September 4, 2013

Trails and tales of The Parklands at Floyds Fork

How did Louisville start one of the most ambitious park projects in the country? What will it take to pull it off?

The bridges at The Parklands of Floyds Fork are supposed to resemble leaping deer. The bridge’s anchor and underside beams are thicker on one side of the bridge, inspired by the animal’s squatted, pre-jump hind legs. The arch of the bridge is taller than necessary, mimicking the deer’s trajectory when springing forward.

“Do you see it?” park director Scott Martin asks during a tour he’s guiding. “I have yet to see the leaping deer.”

This may be the only part of The Parklands’ grand, sweeping vision the self-described park geek doesn’t see. The rest of this epic $120 million undertaking — from its atypical nonprofit structure to the minute design details average visitors will never consider unless told about — Martin is eager to share with the community.

The Parklands is a donor-supported 4,000-acre park system consisting of four major parks — Beckley Creek Park, Pope Lick Park, Turkey Run Park and Broad Run Park — linked by a park drive. It follows the Floyds Fork tributary in the southeast end of Jefferson County, from Shelbyville Road to Bardstown Road. Its master plan includes 100 miles of trails for hiking and biking, 19 miles of canoe trails, dozens of picnic areas, ponds stocked with fish, sports fields big enough for a college soccer game, a dog park cleverly titled The Barklands, and formal meeting spaces.

“Think of it as a series of rooms,” Martin instructs from the driver’s seat of the park’s hybrid SUV, which is idling near the northernmost entrance off Shelbyville Road. He points to a line of thin trees ahead. In 50 years, the trees will be taller and thicker, he explains. They will block the entrance point and the field of wildflowers that give it a splash of color from the first picnic and trailhead area.

“Parks are thematic and all about drama,” he continues. “Here, everything unfolds.”

The deer-inspired bridges achieve the same effect of separating spaces and defining areas. One separates Beckley Creek Park’s activity-heavy area, which includes the 22-acre Egg Lawn meant for events and the already popular “sprayground,” from the more spacious and scenic Humana Grand Allee, which has the possibility for use as a fair but offers plenty of open space for easy strolling. The Parklands was designed by Philadelphia-based Wallace Roberts & Todd and local firms Bravura and QK4.

“There were folks who wanted an open-space conservation park, which is essentially, ‘Put a parking lot on either end and go for it,’” says Martin. “We wanted an interpretative park. We wanted a seamless, large urban park.”

On Friday, 677 new acres of the system become fully operational, with the southern half of Beckley Creek Park and the entirety of Pope Lick Park opening. Ground broke earlier this summer on the remaining portions of The Parklands, which are scheduled to open in 2015.

For Dan Jones, it already feels like the home stretch.

Jones is the CEO of 21st Century Parks, the private nonprofit that owns and oversees The Parklands. He and his father, David A. Jones, the co-founder of Humana, have been working on the project for nearly a decade. Together, they have secured more than $120 million to fully fund their vision for a new park system. The first big boost of money came via Sen. Mitch McConnell, who secured $38 million from the federal government. State government contributed $10 million, while Louisville Metro, through then-Mayor Jerry Abramson, gave $1.5 million. More than half of the funds, however, came from private donations, including $14 million from the Jones family and $3 million from pizza man John Schnatter and his wife.

“There’s still a lot to be done,” says Dan Jones, “but, hopefully, we’re over the bump.”

The Parklands is easily one of the most ambitious park projects underway in the country. Four-thousand acres is a lot of space. It’s 10 times more than Cherokee Park, which boasts 400 acres. Cherokee, Shawnee and Iroquois Park combined is 1,464 acres — still less than half of The Parklands. With that much space, hurdles are expected.

Millions have been spent on removing invasive plant species like amur honeysuckle and Bradford pears and promoting or planting native wildflowers and grass. More than 20,000 new trees and shrubs have been planted in Beckley Creek alone.

“Louisville is a nuanced landscape,” Martin says. “It’s not the Tetons, but if you take a minute, you’ll see there is so much to learn.”

The Parklands is home to an estimated 700 species of plants and animals, including approximately 20 native types of mussels and four distinct types of owls. Almost 80 percent of the 4,000 acres will be naturally restored and managed woodlands, wetlands and meadows.

Some of that ground was illegally used as dumping grounds. According to Jim Moore, 21st Century Parks’ chief operating officer, approximately 600 discarded tires were removed from the land this summer, along with miscellaneous items like washing machines. “There was a reason this land was available to buy,” he says.

More than 70 land deals took place to connect the individual parks, with land owned by Metro Parks, Metropolitan Sewer District, 21st Century Parks and Future Fund. Written into the deeds and deals through perpetual easements are restrictions that the land be used as a public park.

“We have to have discipline,” says Martin. “If you ask for private donations and you say, ‘Forever,’ you’d better mean forever.”

 

The spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted has purposefully and proudly seeped into nearly every aspect of The Parklands. The elevator pitch used by the Joneses on potential fundraisers is that 21st Century Parks is attempting to do now what Olmsted did for Louisville in the late 19th century. His 18-park system, which includes Iroquois, Cherokee and Seneca parks, helped shape neighborhoods and growth within the city for decades.

The creation of a large-scale, long-term park project will help define Louisville for the next 100 years. Dan Jones, who grew up in the Highlands, says residents intuitively understand this because of their own experiences with existing parks.

“I talk to people all the time that joke they were conceived in Iroquois Park,” he says, laughing.

When ties to parks are that strong, it’s easy to convince residents to support or fund them for future generations.

