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VOL. 9 | NO. 7 | Saturday, February 13, 2016

Urban Treasure

Shelby Farms Park expansion enhances natural beauty

By Don Wade

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They were at the 2007 National Recreation and Park Association conference in Indianapolis and they had been dutifully attending the seminars and taking notes. But one day this two-woman contingent from Memphis and the newly formed Shelby Farms Park Conservancy skipped out of the afternoon workshops.

Executive director Laura W. Morris and development director Jen Andrews might have landed somewhere to sip latte and enjoy a biscotti – and really, who could have blamed them?

Instead, they found their way to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It was at a time when they knew the 4,500-acre urban park under their care soon would undergo massive change.

The RFP process – request for proposals – was just beginning. But soon enough, someone would be moving ahead with what we now know as Phase I of the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy Master Plan – a $70 million project that to date has delivered the Shelby Farms Greenline, Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge, Woodland Discovery Playground, gateway signage and major tree plantings.

Currently under construction: the $52 million Heart of the Park enhancements, which include a reimagined Patriot Lake, a sleek new visitors center and just as stunning events center, a new water playground and Wetlands Walk, an event stage and picnic pavilions, and separate walking and cycling paths around Patriot Lake.

But, back then, Morris and Andrews had no idea what this all might look like or how it could all possibly fit together. What they did know: The designers would have to be careful.

If there was to be a new visitors center and events center and they were “too much,” the landscape would be overwhelmed and its natural beauty undercut.

If the new buildings were “too little,” that would be a different failure, with each building’s existence no more than a “what is that?” dot lost in the landscape.

“We were looking for a language we couldn’t put words to yet,” Morris said.

And that’s when their collective gaze fell upon that exhibit and how architect Marlon Blackwell brought art and nature together around, well, indoor plumbing.

“We saw his work,” Andrews said, “and we both just sort of stood there overcome.”

From what might have been to what will be

A quick Shelby Farms Park history lesson: From 1929 to 1964 the park was the site of the Shelby County Penal Farm. It had a reputation for successful soil conservation and as a place for raising award-winning cattle.

But by 1975, there was talk of development – a town to be known as Shelby Farms.

“It’s really dramatic when you think this could have been tract housing,” Wolf River Conservancy executive director Keith Cole said recently as he walked on a hard-hat tour to see the Heart of the Park progress.

Later, the controversy over what do with the park could be boiled down to a bumper sticker, with those wanting to protect it flying the “Don’t Split Shelby Farms” message on their cars.

The new event space at Shelby Farms Park  (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Over the years, it was really close (to being developed) a few times,” Andrews said. “And it was only because advocates rose up and said, ‘Let’s preserve this land for public use.’ It was always at risk for being sold or being developed, the edges being eaten away by different things.”

Friends of Shelby Farms, which began as an anti-road group, morphed into an advocacy group for the park’s future. That led to reorganization as the Shelby Farms Park Alliance, a coalition of private-sector and grassroots leaders who built the momentum for the eventual nonprofit Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

The $70 million capital campaign launched in 2008 with a $20 million grant from the Hyde Family Foundations. More than $60 million of the total was privately raised, including a $6 million contribution from FedEx and $5 million from Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. The state of Tennessee contributed $5 million, Shelby County contributed $3 million and the city of Memphis chipped in $150,000 to create filtration wetlands that will help reduce stormwater pollution.

“The best urban parks are strategically developed and cared for to ensure both ecological and financial sustainability,” Tom Grimes, board chairman of the park conservancy, said last spring. “The public charged us to heal and restore damaged ecosystems; to create more opportunities to play and recreate together; to provide amenities for education, celebration and gathering; and to make sure the park is protected and cared for.”

The park is returning the favor. Annual economic impact from Shelby Farms was $6 million; it’s projected to more than double, to $13.6 million, once the Heart of the Park expansion is complete. The construction of the Heart of the Park project is having a one-time economic impact of $141 million and the expansion will more than double jobs from 87 to 192.

A huge front porch and much more

When Morris returned from that 2007 conference in Indianapolis she contacted Blackwell – whose firm, Marlon Blackwell Architects, is based in Fayetteville, Ark. – to invite him to take part in the RFP process. He did, but was not selected through the public proposal competition to do the park’s master plan. That was James Corner Field Operations.

However, Blackwell was hired to design the buildings – most notably the visitors center and events center. Remember the concerns Morris had when she still didn’t know quite what they were looking for?

The visitors center is a blend of cypress, glass and bar grating. Of the grating Morris said: “It gives the building substance, but you can see through it. It’s more like lace.”

Music and event pavilion on the edge of Patriot Lake at Shelby Farms Park  (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Protecting views of the lake and its environs were paramount. Approaching the new visitors center from the side opposite the lake still affords lake and landscape vistas because of two open breezeways. On the side of the building that’s facing the lake is what they’re calling the “front porch.”

