Town Branch Commons designer focuses on green infrastructure

February 10, 2013

A rendering for Scape/Landscape Architecture’s plan for Town Branch Commons, showing how it might look west of Rupp Arena. Images provided.

 

Kate Orff, whose New York landscape architecture firm was chosen last week to design Town Branch Commons, has made a name for herself by looking below the surface and beyond the conventional.

The approach served her well with Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority, which hopes to create green space through the center of the city along the path of the long-buried Town Branch Creek.

Orff said in an interview that her team figured out quickly that the key to this project wasn’t recreating the stream as it used to be, but working with the complex limestone geology and hydrology beneath Lexington’s streets and structures.

She also realized that Town Branch Commons should do more than create beautiful public space to attract people and private development. It should play an important role in solving Lexington’s persistent storm-water and water pollution problems.

In addition to being a partner in the firm Scape/Landscape Architecture, Orff is an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at Columbia University. As founder and co-director of the university’s Urban Landscape Lab, she leads seminars on integrating earth sciences into urban design and planning.

With Town Branch Commons, Orff said she saw an opportunity to accomplish goals that are often seen as contradictory: increasing commercial development and sustainably improving the environment.

“This Lexington project is an amazing opportunity for me to try to bring those two realms together,” Orff said. “I really think that’s the future, this concept of green infrastructure.”

Orff said green infrastructure has many advantages: It is less costly to build and maintain than concrete and pipes. It is less prone to massive failure, because it is less centralized. And it provides the side benefit of public green space.

“But you have to think very systematically,” she said. “It requires more, frankly, of the urban space. It’s more of a dispersed strategy of touching the water where it lands at multiple points in multiple ways. But a more dispersed model leaves you more room for resiliency.”

Orff, 41, grew up in Maryland and earned a bachelor’s degree in political and social thought from the University of Virginia, then a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University.

She started Scape/Landscape Architecture in 2004. The firm’s projects have ranged from a 1,000-square-foot park in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a 1,000-acre landfill regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland.

Orff has made several national lists of up-and-coming designers. Last year, the organization United States Artists chose her as one of 50 American artists to receive $50,000 fellowship awards.

She was co-author, along with photographer Richard Misrach, of the 2012 book Petrochemical America, which created an ecological atlas of the petrochemical industry’s effects on the 150-mile Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.”

Currently, Orff’s firm is doing projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Greenville, S.C., where she is working on an environmental education center with Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur “genius” award winner who did the site plan for the proposed CentrePointe development in Lexington.

Perhaps Orff’s most high-profile effort is a proposal to restore the Gowanus and Red Hook sections of New York harbor with a system of designed oyster beds. Before harbor dredging and industrialization, oysters flourished there. One oyster has the ability to cleanse 50 gallons of water per day. (She explains the project in a TED talk online. Watch it at the end of this post.)

Her “Oystertecture” plan, which will begin with a pilot project in March, has attracted a lot more attention since superstorm Sandy showed the vulnerability of the Northeast’s urban coast. Orff is part of a task force New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed to study those issues.

To prepare her Lexington proposal, Orff said she studied water flow data and made floodplain maps to understand downtown’s hydrology and geology. For local knowledge and engineering expertise, she engaged Lexington-based EHI Consultants and Sherwood Design Engineers, a major national firm.

Orff also met with city officials to understand Lexington’s consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, which will require millions of dollars in fixes for long-ignored water quality problems throughout Fayette County.

“Before we ever started to design, we did a very comprehensive series of maps that included flooding, the SSO (sanitary sewer overflow) events and so on,” Orff said. “We had a very clear sense of how water was moving and the amounts of water and what would be possible and what would not be possible.”

Orff said her team also tried to work with what already existed or was proposed for downtown “rather than tearing down and starting over from scratch, because clearly a lot of money has been spent already.”

Orff plans to return to Lexington in a few weeks to meet with stakeholders and the public to gather feedback and ideas. Then, more civil engineering will be needed, as well as a plan for how to build the project in phases.

“We are aiming to refine the plan and provide some alternatives for different areas,” she said. “I think the way our scheme kind of fits within the landscape, it provides a lot of alternatives and backup plans.”

