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The Atwater Landscape Plan

The Master Plan Implementation Committee was impressed with all of the entries for Turf Battle. As you know from the Turf Battle Open Forum, there was great interest in selecting the best and most feasible aspects from each proposal and incorporating them into one design. We realize that this process was billed as a winner-take-all proposition, but the three proposals complement one another so well. Furthermore, none of the entrants addressed all the issues and challenges facing the site, so an overall plan was needed to fix the entire area.

Keith Wagner was hired as the landscape architect for the project. He met with Luther Tenny and I at the Atwater site several weeks ago. We discussed all of the Turf Battle plans, looked the site over, and discussed ideas on the most appropriate treatments for the Atwater area. Keith then drafted  a rough sketch of the site; all the entrants should see pieces of their plans in the overall site plan. It is still very much a work in progress, but I’ll go over the plan North to South, (Atwater parking lot to Chateau), give some of our design theories behind the ideas, and hopefully credit appropriately the excellent student work that appears within.

The Atwater Site Plan-Rough Draft

The Atwater Site Plan-Rough Draft-Click Image for Full Size

The existing stormwater retention pond next to the parking lot suffers from a lack of context, seeming like a piece of landscape that doesn’t fit into the surrounding area. At present,the native, wild planting, surrounded by mown lawn and parking lot floats like a small island in a sea of orderly landscape. All of the contestant’s plans addressed this area to some extent. The Lee-Rosenblatt proposal correctly identified the area as needing some sort of wall, not only to block the view of the parking lot, but to prevent the prevailing winds from blasting through there, the well-known Atwater Wind Tunnel. Their proposal called for a gabion wall as a backdrop to the pond, which was to be turned into a seasonal platform, making the pond functional. The pond is already functional, though, specially designed for stormwater treatment, and due to permitting constraints, any changes to this functionality are not allowed. The new plan does create a wall, however, but utilizes evergreen trees to block wind in all seasons. The Catalano-Madson-Moritz plan puts the pond into the center of a no-mow zone, which is an excellent idea. Lawn transitioning into a no-mow meadow is now part of the landscape vernacular at Middlebury and will help to further blend the pond. More mass plantings of native shrubs and perennials around this pond will further aid in defining this area and placing it in the greater context of the surroundings.

Lower Retention Pond

Lower Retention Pond-click for larger size


And it is this planting area around the pond where we hope to speak to the excellent work of the Webster-Hsieh-Maher team, with their Chinese Scholars’ Garden. Here is where the team calls for their garden to be located. While we don’t have the time or labor needed to correctly do a full Chinese garden justice here on campus, the Sichuan style of horticulture will work well with our plan of beefing up the plantings around the retention pond, with its more wild style. They also had a great idea of blocking the parking lot with a ‘borrowed view’, which we are hoping to replicate with native plants. They set a high bar and gave a great encapsulation of Chinese gardens, when they stated “Plants were chosen based on their ability to evoke the senses. Color, aroma, height, density, and blooming season determined selection and location. Unlike Western gardens that often peak in the spring and summer seasons, the vegetation selection in the Chinese garden allows viewers to experience the joys of the garden throughout the year. The ever-changing, dynamic garden creates an atmosphere that cannot be fully experienced in one sitting. The audience is continuously invited to return and notice the changing environment from hour to hour, day to day, and season to season.”

Moving uphill (south) in the landscape, four Elms get planted up the long corridor, starting at the west end of the new no-mow, and going up to the new courtyard. We plan to use the new Hybrid elm named Accolade. Its wonderful vase-shaped form in this towering shade tree will help break the strict vertical lines imposed by Halls A+B in the landscape.

The L-R proposal correctly speaks to the need to create “several clearly defined outdoor rooms,” which is a great way to approach the site, at present reading like a long corridor. In the new plan, a wall is placed in the grass quad to the west of Hall B. This was a great idea from the C-M-M plan, but moved further south uphill. Their location for the wall, which they called “The Pass”, was located right on top of some major utilities, including a primary power source and steam lines serving both Halls A+B. This would make any major construction or planting inadvisable in this location, as repairs to the underground infrastructure, while infrequent, would destroy any landscaping on the surface.