It was Blackwell’s idea and is 24 feet deep by 180 feet long with five 14-foot ceiling fans overhead. The porch will be lined with Adirondack chairs that will almost dare you not to stop and drink in the view.

“Can’t wait,” said Kim Elorriaga, the project director hired to oversee Heart of the Park and who had a major role in projects such as SeaWorld San Antonio and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The new visitors center sits a little ways forward from the old one and is four feet higher, the better to make use of that massive front porch.

“For a more commanding view of the lake,” Elorriaga explained.

Equally impressive is the new events center. Like the visitors center, it faces west and toward the lake. It also has the potential to be a huge revenue generator for sustaining the park. Already, Andrews says, they are booking weddings, corporate retreats and bar mitzvahs.

While the visitors center will have a casual grab-and-go food option called The Kitchenette, the events center will have a full-service restaurant, The Kitchen, with 5,000 square feet of indoor dining space and 4,000 square feet outdoors. Both venues will serve alcohol.

And if a west-facing events center sounds like a problem, Elorriaga says they’ve literally got it covered.

“The pitch of the roof is lower and lower and extends way out,” she said. “So we get the sun only for a short time before it drops. Even then, we have motorized blackout shades for the entire room.”

The aim is for the Heart of the Park to have a “soft opening” by the end of the summer and a grand opening celebration in September. To date, Morris says, they are on track and she credits Elorriaga.

“I call her the ‘Director of On Time and On Budget Exceeding Her Own Expectations,’” said Morris, who will be retiring this year after 15 years of advocacy for the park. “She’s amazing. And Jen is amazing, here 10 years, and this wouldn’t be happening without her.”

One of a kind

Winding paths, scenic views and large open spaces. In 1858, that was Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for what Central Park should be.

“The forefather of landscape architecture,” Andrews said. “His design anticipated, in a time when there weren’t cars, that there would be cars and how people would travel through the park.”

The porch at the new visitors center sits 4 feet higher than the previous building, offering a better lookout over the lake.  (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Shelby Farms Park is much larger than Central Park, which is 843 acres. But the goal is for Shelby Farms to be to Memphis what Central Park is to New York City.

In some ways, of course, it already is. Morris likes to say that the park has long been “heavily loved,” if not always “heavily used.”

The selected master plan for Phase I packs a lot of punch into less than 300 acres identified as the Heart of the Park. Morris herself is a hiker and she realized that as they embarked on this plan that all of the park’s constituents would have to be considered and their interests protected – from mountain bikers to bird watchers, from disc golfers to parents bringing their children to the playground, from kayakers to pet owners and the dogs they will walk around the Pedestrian Promenade that traces an enlarged and redone Patriot Lake.

Cole believes the mission is being accomplished.

People have a certain view of Memphis, and this will change that view in so many ways.”

Keith Cole, Wolf River Conservancy

“It was a great park to begin with and it’s only that much better,” he said. “People have a certain view of Memphis, and this will change that view in so many ways.”

Brett Gibson, project superintendent for Montgomery Martin Contractors, is on the ground of this thing every day. He says his favorite element will be the ceilings in the events center because of the “different slopes with the angles, and the different looks with the wood.”

There is satisfaction in seeing all that come together. Seamless synthesis is the aim on a larger scale as well, he says, and the most difficult part of the job. In fact, one almost gets the sense that this is why he wears the hard hat – to help deal with the inevitable headaches.

“Same as always,” he said of the toughest challenge, “trying to figure out what the architect’s intent is, because they love to use that word, and actually put it in the field.”

That prompts a laugh from Elorriaga, who gets it. Projects don’t fit together by themselves. It takes hundreds of people doing things large and small and, at some level, each one grasping the overarching intent.

The beginnings of that intent really go back to that moment Morris and Andrews were standing in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. That’s when an abstract vision for a new Shelby Farms Park finally started to crystalize as they held the images of the park’s natural beauty and Blackwell’s gift for fusing landscape and architecture.

James Corner Field Operations was chosen to do the master plan, Andrews says, because the firm demonstrated it appreciated the delicate balance in play after SPFC had spent much time asking the public what it did and didn’t want.

“They didn’t want the park to fill up with stuff,” Andrews said, adding of the Heart of the Park design, “It didn’t totally change the character of the park, it just allowed it to achieve the potential it always had.”

Sometimes that hits home best when seen through fresh eyes. Recently, Andrews gave a journalist from Chicago a tour of Heart of the Park. The woman had attended Rhodes College but hadn’t been in Memphis for several years.

At the events center, she looked through a wall of glass oblivious to the still-forming building in which she stood, just enjoying the land, water and sky stretching out before her – the natural beauty that will always be here.

“She was like, 'Gosh, it doesn’t even feel like we’re in Memphis,'” Andrews said. “But that’s the point. Five, 10 years from now, we want people to stand here and say, ‘This is so Memphis.’”

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