Reinventing a river

Atop the austere and stuffily named Legal Building, overlooking construction traffic in the city’s once-and-future central park, sit the Asheville offices of Design Workshop. Although the company’s name may not be familiar to many area residents, its work in landscape architecture, land planning and urban design has borne fruit in projects worldwide. And now, Design Workshop is turning its attention to our urban riverfront.

Down by the river: Design Workshop interns are pitching ideas for redevelopment of the riverfront, including the Norfolk Southern railyard. photos by Jonathan Welch

Last week, the company brought 16 of the best landscape-design students in the world to the banks of the French Broad River to meet with stakeholders, study the brownfields and green spaces, examine past planning efforts and evaluate economic alternatives with the goal of imagining new possibilities for the world’s second- (or possibly third-) oldest river. Chosen from a pool of 313 applicants, the interns arrived here May 29 armed with various combinations of postgraduate degrees, workplace experience and publication in scholarly journals. Yikers, bikers, skiers, watercolorists and potters, they speak a handful of languages.

Three areas were selected for particular focus: the River Arts District, the Norfolk Southern rail yard and Biltmore Village. The group offered the public a first look at its ideas in a June 8 open house at Curve Studios on Riverside Drive. And though the students departed the next day for summer internships at other Design Workshop locations around the country, they’ll stay in touch and compile their plans for Asheville’s riverfront by summer’s end.

An extensive portfolio

On track with Asheville: The Design Workshop interns walking the walk.

If you visit the Inn on Biltmore Estate and look out in any direction, you are looking at and through Design Workshop’s work. If you schuss down slopes at the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in Whistler, British Columbia, you are zooming through one of their projects. Strolling through the Albuquerque Biological Park or the Gardens on El Paseo in Palm Desert, Calif., you are walking on their turf. If you shop at Kierland Commons in Scottsdale, Ariz., or The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., you traverse a Design Workshop cityscape. Visitors to Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon or Madidi National Park in Bolivia also move through landscapes fashioned by Design Workshop planners. And commuters who motor along Interstate 25 between Denver and Colorado Springs navigate the company’s 65-mile-long design twice a day.

Combining modern environmental science, community needs and desires, economic feasibility and outright artistry, the company seeks to follow in the steps of Frederick Law Olmsted, creating landscapes that will work for generations to come. Design Workshop showcases both its mission and a generous sampling of its award-winning projects throughout the hemisphere in a coffee-table volume titled Toward Legacy (Grayson Publishing, 2007).

The projects reflect what the company calls “legacy design,” a specific method for synthesizing art, community, environment and economics in designs that “achieve measurable benefits for people.” In describing the intended outcome of the work, company literature suggests that “these are sustainable places of timeless beauty, substantial value and enduring quality that lift the spirit. Design Workshop is dedicated to creating these legacy projects for our clients, for society, and for the well-being of our planet.”

In addition to the Inn on Biltmore Estate, the company has prepared preliminary drawings for development of the former Thoms estate in Beaverdam, clustering buildings to maximize green space while meeting the developer’s financial requirements.

Process, not product

Glenn Walters, who heads up the firm’s Asheville office, is also in charge of the internship workshop. He told Xpress that while creating a new riverfront plan was a specific goal of the 10-day charette, there was also a broader aim. “It’s about the quality of the student’s experience,” he said. “We provide them a chance to explore, to get to know what professional practice is all about.”

The interns began by meeting with a panel of stakeholders to get an overview of the city/river interface. Panelists included Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, former French Broad Riverkeeper Phillip Gibson (now director of research at Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center), city planner Alan Glines, developers Kent Smith and Chuck Tessier, Parkway and Arboretum volunteer Richard T. Hall, River District artist Patty Torno, and Tracy Wahl of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Riverfront planning is nothing new for Asheville; RiverLink, a local nonprofit, has been working on revitalizing the River District for decades and was the driving force behind such projects as French Broad River Park, Carrier Park and the French Broad River Greenway. “We spent about 45 minutes with the interns, telling them about progress with the ‘Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan,’” Executive Director Karen Cragnolin told Xpress. The comprehensive document is a successor to “The Riverfront Plan,” an award-winning 1989 blueprint that was adopted by the city and county to guide redevelopment efforts. “They told me that reading all 600 pages of the plan was one of the requirements for the internship.” Cragnolin added: “Hopefully these kids will come up with some great ideas that fit in with the official plan. Wasn’t Maya Lin a student when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall?”

Cragnolin also emphasized that few design challenges are as complex as urban-riverfront redevelopment. “There are brownfields, old industrial buildings, recreational and environmental issues—a whole range of problems to solve. Interestingly, one of the interns told me that his school used the Wilma Dykeman Plan as a model for how urban-river plans should be developed.”

Following the forum, the interns formed teams to analyze the status quo. One group studied the environment to determine an appropriate mission for the riverfront project and what opportunities there are for improvement. Another group connected with residents “to see how the river can become stronger as connective tissue for the community,” Walters explained. Still others examined the local economy to envision how riverfront development can generate economic opportunity. A final group worked on connections with the arts community.

“Any plan for the future has to take into consideration the need to keep Asheville weird,” Walters said with a grin.

By week’s end, the interns had come up with a broad array of suggestions for riverfront development. Seth Slifer, part of a team that worked on the area around the rail yard, said: “The idea is to reconnect the green corridors and the city back to the river and to connect Biltmore to the River Arts District. We wanted to create open space beside the river and run a pedestrian bridge over the rail yard.”

Shannon Scovell said she had helped with design ideas for Biltmore Village. “We were walking around and suddenly discovered we were on a bridge crossing a creek that has mostly been channelized.” Sweeten Creek runs through the area, and the interns imagined re-wilding part of the run with a wetland to slow flood water, filter runoff and provide wildlife habitat. “Some people we talked to said that Sweeten Creek was a major cause of flooding during heavy rain, so we wanted to slow down the flow,” she explained. Scovell was enthusiastic about the internship and about learning “how [the company’s approach links] sustainability, the economy and the arts.”

The internship project, which Design Workshop has sponsored annually since 1985, is also a recruitment tool, “but not primarily so,” said Walters. “It does give us a chance to work with the best and brightest students and let them get to know us, so that many do end up coming to work for us in future years. But more importantly, it works to improve landscape design generally, to contribute to the profession.”

The company’s founders, he noted, met as professors at N.C. State University. “They came from the academy and have made a fiscal commitment to weaving academic rigor into design.” All employees are encouraged to continue their education, graduate degrees are required for career advancement, and every employee is also in some way a teacher. As Walters explained, “When we’re teaching, we’re also learning.”

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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One thought on “Reinventing a river

  1. Paula Slifer

    Would it be possible to have a copy of this article as sit appeared in the newspaper? I would like to have it as my son, Seth Slifer, is quoted.
    If possible, please mail it to:
    Paula Slifer
    15637 Lackman Rd,
    Olathe, KS 66062

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