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Town Branch Commons: an idea that has worked in other cities

February 3, 2013

Hardly a week goes by that people don’t tell me how they wish the open block where the Webb Companies hopes to build CentrePointe could become a public park instead.

As the block awaits redevelopment, it is planted in grass and surrounded by a plank fence to resemble a horse pasture. It has become a popular gathering place during downtown festivals. (At other times, it is off-limits, just as horse pastures are.)

CentrePasture’s popularity points to a couple of ironies about Lexington.

One is that we have a lot of open space, but little public space. The other is that we are surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful rural landscapes — an artful blend of the natural and man-made — but our central business district is a generic jungle of concrete and asphalt. There are only a handful of small parks or plazas downtown, and few trees of any size.

Although recent renovations of Triangle and Cheapside parks have been excellent, the comments I hear make me think Lexington residents still yearn for more public space downtown.

Town Branch Creek resurfaces west of Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader photo

The Downtown Development Authority on Monday will choose the winner of a design competition for Town Branch Commons — some form of linear park on city-owned property along the path of the long-buried stream that gave birth to Lexington.

This project would involve bringing parts of the creek back to the surface, either literally or symbolically, to create attractive public spaces for nature and a variety of activities. A jury of design professionals was to recommend a winner to the DDA board after closed-door presentations Friday by the five finalists.

The competition attracted 23 entries. The finalists are among the world’s best landscape architects and designers: Coen + Partners in Minneapolis; Denver-based Civitas; the Netherlands firm Inside Outside; Scape Landscape Architecture of New York; and Copenhagen-based Julien De Smedt Architects working with Balmori Associates of New York.

All five finalists’ designs will be on display at the Downtown Arts Center from Tuesday until Feb. 22, including during Gallery Hop on Feb. 15.

I can’t wait to see the designs, especially after hearing the finalists make presentations about their previous work Thursday at the Lexington Children’s Theatre. They showed amazing projects from all over the world, including in cities such as Bilbao, Spain, that had far more daunting problems than Lexington has.

(An interesting side note is that three of the six presenters were women: design legends Diana Balmori and Petra Blaisse and one of landscape architecture’s rising stars, Kate Orff.)

(Also worth mentioning: several of the landscape architects showed projects that used wetland parks to effectively solve storm-water problems. Lexington officials should remember that as they decide how to spend millions of dollars on storm water issues under terms of the federal consent decree.)

I can already hear Lexington’s naysayers: This whole idea is impractical, unaffordable and frivolous. It is none of that.

The compelling argument for Town Branch Commons is not esthetic, but economic. This sort of urban public space has been an effective way to attract people and investment dollars to cities of all sizes, from Seoul, South Korea to Yonkers, N.Y.

People who have attended recent Commerce Lexington trips have seen it work in Greenville, S.C., where a long-neglected riverbank became Falls Park; and in San Antonio, where a once-buried stream similar to Town Branch became the Riverwalk, now Texas’ second-largest tourist attraction after the Alamo.

New York’s High Line project turned an abandoned elevated rail line into a linear park that has transformed a once-decaying section of lower Manhattan. Despite huge cost overruns, the Millennium Park that Chicago built over an urban rail yard has more than paid for itself with the private development it has attracted.

The kind of public-private partnership envisioned with Town Branch Commons is under way in Atlanta, which is turning an abandoned rail line around the city into 1,300 acres of parks and 33 miles of trails, and in Louisville, which has raised more than $60 million in private money for the 21st Century Parks project that is creating 4,000 acres of linear parkland and 100 miles of trails around that city.

What excites me about the potential of Town Branch Commons was mentioned frequently by the world-class designers who submitted plans. This isn’t about building Disney World in a swamp; it is an authentic reflection of Lexington’s history, geography and culture.

Pioneers chose Town Branch as the site for their town, laying out Lexington’s grid according to the creek’s path rather than a compass. Its banks were where early Lexingtonians gathered for fun and refreshment before the stream was polluted, built over and eventually buried.

Town Branch Commons will require public money and even more private money. But it could be a great long-term investment, one that uses the authenticity of Lexington’s past to create both an amenity and economic generator for the future.