The idea still holds, though, and the basic design principal was a sound one. Not only does a low wall provide horizontal relief in the vertical landscape of the buildings, but as seating and a topographical aid to flatten the grass areas above and below a wall here is a great choice. The wall will also be designed to allow seating, much like The Pass.

Patio Area

Patio Area-click for larger size

On the south side of the wall lies a courtyard, paved with concrete. Both the C-M-M plan and the L-R plan call for some sort of courtyard space, both correctly speaking to the need for a more formal outdoor gathering space. The C-M-M plan calls for two outdoor classrooms, in the area next to Halls A+B where there are no windows. These areas, though, are where the same utility lines that foiled the placement of The Pass enter the residence halls, so pavement on top of these areas is ill-advised. The L-R plan calls for a large courtyard made of crushed gravel, something with a more urban feel to match the existing area. I find gravel not sustainable in the landscape for very long, as herbicides are needed to prevent crabgrass and other weeds from infiltrating the area. Concrete also provides easier snow removal, extending the use of the patio first thing in the spring on those occasional sunny days.

The paved patio is placed outside Hall B, just south of the wall, and it surrounds and expands the existing lounge space in Hall B. The C-M-M plan does state the need for gathering spaces at night and the location outside the lounge speaks to this. The nearby wall will also provide seating and a break in the landscape from the more recreational uses of the turf below. This location for the patio also helps in one other problem, the two dirt paths heading west that will become sidewalk, part of the baseline improvements we plan to make to the site. While present use patterns show the need for both these paths, they meet on the east end closely at an existing sidewalk, making an awkward triangle of grass that would be hard to maintain, and would turn to bare dirt. With the placement of the patio the two paths will terminate well separated in the courtyard area.

The C-M-M plan calls for the area directly to the north of Chateau to be a grass courtyard, correctly identifying the present use of the space. This area is used for many tables and chairs during language schools, who’ve expressed interest in shade here to make the space more user friendly. The grid of trees in the L-M plan was well received by many people, so we’ve placed this design concept here. The grid of Birch trees is also echoed across campus, both in front of Ross Dining and in Discovery Court south of Bicentennial Hall. By careful placement of these trees we hope to preserve the views to Chipman Hill. Clumps of birch are also used throughout the rest of the Atwater landscape, blocking the views of the harsh southern walls of Halls A+B, as well as the basis for a new planting in the front of Atwater Dining.

Let’s jump to the front of the dining hall. Presently there is a dirt path along the southern side of the stairs leading down to the Dining Hall Plaza, caused by bicycles not utilizing the existing ADA ramp. In the center of that ramp, the landscape is that of small trees and large shrubs dotting a mown lawn, a piece of landscape out of context to the surrounding area, similar to the landscaping issues surrounding the retention ponds next to both the Atwater and Johnson parking lot. The new plan calls for planting this area and the area next to the stairs with native shrubs and perennials, making the space more inviting and appropriate for the special events held in the dining hall. We are also planting a thick grove of evergreens and native shrubs around the lower retention pond next to the Atwater loading dock, not only for the same reasons as the other retention pond, but to block access along that dirt path that has formed leading to the parking lot.

Atwater Dining Area

Atwater Dining Area-Click for Larger Size

On the west side of Allen presently is an area of crushed gravel, as foot and vehicle traffic has overwhelmed the existing sidewalk infrastructure. We’ve placed a new sidewalk running north to south along the west side of Allen, where it is obvious many people walk from Chateau Road to the dining hall. A triangle area is formed west of this new sidewalk; this becomes another planting bed, part of the new attractive entrance to the dining hall. The center of this bed will utilize an Elm tree linking this section of the landscape together with the lower sections between Halls A+B. Further beautifying this area will be a planted bed of perennials next to the rock ledge, so walking into the Atwater area from the south will be a stroll through a garden.

