Trailhead Complex to be built along Maumelle River

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center’s design proposal for the Trailhead Complex at the Maumelle River Nature Center has won a 2013 Unbuilt Architecture and Design Award from the Boston Society of Architects. This is the sixth project by the center to receive an award from the society in its international awards category over the last 10 years.

The Trailhead Complex project, commissioned by Central Arkansas Water as part of a larger land conservation effort, covers 10,000 square feet and will cost about $3 million. The complex will consist of five basic components – a low-impact development parking garden, visitors hall, outdoor classroom, meadow walkscape and lookout tower – each of them demonstrating features and exhibits that support environmental conservation.

“The Trailhead Complex will be a signature project in Central Arkansas Water’s growing portfolio of watershed protection and education measures, as well as a new direction for the role of design in general reforestation programs,” said Steve Luoni, director of the Community Design Center and a Distinguished Professor in the Fay Jones School of Architecture.

“The U.S. Forest Service has taken a special interest in the Arkansas project because the proposal recasts generic environmental education as an art park. Hopefully, the national recognition will facilitate a successful capital campaign for Central Arkansas Water to build what could be a trend-setting project,” he said.

Stephanie Liechty, stewardship coordinator for Central Arkansas Water, said the organization purchased the 915 acres that is the Winrock Grass Farm, located on the Maumelle River. The river is the largest tributary to Lake Maumelle, which is the main drinking water supply for central Arkansas, with 400,000 customers in Little Rock, North Little Rock and 15 other communities.

The purchase prevented the land from being developed into a subdivision that would have placed septic tanks in a floodplain that flows into the water supply. The property connects with land already owned by the Central Arkansas Water.

To help fund the purchase, the organization secured a Forest Legacy Program grant from the U.S. Forest Service. The grant requires that 75 percent of the property be in forest – “so we knew we wanted to conserve this property and restore it to what it was historically before the grass farm came along,” Liechty said.

The Community Design Center was part of the team, with the Chicago office of Geosyntec Consultants, creating an overall site plan for the space, which is about 30 minutes from Little Rock near the Pulaski/Perry county line.

“We wanted something different from the typical nature center or walking trail project. We wanted to have sustainable design and something out of the ordinary and something that fits in with the scenery,” Liechty said. “Their design fits in with all of that.”

The Trailhead Complex design is an exhibit landscape intended to create memorable experiences that reenergize visitors’ regard for environmental systems. The design of the components amplifies the educational functions through “strangemaking” approaches that emphasize contrasts between the natural and the artificial. Strangemaking is used by artists and educators to encourage discovery by making something familiar strange.

A Visitors Hall is tucked within the forested hillside of a meadow-forest area, re-creating the effect of a forest canopy and serving as a sheltered, multipurpose gateway between highland and lowland. The Outdoor Classroom is a modified amphitheater that navigates the 30-foot elevation drop to the Meadow Walkscape, a wildflower meadow that contains micro-lawns for lounging and picnicking, children’s play areas and public art displays.

The Lookout Tower marks the limits of the trailhead complex and is used as a landmark to guide visitors throughout the park. The parking garden is a low-impact development stormwater treatment landscape bordered by walls made from river cane and grounded with pervious surfaces of granulated rock, porous pavers and rain gardens.

The Community Design Center’s scheme provides a facility where visitors can gain “more appreciation of where their water comes from, while having a nice outdoor experience,” Liechty said. One of her favorite elements is the lookout tower, which will provide visitors a “bird’s eye view” of the landscape.

“We hope to educate people on overall water quality, but also about paying attention to what’s happening upstream from where you are because that affects everyone downstream,” Liechty said. “And how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together for a healthy landscape.”

Planners will work with conceptual drawings and plans created by the Community Design Center and spend the next two years raising funds to start the project. The grass farm’s lease on the land expires in 2015, which is when the restoration will begin, Liechty said.

Geosyntec Consultants are helping to determine the planting schedule for trees and grasses. Liechty said there are plans to reforest much of the property. They have handwritten notes from when the land was first surveyed in the 1800s, which document the types of trees on the land: bald cypress, cherry bark oak, other oaks and pines. The landscape will be layered, with lower levels of dogwood and persimmon trees.

The native grass restoration will include little blue stem, big blue stem and sideoats grama and will serve populations of quail and neotropical migrant birds. For that, planners are working with native grass experts at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

The jury for the 2013 Unbuilt Architecture and Design awards program received 62 entries, of which five received an award. The winning projects will be displayed and presented at ABX (ArchitectureBoston Expo) at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in November.

The Boston Society of Architects was established in 1867 and is a chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The organization is committed to professional development for its members, advocacy on behalf of great design, and sharing an appreciation for the built environment with the public at large.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center was founded in 1995 as part of the Fay Jones School of Architecture. The center advances creative development in Arkansas through education, research and design solutions that enhance the physical environment. It has provided design and planning services to more than 45 communities and organizations across Arkansas, helping them to secure nearly $65 million in grant funding to enact suggested improvements. In addition to revitalizing historic downtowns, the center addresses new challenges in affordable housing, urban sprawl, environmental planning, and management of regional growth or decline. The center’s professional staff members are nationally recognized for their expertise in urban and public-interest design, and their work has received more than 90 design awards.

AuthorMatthew Petty