Botanical garden to grow a dream
$30 million renovation will transform fancy into fact
By MARK DAVIS
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/22/07
The new garden. It's still the stuff of dreams, where walkways wind through trees and rooftops are refuges for wild things.
But the earthmovers are coming; behind them will be hard-hats, botanists and green-thumb types who can take fancy and make it fact. In two years, if all goes according to plans, they will transform the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
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Last week, the city issued the first of several permits that will allow the botanical garden to go ahead with most of a $30 million renovation for the 31-year-old garden.
The pending changes, says Mary Pat Matheson, the garden's executive director, are "transformational."
The plans for the 30-acre site include a new visitors center, a multi-use pedestrian path and a cistern so large it has to be built underground.
Also given a green light: a parking deck the garden will share with its neighbor, Piedmont Park. A judge last month dismissed the final count of a lawsuit challenging the parking deck, clearing the way for the most controversial segment of the garden's plans.
The garden's current parking facility, a one-acre lot that can hold about 120 cars, will be demolished in 2010. A garden featuring edible plants will spread roots in its place.
The botanical garden also plans something no American horticultural exhibit can boast. The Canopy Walk, an elevated path, will curl through the hardwoods of Storza Woods, a 12-acre stand of tall trees on the botanical garden's western edge. At places, it will rise 45 feet from the ground, allowing visitors to see the garden — the city, too — as a bird would.
"This is a very massive undertaking," said Matheson, who launched a private fund-raising campaign in 2005 to make the improvements. "It is an absolutely transformational time for the garden and the city."
Following are quick looks at Phase 1 of the garden's master plan — its parking deck, visitors center, Canopy Walk, multi-use path and the Southern Seasons Garden. They're scheduled to debut in spring 2009.
The STOP THE DECK signs wave in the gusts caused by traffic passing to and from the garden and Piedmont Park. But the deck has not been stalled. In August, a Fulton Superior Court judge dismissed four of five counts in a lawsuit filed by Friends of Piedmont Park Inc. and its CEO, Doug Abramson. The final count, alleging that the garden's deck plans were subject to the state's Open Records Act, got dismissed a month later. A judge said the nonprofit botanical garden sought the parking deck independent of the city, so it did not have to open its records. (In the same ruling, the judge declared that some of the Piedmont Park Conservancy's plans are subject to the open records law. The conservancy oversees the park's operation and maintenance.)
The new deck will cost about $19 million. It will be built on a tangle of kudzu on the eastern edge of the garden, a sloping tract that Piedmont Park handed over. In exchange, the garden gave the park 3.3 acres, a slice of woodland along Westminster Drive.
Plans call for a six-story structure largely covered with greenery, that will serve the garden and park. It will hold about 750 vehicles. Garden officials say it will be "green" — a structure that catches rainwater to be re-used for irrigation, a building screened with trees and other shrubbery. Matheson promises it will nearly vanish under a canopy of leaf and limb.
Motorists traveling to Piedmont Park will follow a tunnel directing them to the lower floors of the deck. Botanical garden visitors will drive into the structure's top level.
It's 10,000 square feet, spreading like a multilevel garden. Artist's renditions of the garden's new center, located in the eastern reaches of the tract, depict a structure as heavy on green stems as it is on gray steel. Its soil-covered roof will abound with native bushes and other flora.
The $6 million building, located close to the parking facility, will have dual purposes — conservation and education.
The conservation aspect, said Matheson, will be apparent in its construction: with a "green" roof covering almost half the new structure, a verdant plain that avoids rainwater runoff. Plans also call for the center to rely on the most old-fashioned method of cooling. It will be built with doors facing each other from opposite ends — a large-scale version of the breezeways once synonymous with so many stately Southern homes.
The building will house classes that emphasize our natural surroundings, and children will be urged to do something their parents would never say: Get on the roof. There, said Matheson, they can study plant species native to the South.
The walkway bends like a ribbon that has floated from the sky and landed among the limbs of a tree. Canopy Walk is a 600-foot stroll through the boughs of Storza Woods, where old hardwoods rustle in the wind. A system of steel cables erected on masts, it is a study in tension and grace. No other botanical garden in America has one.
Plans call for the walk in the trees to begin at the Southern Seasons Garden and head into the Storza woodlands. Its designers want it to rise and fall so that visitors can get a close look at springtime's buds and fall's foliage. They'll also pass close to birds and other animals that live in Storza's folds.
"It will be magnificent," Matheson said.
The path will be a sort of pedestrian/bicyclist's freeway linking the garden and Piedmont Avenue to Piedmont Park. Plans call for a 12-foot-wide trail, most likely built of concrete. It will rise and wind with the hillsides, and will take joggers, strollers and others away from traffic.
Southern Seasons Garden
This will comprise five acres, spread out in front of the new visitors center. Plans call for the wooded tract to be planted with new bushes and trees. They'll be selected for their color — spring, summer and fall — and their visual interest.
By standing in front of the center, according to garden plans, visitors can take in the entire garden, a green reminder of the changing seasons in the South.
Crews are already on site at the garden, cutting a few trees and laying mulch for a temporary pedestrian path that will divert visitors from two years or more of construction.
In 2010, the garden will turn its attention to the one-acre parking lot currently in use near its administration building. Machinery will rip apart the blacktop, revealing dirt that hasn't felt sunlight in three decades. Site plans call for an edible-plant garden where vegetables and fruits spread blooms, grow and are harvested. The produce, native to the southeastern United States, will be used in cooking workshops and food tastings. Just below the edible garden will be the cascades garden, teeming with flowers. And below that, collecting rainwater, will be a retention pond.
Nearby, stretching under Loop Road, will be a cistern so large it's the equivalent of a subterranean pond. It will be 10 feet deep and wide, and 125 long — a 95,000-gallon rain barrel, or cistern, to water the garden's plants.
The changes, said Matheson, are necessary to keep the garden — its support, too — growing.
"This had to be a great vision" for the garden, Matheson said. "We think it is."