At present, another crushed gravel area is right at the north end of Chateau Road, on the south side of Allen. Bike racks are haphazardly scattered around here. Once again the usage hasn’t matched sidewalk layout.  A larger concrete sidewalk area right next to the road not only gives a space for the bike racks, but matches circulation. We will use this area to funnel foot traffic directly onto this service road, turning it into a “Pedestrian Promenade” as the Master Plan calls it, the first one on campus.  We will then be able to eliminate the awkward walk now present east of Chateau Road, which was too narrow and hard to maintain in the winter.

We hope to begin construction this summer, slipping it into an already busy season. Much work remains on the plan, and, in the spirit of the competition, comments, critiques, ideas and suggestions are welcome.

And on a personal note, thanks ever so much to all the contestants. Your ideas and inspirations are going to make this not only a workable landscape, but one of the best areas on Middlebury campus. Your entries for Turf Battle were critical for the formation of the new plan, and the synergy of the contest shows in the final product. Special thanks to Tim Spears for the contest idea and for being the driving force behind this undertaking and to Sarah Franco for helping with the nuts and bolts during the busiest winter I’ve ever had here. Finally, thanks to Luther Tenny, who I swear was a landscape architect in a past life, and to Keith Wagner for his singular vision of the entire area. I’ll be keeping the campus updated on the progress of this landscape project on my regular blog, The Middlebury Landscape.

The Proposals and Presentations

I’ve created a series of three blog posts on the presentations and the proposals for Turf Battle. I’ve also included some of my own thoughts on them, as well as some of the other thoughts I heard and wrote down, including discussions in our Landscape department. I’m sure I missed many good comments from the presentations, though, so hopefully the commenters will write.

I am certainly no expert. Heck, I don’t even take my own opinions with more than a grain or two of salt. I am, however, hoping to spark discussion of these three proposals in the comments section of each post, as well as comments attached to this post on possible collaboration between the plans. Many people have approached me about possible collaboration, and this is the first step. Please write with whatever ideas or comments you may have, or email me directly.

Overall, I am very impressed with all three proposals. I think back to my days studying landscape design, and how I wish we had more projects that were applicable and destined for the real world, rather than thought experiments that never left the classroom. All of these plans have their strengths and weaknesses, but any of them are great solutions for the space. I am once again amazed by the creativity of Middlebury students.

Each of the posts will link to a PDF of the proposal, as well as the Power Point of the presentation given Tuesday night. The Master Plan Implementation Committee will be meeting in the next week or two to decide on a plan of action, so any and all comments are welcome, appreciated, and needed.

The Blog Posts—

The Garden of Scholarly Delights

The Lee-Rosenblatt Proposal

The Catalano/Madson/Moritz Proposal





The Catalano/Madson/Moritz Plan

Download the Proposal

Download the Presentation

This team states right at the beginning of their proposal what they feel is the most important problems of the site, that of space. They write “One of the biggest issues with the current Atwater landscape seems to be its vast, undefined character. While it currently provides ‘open space’ for potential recreation, it is under-used due because (sic) of its sloping turf, oddly-shaped spaces and heavy pedestrian traffic. In considering these issues, we have created distinct environments that can be used for classes, meeting, relation and performances as well as for circulation”

Five zones seek to accomplish their goals, and I urge you to read the plan. The first two can be grouped together, that of Chateau Quad and the Atwater plaza. They envision a quad of grass (more courtyard sized really) directly behind Chateau, giving a flat area for use in the summer. This meets an important goal they have of preserving the existing views. A proposed patio borders the quad on the west side. Constructed of permeable pavers, this small area affords some space for a couple of tables and chairs. Trees are planned for the north side of this space, possibly acting as a slight wind buffer, although not giving shade to the area.

One thought on this location is the size-it is drawn to be a similar size to the new patio at McCullough. This small size will give a good feeling of intimacy, but the surrounding landscape may not help this programmed context. The openness of the site to Battell Beach, intentional to preserve the view, may not aid the intimate feeling, and may make the occupant of the patio feel rather exposed, out in the open. To combat this feeling at McCullough we surrounded the area with a couple small planting beds, and some tree plantings nearby to help screen the patio from Old Chapel road. This may need to be done in a similar fashion at this location.

