With the 2012 Annual Meeting in the Southwest this month, we wanted to highlight a project from the region, Mather Point on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Auto, tour bus and recreational vehicle congestion have long impacted the visitor experience on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. As one of several transit improvement projects occurring on the South Rim, the construction of intercept parking, transit center and Mather Point have made major improvements in the park’s visitor experience. In November of 2007 the landscape architecture firm DHM Design was hired to lead a design team consisting architects, civil, structural, geotechnical and electrical engineers to implement recommendations from the South Rim Transportation Plan and Environmental Assessment prepared by David Evans and Associates (DEA). As part of the environmental assessment process the DEA team had recommended and evaluated a 25 acre site surrounding the visitor center for the intercept parking and transit center facilities. The DHM team was tasked with the design of the facility. Improvements were broken into two phase with the first phase focused on intercept parking transit center improvements and the second phase emphasizing visitor amenities such as interpretive exhibits, a new theater, pedestrian wayfinding and ABA access to Mather Point. Challenges included, protection of archeological sites and rare plants, developing an intuitive wayfinding system for both autos and pedestrians, maximizing the visitor experience while minimizing the impact on park resources and phasing the project such that the visitor center complex and the rim trails remained open for public use throughout construction of the new facilities.
Grand Canyon National Park, a World Heritage Site, isone of the most highly visited National Parks in the United States with to 4.4 million visitors in 2010. Increasing visitation had led to bumper to bumper traffic conditions within the South Rim Village and over flowing parking lots at popular viewing areas. These conditions were recognized by the 1995 General Management Plan which recommended moving automobile parking to outside of the park boundaries and initiating a light rail system for transporting visitors from the gateway community of Tusayan, to Mather Point, the first viewing area along the canyon rim, and then on to the South Rim Village where many of the visitor facilities are located. In October of 2000, the first part of the plan was completed with the opening of Canyon View Information Plaza (CVIP). The plaza contained a new visitor center, bookstore, restrooms, and space for a future bike rental facility and was located a quarter mile walk from Mather Point. It also contained the transit terminal where visitor would arrive and depart from using the future light rail train. As the park proceeded with efforts to develop the light rail system it found that funding was meeting resistance in Congress, requiring the park to secure another means of funding the project. To assess if park visitors would be willing to pay to use the such a system, a visitor survey was conducted in 2003 which found that the public was willing to park to use transit but was not willing to pay to ride transit. In 2004 these cost concerns led to dropping the light rail concept in favor of a less expensive bus oriented transit system which would be free to visitors. Further transit studies in 2008 recommended moving the intercept parking from the town of Tusayan to the CVIP location. In the years between the construction of CVIP in 2000 and 2009 the Visitor Center operated without any parking and the existing parking lot at Mather Point was often full, forcing visitors to park along the road for a mile in each direction during peak days. Tour buses would often drop off visitors within 100 feet of the Mather Point viewing area, degrading the visitor experience with bus fumes and the noise idling diesel engines.
To solve these problems, the park staff identified several key elements that were to be incorporated into the design concepts. The South Entrance Road would be realigned to loop around the Visitor Center Facility to the south and west. The old roadway pavement would be removed and the landscape restored. The realigned the road would allow private vehicles and commercial tour bus parking in proximity of the Visitor Center and the Rim and eliminated the need for pedestrians to cross traffic when moving between the parking facilities, the Visitor Center, and Mather Point. At Mather Point the existing South Entrance Road would also be removed, along with the congested parking area. Visitors would arrive at the overlook area by walking from the intercept parking or taking a shuttle bus. As part of the design process a three day design charette was held at the park with park staff to explore the ideas and concerns of the staff to develop a preferred site plan. Four plans were developed which expressed concerns raised by the staff including the location of tour bus parking in relationship to the rim, approach sequences of tour buses verses private vehicles, the reuse of the existing shuttle bus turn-arounds, expansion of the visitor center to include a theater, whether tour buses should be intermixed with private vehicle, whether shuttle buses should intermix with private vehicles and how drainage run-off from the parking lots would be handled to prevent downstream flooding in the village. Each plan was evaluated by the staff with sticky notes added to each plan which identified the elements that staff liked or disliked about each alternative. The plans were then discussed and a preferred alternative selected, with positive elements from some of the rejected plans being added to enhance the preferred alternative.
