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A Great Park Needs a Great Process:
Choosing the Next Olmsted

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

And the Winner is:
Ken Smith, Landscape Architect, New York, New York

Ken Smith Architect, New York, New York
Design Philosophy: "We approach the design of the park as a collaborative design bringing together the talents of Landscape Architect, artist, architect, ecologist and environmental engineers. Water, environmental sustainability, shade and the enduring idea of the oasis are central themes of this park design. The Canyon, the habitat Park, and the Fields and Military memorial add up to a Great Park--a public place of renewal and community.

The El Toro Marine Base in Orange County California is about to become a park. A piece of land of this magnitude doesn't come along every day, and neither does an opportunity of this magnitude. For Landscape Architects this was a magic doorway. The Orange County Great Park Corporation (OCGP), in their search for "the next Olmsted," invited 38 world-class landscape architectural firms to participate in a non-traditional competition for designing what was once essentially a lot of runways.

The entire piece of property is 4,700 acres, of which 1,370 acres will become a topographic work of art. That's larger than New York City's Central Park, which was designed by the original Olmsted, using the Adirondacks as his inspiration. Olmsted placed boulders, streams, lakes, hillocks, berms, little waterfalls, great expanses of lawn, exquisite entryways and arches, cozy ponds, wooded glades and bosky dells. The high-density neighborhoods around the park all had easy access because it was centrally located--hence the name. And like Central Park, which also started out flat as a pancake, the El Toro base is as flat as a pancake, too.

EMBT Arquitectes Associats, Barcelona, Spain

EMBT Arquitectes Associats, Barcelona, Spain
Design Philosophy: "Each project evolves from the specific client requirements and innovation emerges through the design process. This approach is combined with strong technical and management skills to provide cost effective and personal service."

The Big Difference

But this is the 21st century and there was a big difference--a difference in the climate, you might say. We're not just talking about the weather here (which is clearly different), we are talking about the social climate. As Larry Agran, Chairman of the OCGP Corporation said, "This is really the second phase of this process. The first phase started years ago when the community around the park marshalled its forces to prevent an international airport from being built in the middle of this very high density, high income suburb." It was an epic battle pitting developers and citizens against each other, and requiring several rounds of votes and bitter accusations on both sides. Fortunately for the park lovers, the airport was ultimately defeated for several reasons. Mainly, the public didn't want it, but there were also difficulties regarding the proximity of the mountains, which apparently made it difficult for large planes to land and take off without smacking into them.

Hargreaves Associates, San Francisco, California

Hargreaves Associates, San Francisco, California
Design Philosophy: "The Hargreaves Associates proposal responds to the influence of local history, ecology and culture to retain the power and poetics of the landscape. Using water as an essential element in the success of the Great Park, managed water systems will shape the terrain, ecology and infrastructure that will ensure the long term sustainability of the landscape. The interests of different constituencies--nature, culture and activity--will guide the development of the park and ultimately define its character."

The most important difference, however, was the fact that the airport battle experience created a very vocal citizenry who could then bring their focus to this next phase--and that was the choice of design for the park. In 1857 Olmsted wasn't chosen to design Central Park by the neighbors, he was chosen by the Mayor. In the case of the Great Park, the neighbors weighed in very heavily on the choice. That is what made for the non-traditional process calling for public participation in the form of community meetings, focus groups, a countywide poll, surveys of existing sports facilities and needs, and a county stakeholders conference. The designs were put on view in the City Hall as well as online, and the public was invited to comment, suggest, exchange information, chat, quibble and debate.

The Process Begins

The voters were asked what they'd like to see in the park, and all their suggestions were presented to the competing firms. Twenty-four highly respected design firms from around the world submitted proposals to compete for the job of Master Designer of the Orange County Great Park.

The submitted proposals were then evaluated by six distinguished professionals who serve on the Orange County Great Park design jury panel, chaired by Dr. Hamid Shirvani, FASLA, FRSA, AICP, Provost and Professor of Architecture at Chapman University. Dr. Shirvani and the jury panel met to recommend 6 semi-finalists out of the twenty-four submitted proposals.

Olin Partnership, Ltd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Olin Partnership, Ltd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Design Philosophy: "Parks for the 21st Century should strive for a comprehensive notion of sustainability--cultural, economic and environmental--as a creative framework and strategy for the long-term success..." "In our design we have capitalized on the existing site features and the surrounding landscape to create an iconic park that looks toward the future while it references the past..."

Make That Seven, Not Six

Actually, seven semi-finalists were eventually selected by the Board and were then provided a stipend to develop a conceptual design plan for the Great Park. In July, the seven firms spent two days in intense meetings learning about the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Base and submitted their formal designs to the Board on September 1. Then each design team participated in a two-day public formal presentation to the Great Park Board of Directors.

