, of Indianapolis-based Schneider Corporation, and Hazel
Landing by Schmidt—and the Portland office of Berkeley-based MIG has been hired
to update Carmel Clay’s systemwide master plan. According to Jay Renkens, the
planner in charge of the system update, the new parks plan will focus on connecting
Carmel Clay’s parks with a system of trails and will address growing maintenance
concerns raised both by the recent building boom and by Carmel Clay’s inheritance
of older facilities.
Renkens works on system plans nationwide and feels Carmel Clay is unique. “What
is demanded is a very high-quality product,” he says. “Carmel wants to be on
the cutting edge” of facilities and service, on par with national models such
as Henderson, Nevada, and Bloomington, Indiana. He says that has actually made
his job easier, because the population generally recognizes the direct value
of parks in attracting new investment to their community. “Oftentimes [with
other park work we do],” says Renkens, “we have to justify spending on parks
and recreation.” He says this is not the case with Carmel Clay.
Krosschel echoes that excitement but in a different way. “When the [Carmel
Clay] board picks a designer, they place a lot of trust in them,” he says. “They
give us the latitude to explore some big ideas.” Because so much is brand new,
designers aren’t merely rehabbing older designs. “Each site,” he says, “is
a clean slate.”
Landscape architects: Schmidt Associates, Indianapolis (Craig Flandermeyer,
ASLA, project manager; Kyle Miller).
Landscape architects: JJR, Chicago (Gregg E. Calpino, project director;
Paul Wiese, Nichole Sheehan, Ben Kutscheid, ASLA, Renee Euler, landscape
architects; Bill Wood, project engineer; Bernie Fekete, civil engineer; Jill
Wuertz, park planning, master planning phase).
Architecture and aquatics: Williams Architects, Carol Stream, Illinois. Civil
engineering, survey and geotechnical, traffic planning: Schneider Corporation,
Indianapolis. Environmental and permitting: J. F. New, Walkerton,
Indiana. Project proforma: PROS Consulting, Indianapolis.
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