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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2008 Issue

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

A Tale of Two Parks
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 jobs.

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 and medians.

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 of him.”

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.”


West Park
Landscape architects: Schmidt Associates, Indianapolis (Craig Flandermeyer, ASLA, project manager; Kyle Miller).

Central Park
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).

Other Consultants
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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