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Park and Ramble: Sayen Gardens Transformed

By Joseph D. Perello, ASLA, Schoor DePalma, Photos by Michele Ouimet

The man-made waterfall was constructed entirely of natural stone boulders that were donated to the Township by land developers who were constructing projects within the township. The strategic placement and design layout was the result of the collaborative efforts of the Schoor DePalma design firm, the Township Director of Engineering and Planning, and the contractors in their ongoing sketches and trial and error placement of the structures to attain the desired effect.

A "streamside ramble" design transformed an erosion-plagued site in Mercer County, New Jersey from a liability to a relaxing and delightful community asset.

Before the redesign, stormwater was routed through an underground drainage system. While pumps circulate water through the new system most of the year, the man-made water course can handle storm loads too. Image courtesy of Schoor DePalma

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The Township of Hamilton in Mercer County, N.J. sits along the Delaware River about 10 miles from where Gen. George Washington crossed on the night of Dec. 25, 1776. Located in one of the country's higher-income areas, Hamilton is known for its quality park system and attractive open spaces.

Hamilton Township includes Sayen Gardens, a 30-acre piece of property adjacent to LaBaw Pointe, one of the area's premiere public park spaces. The site was plagued with storm water drainage and erosion problems. In the past, the township had tried to eliminate the problems by installing a drainage pipe and inlets and re-grading the area. These items did not work appropriately, nor did they have the aesthetic amenities that Mayor Glen Gilmore believed they could potentially provide. The township hired the Landscape Architects at Schoor DePalma, a national multidisciplinary consulting firm, to develop a solution for the mayor's vision of a "streamside ramble" with an abundance of plant materials and open spaces that could be enjoyed by the public.

The waterfalls in the rambling creek were partially designed on site by varying the placement and heights of the existing boulders and varying the horsepower in the pumps that feed the waterfall and re-circulate the smaller ponds and stream bed.

"This particular piece of property, even with its initial drainage shortfalls, had such great potential due to its location and interesting terrain that we just couldn't afford to have left it undeveloped," said Mayor Gilmore. "Today, these two connecting park sites have created an expansive open space area that is known for its beauty, a passive near-the-water experience for all of our visitors, and has become a year-round focal point and source of pride within our community."

The footbridge enables walkers to experience both sides of the riverbed, while linking sitting areas and viewing platforms together within the site. The viewing platform above the storm water outfall can be seen in the back.

The landscape architecture design team at Schoor DePalma, led by Joseph Perello, CLA, RLA, ASLA, prepared an overall master plan of potential improvements to resolve the erosion and drainage problems, while also providing a public open space amenity and passive recreation area for the community. The project was designed to include the construction of drainage improvements that consisted of a streamside ramble constructed of native stone and boulders, waterfront sitting areas, a gazebo gathering space, walkways and site lighting, overlook boardwalk area, wetland plantings and restoration, waterfalls and pond areas with aquatic plantings, and access to the water's edge.

The placement of a smaller aerator in a small pond area with aquatic plantings along the edges creates an appealing sitting area along the park path system. The ponds also serve as an attractive area for birds, butterflies, and some aquatic life.

The Landscape Architect's prepared detailed drawings would enable the project to be publicly bid and be clearly understood by the contractors. Details for the placement of boulders and stones that were donated to the Township from nearby construction projects were included in the drawings. The Landscape Architects provided many hours of onsite supervision during construction to be sure that the proper placement of boulders and river cobbles in and around the stream bed would allow for the desired flow of the man-made stream. In order to detail the placement and configuration of boulders and stones, the design team researched both man-made and naturally occurring streambeds within the region of the park site. Details for boulder weirs and streambed construction were provided in the drawings and specifications, but the quality of the end product was the result of a "hands-on" contractor who clearly understood the design intent of the project. The construction contract was awarded to Development Concepts, of Edison, N.J., who provided outstanding performance throughout the project that resulted in an aesthetically pleasing public space. The naturally appearing water features and planted areas were attributed to the talents and dedication of the design team and the contractor throughout the entire process of the project.

The existing conditions at the site consisted of an unsightly concrete headwall with two storm water pipes and eroded slopes and ponding in several areas. These poor conditions contributed to erosion and maintenance issues and limited use of the site.

One of the difficult issues that the design team faced was how to create a flowing stream when the previous ditch and storm water pipes only had water flowing through them during a rain event. To ensure that an adequate supply of water was always available and flowing, the design team created two ponds at both ends of the stream along with a pump system that would allow for the constant flow of water through this newly created passive recreation area, even during times of drought in the summer. The system was also designed to accommodate the flow of water that enters the site during a rainfall event. This design had to be approved by several regulatory agencies and had to receive numerous permits from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, and the Mercer County Soil Conservation District.

