Preserving The Past For The Future

Illustrations Courtesy Of RATIO

The City of Noblesville, Ind., recently committed to implementing an extensive plan for public-space development immediately west of the historic downtown, a $17-million investment. The master plan includes a new park, a sweeping pedestrian bridge across the White River, and pedestrian and traffic-calming enhancements to an adjacent state highway. This is the fulfillment of a vision established through collaboration between the mayor’s office and the city’s departments of parks and recreation, planning, engineering, and economic development. The master-planning process was facilitated by RATIO, a multi-disciplinary design firm based in Indianapolis, with offices in Chicago, Raleigh, and Champaign.

Noblesville is the county seat of Hamilton County, the fifth most populous county in Indiana. The county enjoys the number-one spot in per capita income, as well as the lowest unemployment and highest education levels. Noblesville’s population has increased by 82 percent in the last 10 years.

The site for the new park is a 6.4-acre parcel bordered by busy thoroughfares that bring vehicular traffic into and out of Noblesville’s historic, pedestrian-scaled downtown. The site has over time been under agricultural production, home to two residences, a golf driving range, and an auto-repair shop. As a gateway into downtown, however, the potential for the property far exceeded the land uses it hosted. Adjacent property-uses include large surface parking lots that serve a grocery store and a nearby hospital. The city envisions a gradual transition of denser development surrounding the park, which, in turn, creates a gateway into downtown, effectively causing the White River to be a downtown feature, as opposed to merely being on the west edge. As the density around the park increases, the city will also realize an increase in tax revenue—probably amounting to many millions of dollars over time.

A Place Of Many Uses

The park will be anchored by a new performance venue with a capacity of 4,000 people. The plan also includes space for the community’s farmer’s market, a festival plaza, a restroom, and concessions pavilion, parking, walkways, and an accessible connection to the banks of the White River. Once developed, the site will not only be a destination itself, but will serve as a catalyst for economic development for the area immediately west of downtown. The park will be funded by an existing TIF district.

Key to the successful development of the master plan was the involvement of many of the key decision makers in Mayor John Ditslear’s administration. Currently serving his third term, he has developed collaboration as a hallmark of his management style. “Parks and public spaces can’t be planned and developed in a vacuum,” says Ditslear. “To create the kind of destination we want for our community, we knew we would need to make a significant investment. You can’t make that kind of investment without all the leaders within your administration on the same page, and to a person, everyone ‘got’ what we were trying to do here.”

“We really see parks as a significant part of our ability to attract investment in our community” says Judi Johnson, Noblesville’s Director of Economic Development. “There is a strong tradition of placing a higher than average value on parks and public space in Noblesville, and that tradition is reflected in our growth, the value of our housing, and our retention of existing businesses. We see ourselves as the caretakers of that tradition, and we take that very seriously.”

Part of the tradition that Johnson refers to includes Forest Park, a 150-acre property dedicated for public use in 1925. Located less than a half-mile from the center of downtown, the park features an astonishing number of amenities, including a 9-hole golf course, historic carousel, aquatic center, transportation museum, trails, and ball fields. The park has never been reduced in size to accommodate the city’s growth, which is a testament to the role the park plays in the life of the community. The significance of Forest Park led the West Side Park steering committee to charge RATIO with developing a plan that will be as prized by the citizens of Noblesville in 85 years as the park is now.

Dealing With Water

One challenge the project faced was that the entire site is located within the floodplain of the White River. This meant the final plan could not change the site’s existing flood-storage capacity by more than 5 percent. To address this limitation, RATIO proposed that the amphitheater be located at the base of an existing slope, and that other program elements work with current grades to the greatest extent possible. By working with the existing topography, the critical 5-percent threshold will be maintained.

The floodplain will affect a number of other important design decisions. Pump and filtration equipment for the park’s water features will need to be located about 8 feet above the plaza to ensure that, in the event of a flood, the mechanical systems are not compromised. Finishes for the park’s structures will also need to handle periodic inundation without damage. This, along with the city’s charge to craft a park with an 85-year minimum lifespan, led RATIO to adopt a palette of brick and stone for the exterior of the structures and concrete masonry units for the interior walls. One significant concern at the start of the project was that the noise from adjacent State Road 32 would negatively impact the experience of listening to a performance at the amphitheater. To better understand the issue, RATIO recorded the sound of traffic at the elevation of the roadway and also at the elevation of the future performance venue, which will be located about 10 feet below the roadway. “It was incredible how the grade change almost completely masked the sound of the traffic,” says Craig Glazier, RATIO’s lead landscape architect for the project. “At street level, it can sometimes be hard to have a conversation, the traffic is so loud; but at the bottom of the slope about the only thing you hear are the crickets in the meadow.” The recording test reassured the design team that the venue could function well in the midst of this urban environment. As the project has moved into design development, an acoustic consultant has been added to further test and refine the design of the venue.

The park will feature a number of environmentally sustainable initiatives. Due to the extremely porous soils typical of a floodplain, most storm water will be directed to infiltration chambers or bioswales, where it will quickly percolate, virtually eliminating the need for pipes. Large, mature trees on site were tagged and located on the survey so they could be incorporated into the design.

The Greening Of West Side Park

Perhaps the most sustainable strategy involved the re-use of an existing building on site. Located above the floodplain, an existing bank branch occupies the east end of the site. The preconceived notion was that the building would ultimately need to be removed. At the urging of Deputy Mayor Micheal Hendricks, the design team, in reviewing the building, realized it offered real potential to the park. Its orientation ultimately helped to establish the location of the pavilion on the west end of the park, and its interior layout would allow the building to serve as a community center, a “green room” for performers, and a catering kitchen. “Sometimes the greenest thing you can do is re-purpose a building that’s already there,” says Brandon Bennett, Noblesville’s Director of Parks and Recreation. The master plan describes ways the building could be modified to blend into the proposed character of the park.

Bennett advises any community that is undertaking a project as significant as West SidePark to understand the maintenance requirements associated with such a sizeable investment. Bennett’s staff will be engaged in the design process as specific decisions are made about equipment, plant material, building materials, and finishes. “That way our guys will understand the big picture, but we’ll also know where we may need to add staff to make sure this great resource gets the attention it deserves moving forward,” says Bennett.

Creating a park with year-round appeal was a primary goal of the master plan. To that end, the design of the FestivalPlaza space was conceived to accommodate a temporary ice-skating rink. “We felt strongly that the investment we were making should result in a place that is not just usable in the summer, but for 12 months a year,” says Hendricks. “We would encourage anyone thinking about a project like this to be proactive about programming to realize the best return on the investment. We can’t wait for our first season of ice skating in the plaza and hot chocolate in the pavilion. ”

The project is in design development, with substantial completion scheduled for fall 2015, and the first performances at the amphitheater are anticipated for early summer 2016.

John Jackson is the partner in charge of landscape architecture, planning, and urban design at RATIO, a multidisciplinary design firm with offices in Indianapolis, Chicago, Raleigh, and Champaign.  Reach him at