The Atwater area between Hall A and B is a long north/south corridor, at present merely a weed patch traveled by cars and pedestrians. One of the challenges of this site is how to direct flow through the area, such as service vehicles and pedestrians, while still allowing functional uses of the landscape and preserving green areas. This plan has two potential innovations to solve this problem, with two classrooms and a structure called “The Pass”.

The Pass is a stone wall on the southern side of the sidewalk that splits the two sections of lawn between the residence halls. The team believes that by directing flow through this area more intensively and purposefully, the green areas will be preserved, and also enhanced by the more level platform on the south end of the wall. Also, the relatively low wall provides ample seating opportunity as well. They reference the wall at Ross Commons, as well as the (now gone) wall at Proctor, as places that were well used and enjoyed.

Like the terrace/ramp idea of the Lee-Rosenblatt team, we need to be careful to keep the fire lane access open, and will need to engineer this carefully. A wall here seems to be well received, but budget concerns may be an issue. (The plan’s budget states the cost at $1400, they may have dropped a zero!)

The other way the team breaks apart the north/south corridor is by two ‘outdoor classrooms’, jutting east and west from two locations at the residence halls. Once again, this brings up the debate of programming, and the potential conflict that may arise. On the one hand, there is quite a bit of circulation through this area, and conversely the outdoor classrooms are the opposite of that, a captive stationary audience. Can an active quad co-exist with a lecture? As an on-campus reference, Discovery Court on the west side of Bi-Hall features similar low stone walls, and is indeed used as an occasional classroom, but has no recreational spaces nearby, so is afforded some privacy. I do, however, totally agree with the team about how much these spaces will be used at night and on the weekends. One of the major flaws in this campus is a lack of outdoor seating, and, even if they don’t get used as a classroom, adding to outdoor seating at Middlebury is a good idea.

(Side note-I went to UVM for Plant and Soil Science, with a co-major in Environmental studies, and I NEVER had a class or lecture outside. Imagine how distracted a bunch of plant geeks would have been sitting outside. Labs, of course, were another matter.)

If these are to be programmed as outdoor classrooms, one comment heard at the presentation was on the layout. 3 linear benches as drawn are useful for lectures, but would not function well as a discussion area. One idea is to fashion one layout as drawn, and another for discussion, possibly with the center bench being table-high.

The final zone is a no-mow zone, surrounding the retention pond on the north end. While this area is a little smaller than what I think of for the rest of our no-mow zones, I am quite excited about this. The retention pond suffers from a lack of context-it’s naturalistic planting, which has not done well, sitting amongst mown lawn, does not look right. Extending the planting around the pond, letting it sit in a larger native area, would help integrate the pond with the surrounding area better.

As with the other two plans, the thoughtfulness of the ideas astounded me. It is clear much care and deliberation went into the proposal, and I am thoroughly impressed.

The Lee-Rosenblatt Proposal

Download the Proposal

Download the Presentation

I’ll dive right in, and quote directly from the proposal-“Our proposed site plan creates several clearly defined ‘outdoor rooms’ between the Atwater building and creates a buffer between the Northern edge of campus and the Atwater parking lot and nearby residences.” As a touchstone, the plan references the original concepts of the Kiernan Timberlake proposal for Atwater Commons, and seeks to re-landscape the area meet this vision. The team uses 4 elements to meet their goal, a seasonal platform, a terrace with a surrounding ramp, a tree garden and a gravel quad. They state “the contrasting open and closed spaces complement one another as a whole and allow for a stronger awareness of the spaces”. I’ll attempt to remember and write some of the comments and concerns raised in the presentation’s question and answer period, as well as mention some of my own.

The seasonal platform, located at the present location of the retention pond on the north end of the site, references the Maya Lin elliptical in Michigan. The multi-use programming of the space is intriguing, from skating in the winter to a potential stage in the summer. Some concerns in Facilities that have been raised directly concern the pond itself. This pond is a needed retention pond, and was permitted by the Act 250 process. Changes to this pond will probably require more permitting. Personally, I also wonder about the size of the pond. While at present it would make a great sized stage, I think as an ice rink it may be much too small to be of use. Not that any of these problems can’t be overcome, however.

