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The South Florida Science Center
Exercising Minds and Bodies

Greg Frank, LASN
Landscape Architecture by Schmidt Nichols

The South Florida Science Center

Situated within Dreher Park, the South Florida Science Center & Aquarium, in the city of West Palm Beach, is in the process of a complete renovation to its existing features and grounds. Two of the three phases of the project are complete, and the rest of the work is scheduled to be done within a month. Schmidt Nichols Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, also in West Palm Beach, was the landscape architectural firm for the venture.

In a series of three expansion phases, the South Florida Science Center & Aquarium, located in the city of West Palm Beach's Dreher Park, is undergoing a major revitalization to their original facility. The total cost is estimated to be between $2.4 and $3 million and the enhancements aim to make the museum more enjoyable by incorporating a swath of interactive science orientated areas, new playgrounds, a splash pad, 25 new hands-on science exhibits, an 18-hole mini-golf course and future plans to connect to the adjacent zoo. As of the publishing of this article, phase 1 and 2 of the project are complete.

Jon E. Schmidt & Associates, the primary landscape architecture firm for the development, obtained approval of the Class B Special Use Permit for the expansion, and coordinated the approval of the $2,400,000 Inter-local Funding Agreement between Palm Beach county, the city of West Palm Beach and the South Florida Science Museum under the Recreation and Cultural Facilities Bond.

Part of Jon Schmidt's work thus far has included designing and facilitating 11,000 gross square feet of overall site improvements for an expansion to the existing museum and construction of approximately 3,000 gross square feet of permanent exhibit space.

The South Florida Science Center

Realistic, animatronic dinosaurs were placed throughout the museum, spurring excitement for children. The brightly colored creatures blink, roar, open their mouths, shake their heads and sway their tails. They range in size from about 3' tall and 15" long to 16' tall and 45' long. Gregory Erickson was the paleontologist from Florida State University who was consulted for the task of making the dinos as real as possible. An archeological dig pit for children to hunt for their own dinosaur bones is also within the museum.

Mr. Schmidt stated that facilitating open lines of communication for the client, with the Palm Beach Zoo, the Mayor's office and Palm Beach County Parks & Recreation department, was key to the master plan.

"There are a lot of jurisdictional agencies that have to sign off on these projects. It is a lot to solve and a collaborative effort by all the professionals to bring this together," Schmidt said.

The final $750,000 phase will include the "Physics Forest," which is a circular interactive learning environment, a splash pad, expanded outdoor seating with a full service concession stand and an outdoor amphitheater. In the end, the long-term goal is to connect the science center with the neighboring Palm Beach Zoo by utilization of a science themed trail.

The South Florida Science Center

This is the six-and-under playground found in the northwest corner of the center. It is both indoor and outdoors and includes a 16' x 5' interactive, running water table, a lounge area for parents, a life-sized Lite-Brite wall, the classic toy from 1967 which has small colored plastic pegs that fit into a panel and illuminate to create a lit picture, plus more. It was funded, in part, by PNC Grow Up Great, a company formed by PNC Financial Services Group, Inc., of Pittsburgh.

Challenges Faced

One of the challenges in the design was the low-lying aspect of the site, which, in Florida, is definitely a problem.

"That area was prone to seasonal flooding, so the entire site had to be brought up a couple feet," relates Schmidt. "We also implemented some storm chambers to handle those drainage challenges."

The South Florida Science Center

This is the site plan by Schmidt Nichols. The piano walkway in the lower right, once fully installed, will have interactive keys on the ground that play notes when stepped on. A gem panning activity will be in between the walkway and "Bubbleology," an area where humungous bubbles can be made!

Because this was such a massive undertaking, many firms had to be consulted and communicated with, and copious laws and regulations had to be adhered to. Site visits were facilitated to verify that work was completed and to foster a close coordination with the museum's accounting staff and the Palm Beach City Parks & Rec's accounting requirements and procedures.

To ensure total communication between all parties, Schmidt Nichols processed and tracked all the contracts, change orders, purchase orders and check requests for all sub-consultants, as well as the general contractor's pay applications and bank disbursement requests. In addition, South Florida Science Center loan disbursement requests were processed, tracked, deposited, and disbursed.

"It really was a lot of groups coming together and the work of many professionals to make this a great project," said Schmidt.

The South Florida Science Center

Jim Fazio, a world-renowned golf course architect, and Gary Nicklaus, professional golfer and son of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, designed this mini golf course. It offers an opportunity to learn about Florida's Everglades because every hole on the course is named after an indigenous plant or animal found in the protected wetlands of the Everglades. One interesting accolade is that the Conservation Course was recognized by the Travel Channel as one of the 13 best mini golf courses in America.

The Spirit Behind the Design

While all of the new features of the science center may just seem like fun for children, there is a deeper methodology behind their installments. Everything within the center revolves around science.

For instance, the pathways that link areas within the site mimic the rings around Saturn. Also, an outdoor science walkway will connect 15 new exhibits and eventually connect to the neighboring zoo, providing a walkway to more knowledge.

The South Florida Science Center

This is an initial site rendering by the landscape architect. Several interactive spaces, such as the human-sized sundial and the whisper dishes, were repositioned for the final design layout (pictured on the previous page). Nevertheless, the plants and animals featured are indigenous to Florida and include species such as Florida Royal palms and pelicans.

"This big path, while it looks like a continuing sphere, is also used for maintenance. So, not only does it have to be designed well, but it also has to be maintained in a cost effective manner," Schmidt says.
Another way the design focused on science is with the inclusion of new zones and activities like the "Physics Forest," which is a circular, physics-themed interactive play area, a human sundial and the dinosaur walk.

Schmidt concludes the interview by reaffirming that the spirit behind the design was really what was the driving factor for the entire project.

"The inspiration behind our second phase, after the installation of the mini golf course, was to have the new elements mimic the scientific items found within the science center."

As seen in LASN magazine, September 2018.

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August 23, 2019, 1:30 pm PDT

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