A second design jury panel reviewed those designs and was to make recommendations to the Board. In October of 2005, the Board planned to select the Master Designer for the Great Park. The jury design panel that included Dr. Hamid Shirvani, Chair, FASLA, FRSA, AICP, President and Professor of Art and Architecture at California State University, Stanislaus; Dr. Diane Ghirardo, Professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California; Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, FAICP, Principal, LMN Architects, Seattle, Washington; Tom Oslund, FASLA, FAAR, Principal, Oslund and Associates, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Walter Richardson, FAIA, Chairman of the Board, RNM Architects, Newport Beach, California; George Bissell, FAIA, President of Bissell Architects in Newport Beach, California; and Barbara Wilks, FAIA, ASLA, Partner of W Architecture in New York evaluated the designs based on specific criteria and provided a summary critique of all designs to the Board.

Richard Haag Associates, Seattle, Washington

Richard Haag Associates, Seattle, Washington
Design Philosophy: "We offer a carefully crafted, conservative plan, ahead of the rules of conservation of resources, materials, space, movement and energy; minimize consumptive/maximize up-cycling regenerative technologies." "The Blue Green Park ensures a revolving kaleidoscope of diverse activities, functions and movements for the people of Orange County and their guests and joins the Great parks of the world."

"These firms were selected because their designs came to life during the formal design-concept presentation," said Beth Krom, Mayor, City of Irvine. "I look forward to working with the incredibly creative design team talent that was demonstrated by each semi-finalist competing to be the Park's Master Designer.

The seven firms selected as finalists were Abalos & Herreros of Madrid, Spain; Miralles/Tagliabue of Barcelona, Spain; Richard Haag Associates, Landscape Architects of Seattle, Washington; Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco, California; Olin Partnership of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey of Mill Valley, California; Ken Smith, Landscape Architect of New York in partnership with Ten-Arquitectos of Mexico City, Mary Miss Studio of New York and Mia Lehrer + Associates of Los Angeles.

Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey, Mill Valley, California

Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey, Mill Valley, California
Design Philosophy: "Our vision for the Orange County Great park creates a contemporary model for park design that embraces mind, body, ecology and culture--and links the past, present and future--in a physical, living environment..." "The central organizing element of the design is a landform created by sculpting the earth within the boundaries of the two intersecting runways and utilizing the soil to create a sculptural high point."

Make That Three, Not Seven

As the deadline approached, the OCGP Board of Directors balked at making the final decision and added one more round--actually a very useful one. They unanimously selected three landscape design firms as semi-finalists to compete. The three firms selected were Mirrales Tagliabue EMBT of Barcelona, Spain; Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey of Mill Valley, California; and Ken Smith, Landscape Architect of New York in partnership with Ten-Arquitectos of Mexico City, Mary Miss Studio of New York and Mia Lehrer and Associates of Los Angeles.

"We have moved one step closer to finding the Frederick Law Olmsted of the 21st century, a Master Designer with the talent and vision to give Orange County a park that will serve the needs of our local residents and become a destination for travelers from around the globe," said Larry Agran.

The Semi-Finalist Design Teams and Their Great Park Concepts:

Mirrales Tagliabue, EMBT, Spain: A highly stylized plan that calls for re-contouring the land to create a hilly terrain. Sports fields would be placed within the terrain. The central portion of the park is a meadow with a large lake-like water feature. A broad boardwalk is envisioned as a central gathering place. The runway is implied, but the plan appears to reflect the earlier history of the site before the development of the El Toro military base.

Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey of Mill Valley, California: Plan retains the image of the runways through a series of plantings and reflecting pools. A large "air terrace" is created to provide an area for observation and activity. A land trade program is encouraged to reshape the park, with the major sports component relocated to extend the entire length of Lennar's Education District. The frameworks of two hanger buildings are retained. An amphitheatre is added to enclose the plaza area between the hangers. The plan also includes four iconic elements: a veteran's memorial "fog forest", a geyser fountain, a "smoke signal" fog fountain, and a "solar grove". Also envisioned is the use of geothermal energy plan as a component of the sustainable energy program.

