Supplement Feature - April 2019
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Intelligent Design

Reimagining Parks & Play Spaces

By Rick Dandes

Reinventing Spaces

Anna Cawrse and Andrew Gutterman, both landscape architects with Sasaki, faced an altogether different kind of challenge: to reimagine what had once been a railroad yard into the anchor space within a broader, rundown 180-acre site that also included wetlands and an oak forest.

Bonnet Springs, in Lakeland, Fla., is about halfway between Tampa and Orlando. The site is very close to the downtown, and it has been cut off physically and psychologically from the community because of an active rail corridor and roadway infrastructure.

It took the vision of local community leaders to see the potential for this site as something other than what it was zoned for, which was commercial and industrial use, Gutterman said. It was ground zero for a potential distribution center, which would have added traffic congestion without really enhancing quality of life for the community.

About 80 acres on the site was a former rail maintenance yard, active for about 100 years. But by the mid-1980s, all of the tracks and structures had been completely removed, and that rail function had been relocated to another area. The balance of the site consists of an area that was formerly a citrus grove and sloping live oak forest on the edge of Lake Bonnet.

"So, we had a site with quite a bit of variety to it with a varied history of different types of uses," Gutterman said. "Some areas had a certain amount of environmental integrity, but much of the site had been previously disturbed by agricultural or industrial use."

Thirty years ago, after the railyard was decommissioned, a group formed to market the site for a commercial office park. It didn't get very far, although at the time it seemed like a good idea.

Better ideas prevailed, Gutterman said. "There was a recognition of an opportunity to create a great, central park for Lakeland. In 2015 a vision statement was put together, "and we were called in," Gutterman said. "This is a private ownership project. We are still in the design phase. Tentatively, we plan to have the park done by the end of 2020."

An advisory committee was formed and it was this group that saw the value of the site, Gutterman said. "It is essentially a private endeavor in terms of ownership and much of the fundraising. But it is being done with the participation of public agencies, local, regional and state, since its intended use is for public use."

Sasaki did a master plan, explained Cawrse. "We did public outreach for six months and asked the community what it was they wanted. We went out and looked at the parks that already existed in Lakeland. We didn't want to duplicate or compete with them; we wanted to complement them. We asked the community, what was their vision? And we learned they wanted the park to be a cultural magnet and an economic jewel in the region."

From that, she said, "we developed a couple of concepts, went to the public and asked them about those different concepts. We then refined the masterplan so that it reflects the goals that came out of the outreach and public engagement. We balanced the program with the restored ecosystem."

A section of the 180 acres has a spring that runs through it, and there is a lake on the site and 40 acres of wetlands. That natural experience coupled with cultural amenities has been the driver of the program, Cawrse explained. A children's museum that already exists in town will be moving to the site as an anchor. Adventure play will be prominent. There will be a botanic garden and an event center, with potential as a revenue center. Plans also call for a welcome center with a restaurant.

"The other goal," she said, is to showcase the central Florida landscape, such as having a canopy walk that goes into the oak forest. And we'll take people out to the wetlands on a boardwalk."

The project has the support of the city, which has been important in funding. "We have a naturally occurring spring on the site and the regional water management district has a grant program to fund the restoration of spring environments," Gutterman said. We have looked at applying for that. The advisory group is starting to explore partnerships in order to broaden the spectrum of funding sources."