The Township of Hamilton had accumulated boulders that were donated by land developers that were currently building in the municipality. These boulders were part of the Township's vision to create an attractive rambling creek surrounded by an attractive open space park out of this predominately flat site with drainage problems.

To ensure that the stream banks were stabilized and to provide a soft touch to the man-made stream, native plantings and wetland areas were designed and constructed along the stream banks, the ponds, and in the adjacent gardens and wooded areas. The use of native plantings was emphasized and incorporated into the majority of the site's landscape areas.

The storm water drainage outlet near the road frontage of the site contributed to the erosion and poor drainage conditions. Storm water from the adjacent roadways and parking lots would flow into the site and create ponded areas, restricting the site from being utilized.

Various sitting areas were designed to enable park users to relax along the water's edge and along the path system that connects the park site to adjacent uses. The gazebo was strategically placed to take advantage of the views from the structure, as well as views of the gazebo from adjacent roadways. The deck area was constructed over the storm water outfall area to assist in screening the open drainage pipes, while also allowing park users to relax in an aesthetically pleasing space above the stream bed. A pedestrian footbridge was designed to enable park users to walk over the newly created stream, and connect to other portions of the site. The design of the footbridge was customized to give it a light and airy appearance so as not to overpower the streamside ramble, and to coordinate with the theme of the gazebo structure.

The newly-constructed footbridge appears to "float" above the small rambling stream bed and the heavy, solid looking boulders on the site. The entire park area is surrounded by an illuminated, multi-purpose path that is utilized by walkers who stroll through the park to view and enjoy the amenities.

The site has become a beautiful passive recreation area that is filled with flowering plantings all spring, with peak blooms around Mother's Day. The site provides one of the most popular places for outdoor photographs of wedding parties from around the area, and has even hosted wedding ceremonies in the gazebo. The site is also the home for outdoor art shows, music gatherings, craft fairs, and particularly the Annual Azalea Festival. Sponsored by the township, this spectacular event is held every Mother's Day and is attended by an estimated 30,000 visitors.

The aerator serves the purpose of reducing algae growth in the pond, while adding an attractive upright visual landmark that can be seen throughout the park area at different views. The Township selected the desirable horsepower for the aerator through a trial and error basis with the contractors at East Windsor Irrigation.

Thanks to the commitment of Mayor Glen D. Gilmore, and the design by the Landscape Architects with input from the township staff, this space has evolved from an eroding ditch to one of the most peaceful, passive recreation areas in the region.

The placement of natural stone boulders and river cobbles in the riverbed simulate a natural environment. The placement of boulders with smaller cobbles strategically slows the velocity of water to control flow and prevent erosion.

Joseph D. Perello, CLA, RLA, ASLA is a graduate of the Landscape Architecture Program at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is a principal and vice president at the firm of Schoor DePalma, a multi-disciplinary design firm with over 1,100 employees. In his present position, he is manager of the Parks & Landscape Architecture Department and manages the landscape architectural and recreational design components of numerous projects throughout the firm's offices. He has managed and designed numerous projects throughout the region, and his department has been recognized with over 20 design awards from various organizations.

The park amenities are visible from the street as well as from within the park. The white gazebo is in keeping with the other white footbridge and a railing located in the park, and sets the tone for this passive park as users enter from the street and from parking areas. The gazebo is a popular location for wedding photographs, graduations, small outdoor musical gatherings, and the centerpiece for the popular Azalea Festival every spring.

The multi-use paths and adjacent open spaces are landscaped with a mixture of native plant species and ornamental flowering plants. The ornamental birch trees echo the light and airy feel of the white footbridge and white sprays from the fountain.

Plantings of native shrubs such as mountain laurel, (Kalmia latifolia) and native flowering trees beautify the park throughout the spring season. The natural wooded edge softly blends into the man-made landscape of the site.

The park is continuously planted for seasonal interest by the Township's in-house staff. The plantings provide a soft touch adjacent to the bold rock formations found in the rambling creek. The view (with red tulips) here was taken in early spring.

A Community Gem

Frederick Sayen was an avid gardener and world traveler. In 1912 he purchased a 30-acre parcel not far from the family rubber mill in Hamilton Square, N.J. He built a bungalow-style home and surrounded it with plants and flowers acquired while he traveled the world. His collection includes species from China, Japan and England, many of which are still flourishing. According to Harry Robinson, Sayen Gardens' master horticulturist, there are more than 1,000 azaleas and nearly 500 rhododendrons thriving under the care of the dedicated Sayen Gardens groundskeepers. Spring unveils a magnificent display of color and beauty with more than 250,000 flowering bulbs, as well as dogwoods, heirloom azaleas and rhododendrons. Mother's Day marks the garden's annual Azalea Festival. Throughout the year annual and perennial displays fill the gardens with splendor, highlighting the many walking trails, fish ponds and gazebos that permeate the grounds. Source:

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June 18, 2019, 6:45 pm PDT

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