Ken Smith, Landscape Architect of New York in partnership with Ten-Arquitectos of Mexico City, Mary Miss Studio of New York, and Mia Lehrer + Associates of Los Angeles: Plan creates a canyon extending along the northern border of the park site, joining with the Agua Chinon riparian corridor, and ending in a lake feature. An amphitheater faces east across the lake. Runway is retained as linear monument to the Marine history with 50 vintage fighter planes stationed along its entire length. A crossing runway is retained in a stylized manner with segments reused as park features. The sports fields expand across Marine Way with a skate park and amateur athletics stadium adjacent to the railroad tracks. The museum district buildings are planned as earth-covered structures south of the lake. A large parking area is created within an orchard. Two whimsical elements of this plan are the use of free or minimum fee orange bicycles as a mode of transportation and three large hot air balloons as an attraction that would allow people to see the whole expense of the park.

Abalos & Herreros, Madrid, Spain

Abalos & Herreros, Madrid, Spain
Design Philosophy: "This project proposes three main gestures at the scale of the entire site that will at once provide desired civic amenities as well as lay the infrastructures for a system of resource use, reuse and integration. In addition to these fundamental moves, is the outline for a strategy of construction as well as one for cultural and biological diversification to take polace over a growth period of twelve years."

Can't You All Just Work Together? Nope.

The jury decided to go visit the firms as well as visit sites those firms had designed. They felt it was imperative to get a better feel for what kind of work they did and what kind of finished landscapes emerged from their master plans. The group traveled to New York, and San Francisco and Spain. There was, however, a certain amount of background noise about this decision. Voices were heard decrying this "unnecessary" expense, referring to it as perhaps a "junket" or "boondoggle" and making comments about wasting the "taxpayer's money."

They had planned on having a unanimous decision and all indicators were pointing at Ken Smith. However, at the last minute, factions within the board decided that a new plan submitted by Royston Hanamoto of Mill Valley needed more thought, and, furthermore, that this firm had more experience. Others suggested that perhaps all the firms should work together and create a joint master plan. The weekend before the meeting of the board (10AM Monday morning), and the public announcement of the final decision (3 PM Monday afternoon) was a bit tense.

Please Run That By Us One More Time?

The board meeting was to consist of one final presentation from each of the firms, scheduled to last one hour, and then the vote would be taken. During these presentations, they came to the conclusion that in fact, the thing they'd loved about Ken Smith's plan, the playfulness, the whimsy and especially the 2-mile long, 60-foot deep canyon, were what they and all the people in Orange County really wanted. Although they'd hoped to get a unanimous decision, there was only one dissenting vote, and a smiling Ken Smith and his partners accepted the accolades--and the design job.

The Project of a Lifetime!

"When I was a student, I used to dream of doing a project like this one, but I never actually expected it to happen," said Ken Smith at the ceremony announcing his firm's design as the choice for creating the master plan for the Orange County Great Park. "This is a dream come true--the project of a lifetime." The focus of the firm's winning design was sustainability and creating a space with many different activities that will connect with everyone. "I think of it as having a generosity of purpose," said Smith. "It will be a place where everyone can feel connected to the environment."

Sculptress Mary Miss, another team member, has been creating public art since the 1970s by combining and redefining the boundaries between art, design, archaeology, landscape architecture and urban planning. She created the Battery Park Walk as well as New York City's Union Square installation. Mia Lehrer of the landscape design firm, Mia Lehrer + Associates of Los Angeles, works with the development of large urban parks and historic renovation projects. Both Ken Smith and Mary Miss live and work in Tribeca in New York City. They have been working on projects involving remaking lower Manhattan and the Wall Street area---neighborhoods heavily impacted by 9-11. Other team members include Enrique Norten, Architect, of TEN Architectos in Mexico, Craig Mitchell Schwitter, engineering designer, of Buro Happold, Steven Handel, professor of ecology and evolution at Rutgers University.

The winning design will daylight and utilize the existing streams that have been piped under the base, and create a two-mile-long canyon, 60-feet deep. According to Christina Lowe, manager of engineering at the OCGP Corporation, they will excavate down 30 feet and use the earth they remove to build up the sides of the canyon. This will involve moving 5-million cubic yards of earth at a cost of $14-million. "We wanted to create a sustainable natural preserve that would be shaded and cool for biking, hiking and walking," said Smith. There will also be a wildlife corridor. Among additional spaces will be an amphitheater, athletic fields, a lake, museums that are planned to be underground to save energy, and an aircraft display. About 900 acres of asphalt and runway will be removed and utilized in other areas. The amphitheater, the size of the Hollywood Bowl, will be located at the South end of the park, and nearby will be a cultural district containing a botanical garden, library, museum and science center. One side of the park will contain an extensive wetland area to treat urban runoff. Throughout, there will be lush plantings and tree-lined streams.

What a Great Park!

Of course. But what did everyone expect? It was a great process.

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December 7, 2019, 3:54 am PDT

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