“I’m not sure you could do this project anywhere else,” says Martin, who moved to Louisville to work on The Parklands. “Here, all you have to say is, ‘Olmsted!’ People get it.”

Olmsted is more than a famous name to drop while selling The Parklands to potential donors. Developers have looked to his work during almost every phase of the project. Olmsted saw parks as urban infrastructure, designed for future generations.

“Only Olmsted saw Cherokee Park then the way we see it now,” Martin says.

As he drives along the tree-lined road circling the Egg Lawn, Martin explains that the short, skinny trees are sycamores. Not much now, but in the future, they’ll create a much-needed canopy. The same is true for the trees that line the Humana Grand Allee.

Designing parks requires patience and an ability to think generations down the road, Martin says. Luckily, recreation and use of parks hasn’t changed much. Walking was the most popular recreational activity in parks during Olmsted’s time. It still is.

When naming the individual parks within the system, developers recognized that Olmsted had named his parks after indigenous Native American populations and wanted to follow suit with an organic naming system. Ultimately, they decided to name the parks after the oldest-named features in the individual parks.

“We could have gone all commercial and been Yum Center Park,” jokes Martin. “We went with natural names.”

As Louisville expands around The Parklands, Martin hopes residents orient themselves using the names. “We want our neighbors to say, ‘Oh, I live in the Beckley Creek tributary.’”

That assumed expansion around the parks is sometimes used as criticism against The Parklands. Some contend the project will just contribute to urban sprawl and the growth of those small business-hating, soul-sucking suburbs. Dan Jones thinks it’s misplaced worry.

“(Olmsted’s parks) were beyond the edge of the city,” he says. “They predicted growth. We need to be ahead of growth again.”

Martin agrees, adding, “Great cities have great cores and great edges. Look at Denver. Denver is a great outdoors city, but the mountains and the hiking aren’t in the core.”

Mayor Greg Fischer, like his predecessor, has supported the project, saying the transformative project will help attract CEOs, entrepreneurs and other top economic talent by offering a good quality of life.

Martin says if you look at parks as art — and he thinks people should — Louisville could be a museum all on its own.

“Consider the level of park design here,” he says, referencing The Parklands, the Olmsted system and Waterfront Park (designed by Hargreaves Associates and Bravura). “You could put a dome over us and say, ‘Look here. Look what they did.’”

According to the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Louisville is one of only four cities in the world to complete the system designed by the father of landscape architecture. That alone is worthy of note. Now, with one of the largest projects completely funded and well on its way to being fully realized, the world — at least the world of park nerds and urban planners — is watching.

“In municipal governments, so often parks are built for an immediate need,” Martin says. “The Parklands is a systemic park, not just a pocket park or baseball field. That’s what makes us unique. Well, that and the fact this project is actually happening. It’s not just talk.”

 

The $120 million will be gone by 2015 when the full park is open, meaning the cost of maintaining it as the clean, safe, fun environment it’s been promised as falls solely onto 21st Century Parks. The projected cost, depending on what person you ask, is $4 to $5 million per year.

According to COO Jim Moore, half of that will come from a hefty endowment currently being set up. The rest will come from donations and earned income. Available venues for rental income include the Gheens Foundation Lodge, which accommodates groups of 25 to 300-plus for events like weddings or corporate parties; the PNC Achievement Center for Education and Interpretation, which offers small classroom spaces; and the PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP Pavilion, an outdoor picnic area complete with buffet space. Weekend reservations for the PWC Pavilion are already in short supply, and Gheens has already hosted weddings and cocktail receptions. Some events, like an upcoming 10k run in October or concerts, will charge admission.

The Parklands has also rolled out a membership program. So far, almost 500 people have joined. They receive entry to member-only events, discounts on paid events and special deals with Parklands partners, which range from Seviche to Big O Tires.

21st Century Parks’ staff is cautiously optimistic about the possibilities, especially considering numbers projecting better attendance than initially expected. According to Dan Jones, The Parklands received 100,000 visits in June and July alone. They expected 350,000 for the entire year.

The Parklands hopes to attract 1 million visitors per year once it’s completely operational. For comparison, the 85-acre Waterfront Park reports more than 1.5 million visitors annually (excluding festivals). The most visited park in the country, New York City’s Central Park, which was designed by Olmsted, receives more than 35 million visitors each year.

“People love parks when it’s 70 degrees out,” Martin says, “but good design keeps them coming out when it isn’t, like during winter.”

The thousands of wildflowers planted along meadows near the hiking and biking trails will naturally change with the seasons. Similarly, some tree leaves will change during fall while others will transform. The idea is that repeat visits won’t feel like repeat visits at all.

“We wouldn’t expect someone from the Highlands, or wherever, to come out here for a playground,” says Dan Jones, emphasizing the need to complement, not compete, with the city’s existing parks. “We have the canoeing, fishing, 19 miles of the Louisville Loop, off-road or paved biking experiences. Those are things that are unusual.”

Martin reiterates the point. “The park has to be designed for everyone, including moms with strollers and people in wheelchairs. It can’t just be for people with 2-percent body fat who make Lycra look good.”

As part of Turkey Run Park currently under construction, the 21st Century Parks is working with the International Mountain Biking Association to create one of the best trail systems east of the Mississippi River. IMBA stresses comprehensive trail systems designed for everyone from amateurs to experts. So, Moore and Martin expect out-of-town mountain-biking enthusiasts to instantly add Louisville to their list of vacation spots while newcomers quickly fall in love with the sport.

Plans are also underway to partner with local groups in order to bring canoeing opportunities to people who don’t own or have access to their own vessel.

“We want to be a gateway drug to bigger and better parks,” says Moore. 

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