The ramp terrace separating the two sections of lawn is a neat idea as well, and this part of the proposal seemed well liked by the audience. This part of the proposal raises two thoughts in my mind. The first is a matter of engineering. While there is topography there to work with, there may not be enough to make the terrace read as truly separate from the ramp. Furthermore, building a ‘car ready’ ramp surrounding the terrace is as complicated as building a road, and may quickly eat into the budget.

And this brings up the second thought raised in the presentation, that of vehicular access. This plan proposes and encourages use of vehicles by students. This has its pluses and minuses. The sidewalks are planned as fire lanes, and are used as service vehicle accesses as well. But do we want to encourage students to use this as well? The team did state that at present students do enjoy being able to drive up to their dorm, but we should ask if this is part of the programming that we envision in this space. The plan calls for two usable spaces on the north and south ends of the project, a stage and a seating area respectively. Can cars safely be introduced into this type of programming?

In contrast to the urbanity of the terrace/ramp, they propose a Tree Garden, to “extend the vegetation from the east side of Coffrin Hall and plant trees to create a close environment that will contrast with the patio and terrace.” This will present an interesting landscape design challenge, that of going from a wild and unformatted tree planting next to Coffrin to a close, gridded tree layout in between two programmed sections. (I am a sucker for trees in a grid, though).

The final major part of the proposal is a patio behind Chateau. Consisting of crushed stone, this large expanse uses the entirety of the quad behind Chateau, and eliminates the problem of pathways and travel associated with this location at present.

Google Earth Image-View Axis toward Chipman Hill (upper right)

The plan talks of a major visual axis from Pearson hall to Chipman Hill north and east of the Town, and how the design of the dining hall was planned and acknowledged this axis. The stone patio would align with this axis, breaking apart the existing paths that don’t acknowledge the corridor. And as a recreational spot, this would well adapt to its present uses, particularly with the large quantities of tables and chairs placed there for language school.

Our landscape department had a discussion on the stone patio, and whether it is a sustainable solution for the site. While stone is a good choice for drainage, and would not contribute to the college’s storm water profile significantly, weeds such as crabgrass have infiltrated into similar areas on campus, and at present our only effective maintenance solution is herbicide, which granted can be organic. Permeable pavers, though, may not read right, and there might be some loss in reading the axis written of above.

I like this plan, and like the way they break the long rectangular space up into smaller, more usable rooms. They effectively broach the problem of excessive wind with the tree garden, and create two usable spaces. One commenter at the presentation liked the idea of the ramp/terrace, and had the idea of combining it with the bridge idea of the scholar garden, and this is an interesting thought. Elevation is a great element to add to any landscape.

The Garden of Scholarly Delights

Download the Proposal And Sketches

Download the Presentation

Imagine walking across campus, and coming to a Chinese Scholar Garden, a quiet refuge from the daily grind of campus life. Traditionally, these gardens were constructed by retired officials and educational elite, and would typically include 3 elements, a water feature, rockeries, or rock garden, and typically bridges and pathways. Like many Chinese landscape styles, the concept of opening views is explored, where small, narrow, and/or dark paths can lead to great views and surprises.

Unlike the other two plans entered in Turf Battle, this plan, by Leah Webster, Christine Hsieh, and Jack Maher, wishes simply to be part of a larger landscape plan, and does not speak to the entire area. This is one of the plans great strengths, and also one of its weaknesses. And this is acknowledged in the proposal, when they state “The strength in our proposal lies in its ability to further the college’s aims to promote respect and learning of other culture is and broaden the scope of building traditions on campus”.

As a garden, the plan is quite exciting. The team is using the Sichuan style of landscaping, which is a wilder aspect, with not as much upkeep as other more formal styles. They imagine the garden in the lower section of the Atwater rectangle, employing a great landscaping technique called “borrowed scenery”. Shakkei is the Japanese term for this, and it simply integrates a distant landscape into the more local. A good example of this technique is a photograph on Fine Gardening, which actually uses mirrors to borrow a borrowed view. In the Scholar garden, they address the problem of the parking lot view with a borrowed view, using a bamboo screen to block the lower views of the cars, while affording the higher view to the north.

