A parking garden for the times

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Garret Eakin

Last month a friend and I rode our bikes from Oak Park to Riverside to participate in the first annual FRED (Fredrick Law Olmstead Education and Design) festival. The purpose of the event was to attract those who want to make their gardens and communities more beautiful, easily cared for and drought-proof. Riverside was a beautiful setting for this event.

I had been to the iconic village a number of times and always wanted to experience the unique community via bicycle. We met at Starbucks on Madison in Forest Park to have a wake up cup and plan our route. Our plan was to take the scenic route south on Des Plaines Avenue bordering the Forest Preserves, cemeteries and the river. We did enjoy the burial grounds and their intriguing monuments, gates and landscaping, well aware that Riverside enjoys an intimate relationship with this local waterway. Unfortunately, the high traffic route was somewhat dangerous with portions unpaved, forcing us to use the ditch or grass/dirt shoulder.

Reaching our destination via one of the curvaceous avenues we could finally exhale, leaving the anxiety of Des Plaines Avenue behind. As we imagined it, the Olmstead planned village was even better on bikes at a slower, safer pace. It was as if the hustle and bustle of the adjacent suburbs faded away. No more visual clutter caused by tasteless signage, poor planning and incongruous land use. My heart beat subsided as we arrived.

This bold landscape experiment deafly contrasted the grid of the city with long sensual streets was a pleasure to cruise. Olmstead, the brilliant New York landscape architect, had completed Central Park before this commission in our Midwest prairie.

The subtly of the design is so restrained. From the slightly raised green edges of the islands which reduces visually the amount of visible paving, to the beautiful gas street lights, to the exposed aggregate sidewalks, to the absence of alleys and the rule to have at least two trees between houses for privacy — wow, there is no equal in the city or suburbs!

I am not an advocate of surface parking lots, but in the village center we saw a new lot that we love for its intelligent planning and aesthetic appeal, Olmstead would be proud. Riverside received an Illinois Green Infrastructure Grant to build this sustainable surface parking lot close to the train station on East Burlington. The lot designed by Christopher B. Burke Engineering was engineered to capture and hold 97 percent of the rain water on site, permanently diverting from the overtaxed storm management system. First, the parking surfaces are flat, paved with permeable pavers. According to Orion Galey, the engineer, "They look great and last 50 years versus asphalt that lasts 15-20 years and, yes, the pavers cost roughly 50 percent more."

Galey goes on to describe, "The alleys that have been completed employing the same strategy." Something Oak Park with its wealth of alleys could consider.

The rain water that is held on site, works its way to an attractive rain garden that is filled with low maintenance native plants. Two Hackberrys frame the entrance while special paving patterns and lower scale plants create an elegant pedestrian entrance overlooking the rain garden. Fesque (or golf course rough), a very hearty no maintenance grass finishes the borders. Black Maple, Service Berry, Hackberry, Chokeberry, Wild Onions, Blazing Star are a few of the variety of growth that provide interest and attract birds and butterflies. Sounds like heaven-check it out next time in Riverside. Olmstead's experiment is moving forward with this thoughtfully planned parking garden.

Garret Eakin is an award winning architect, preservation commissioner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.

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