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Somewhere over the rainbow

Heritage parking lot

With over 8,000 perennials, 350 new flowering shrubs, and 50 new specimen trees, the parking garden is a horticultural feat. Photo courtesy of Horsley Witten Group

Heritage Museums & Gardens new ‘parking garden’ is an oasis of sublime and purposeful design

In 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” dazzled moviegoers with its use of Technicolor—the first time many had seen such an illuminating feat on the big screen. That awe-inspiring moment when Dorothy arrives in Oz is a feeling Ellen Spear and her team at Heritage Museums & Gardens set out to capture as they planned a new and improved parking lot—a “parking garden,” as Spear puts it—for the facility.

“We want people to have the same kind of experience when they drive into our front gate—that they are in a different place, in a different time, and that they’re surrounded by nature,” explains Spear, president and CEO of Heritage. “We also want people to begin their visit the moment they step out of their cars, thinking about the natural world and their connection to it, and seeing things differently.”

For the greater part of Heritage’s nearly 50 years as a public garden, the bleak, dirt-and-gravel-laden main parking lot was out of character with Heritage itself, a 100-acre site boasting resplendent gardens and nature trails. In addition to lacking visual appeal, the lot also presented logistical and safety concerns. There were no signs directing visitors where to go, no walkways for those with motor challenges or children in strollers, and buses bringing in student tour groups could not access the main entrance (kids had to be dropped off in the middle of Shawme Road). “With that being our front door, we wanted to be able to send a message that Heritage is accessible and welcoming to all,” Spear says.

The new, two-and-a-half-acre parking garden—completed last spring—features over 180 parking spaces organized within three sections (Elm, Oak and Birch), a drop-off/pick-up ellipse, ADA-accessible walkways with native boulder walls around the perimeter, and directional signs. Given the highs and lows of the site’s topography (the high point is 20 feet above the low points), incorporating green infrastructure within the new lot was another project goal. Horsley Witten Group, civil engineer and landscape architect on the project, designed a series of five bioretention basins.

Bioretention basins are shallow landscape depressions that facilitate stormwater management. Here they are designed to collect stormwater runoff and filter it into the lot’s landscaping, all the while controlling sediment and debris to promote healthy plant growth. All but two of the basins can accommodate more than the water quality volume—i.e. stormwater runoff generated from everyday rain events that carry the majority of pollutants. “That’s extremely rare, especially in a parking lot,” says Brian Laverriere, landscape designer for Horsley Witten Group. “Normally you have underground storage chambers or recharge basins for excessive flood control. Most of these will happen above ground here, which is really phenomenal.”

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