(Side note to the fellow plant geeks…Yes, bamboo can grow in Vermont, but I personally have no experience. The little bit of research I’ve done led me to Snow Bamboo, Phyllostachys nuda. It is a running bamboo, probably invasive in warmer climes, but has potential to be controlled through specialized root control barriers.)

The garden, as explained above, is a contemplative place, and this raises a question common to all three proposals, one of programming. How do we visualize using the Atwater area? There are questions and problems of circulation in the entire area-witness the goat paths across the lawns, or the tire tracks near sidewalks. Can we make a restful garden in the center of what at present feels like an urban corridor? Or stepping back even further: are we bringing people to the area, while at the same time providing a solitary retreat? Maybe Turf Battle needs to define what sorts of groups will use the space, what type of programming will get used in the space, and see if a contemplative retreat is appropriate for the space.

There is an area on campus that is a contemplative garden, and we can draw lessons from that space. The Singer Garden, known as the Garden of the Seasons, next to the Main Library, is already programmed “as a designated spot for study, contemplation, and refreshment of the senses.” Michael Singer imagined an “alluring conjunction of nature and culture”.

Like all planned landscapes, the Garden of the Seasons needed to ‘grow into it’, which it is starting to, albeit a little slower than other landscapes. This area of contemplation suffered from a lack of context in the beginning stages. In the center of Library Park, the surrounding terrain felt too ‘open’, and not enough privacy was afforded while sitting in the garden. While the garden is several hundred feet from Route 30, the openness of the lawn and the relative lack of large trees in the area seemingly shrink this distance. Furthermore, this relatively small garden was juxtaposed to the broad expanse of the southern wall of the library, dwarfing the garden and accompanying structure/sculpture. We’ve since planted the rock swale that envelopes the garden with large shrubs and understory trees and, as this vegetation matures, the scale of the garden will seem more appropriate against the library, and should feel more private.

This, to me, speaks of the problem that would need to be addressed should this garden be chosen in amongst a greater plan. Major amounts of work around the garden site would need to be done to give this garden the proper setting. At present, there is no context of seclusion around Atwater, and this would need to be developed, if that indeed is the programming we want for the area.

Overall, this is a very exciting plan, and a great example of the point to Turf Battle, that of throwing new ideas to break up the existing vernacular of Middlebury. My compliments to the authors for a great plan.

Turf Battle Update

Back in November, the Master Plan Implementation Committee invited students to submit proposals to Turf Battle, a competition to redesign the landscape at Atwater. Although the committee had no specific vision for how this area should look and feel, they imagined a space with additional vegetation and recreational opportunities.

Three groups of students heard the call and submitted their plans last week. One group would like to create the Garden of Scholarly Delight to promote “dialogue between members of the faculty, community, student body, and the environment.” Because this design is inspired by Chinese gardens, the students imagine that such a landscape could “further the College’s aims to promote respect and learning of other cultures and broaden the scope of building traditions on campus.”

Another group of students contrasts their design with Battell Beach and seeks to develop a “more urban ‘plaza’ and flexible entertainment or gathering space.” Central to their plan is a “terraced seating area that looks out over a retention pond/stage/ice rink” whose use would respond to the seasons and the desires of the community.

Finally, a third group of students has developed a plan whose primary goals include encouraging overall use, improving drainage, creating privacy, and establishing an outdoor classroom/performance/gathering area. These students noted that “while [Atwater] currently provides ‘open space’ for potential recreation, it is under-used because of its sloping turf, oddly shaped spaces and heavy pedestrian traffic.” In turn, their proposal calls for the creation of distinct environments to support a variety of uses.

The community will have the opportunity to learn more about all of these proposals at an open forum on Tuesday, March 1 at 4:30 pm in Dana Auditorium. Each group will be allotted 15 minutes to present their plans. Up to 30 minutes total of feedback and Q&A will follow. The Master Plan Implementation Committee, which will consider the community’s response to these proposals, expects to make a final decision by the following week.

If you wish to view the proposals ahead of time, you may download the PDF copies below.

Copy of Catalano-Madson-Moritz

Copy of Webster-Hsieh-Maher

Copy of Webster-Hsieh-Maher-sketches

Copy of Lee-Rosenblatt