New parking for up to 900 vehicles, including designated parking for persons with disabilities and RVs was constructed adjacent to Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Parking for persons with disabilities was located within 200 feet of the rim. The initial phase of development provided 600 private vehicle spaces at Grand Canyon Visitor Center, and an additional 250 spaces were added as part of phase two. Access to the parking area for both north-bound and southbound travelers would be by way of the realigned South Entrance Road. To lessen the visual impact of the proposed parking area, parking would be organized into gently curved clusters, each accommodating no more than 200 parking spaces and separated by large islands of existing vegetation, at least 40–50 feet in width. These vegetated islands also provide a means for managing water drainage by incorporating detention basins, bio filters, and level spreaders thus minimizing downstream drainage concerns, as well as minimizing impacts on vegetation which is more accustomed to dry conditions.
A new commercial tour bus parking area was provided to the north of the Visitor Center and the number of parking spaces expanded from 24 to 40. Access to the lot is limited to tour buses only. A tour bus passenger drop-off and restroom facility was constructed within 400 feet of the rim for convenient access to rim views at Mather Point. A popular feature is a large stone Grand Canyon sign where tour bus visitors often wait in line to photograph friends and family members. After visiting Mather Point, tour bus passengers can either return directly to their parked bus or walk downhill to visit the Visitor Center before re-boarding their bus. Visitors arriving at the canyon by tour bus often only have 45 minutes before moving on to their next destination so their priorities after getting off of the bus are first to find a restroom, second to see the canyon and third, if time permits, to see the visitor center before returning to the bus. These visitors are also typically international tour groups who often move in mass with a tour guide from point to point.
A seasonal shuttle system was originally implemented in 1974, with year-round shuttle service beginning in March of, 2000. Improvements at the Visitor Center include a transit hub with loading for 4 shuttle busses which service the gateway community of Tusayan, Mather Point, South Rim Village and the South Kaibab Trailhead. The Visitor Center parking facility serves as intercept parking which reduces the overall traffic congestion within the South Rim Village. Changes to the South Rim shuttle bus service, the addition of a new shuttle bus route from Tusayan, and improved shuttle bus passenger loading have made Grand Canyon Visitor Center readily accessible by shuttle bus. Grand Canyon Visitor Center was designed to be the first arrival place for most visitors and is where the National Park Service provides general orientation and park information for visitors.
Phase two improvements were a collaborative effort between the park staff, which provided interpretive goals and background information about the park plant and animal communities, DHM Design who provided the theming and design for the improvements and Chevo Studios who then interpreted the plans in stone sculptural elements at the Visitor Center Plaza, along the trail to the rim, the amphitheater, and at Mather Point.
After departing from the shuttle bus the visitor enters an interpretive plaza where interpretive kiosks outside the visitor center are accessible 24 hours a day, providing orientation information about the park. The intent was to foster better visitor understanding and appreciation of the park and its resources and to forge emotional and intellectual connections with Grand Canyon and the rest of America’s national parks. The plaza has been designed to serve as an interactive discovery process which can be explored by individuals or as part of the ranger tour. Here numerous sandstone slabs have been placed throughout the plaza, which have carved images of the plants and wildlife found within the canyon, quotations, animal tracks and a larger than life sized mountain lion sculpture, shown below, which is a favorite of children exploring the plaza. The plaza is located at the intersection of the walks from the shuttle bus drop-off to the visitor center and the main walk to the rim. Loosely circular in shape, the plaza has a spiral which has been etched into the concrete representing the flow of water within the canyon. This pattern then continues up the main walk to Mather Point, meandering throughout the walk as the water meanders through the canyon. Additional interpretive information is available on the park’s excellent web site and includes apps that can be downloaded to your phone for use as you explore the park. Phone service, as is true in many of the more remote National Parks, is often spotty so consider printing the materials you need before starting your trip.
A 200-seat theater was added to the existing Grand Canyon Visitor Center. The new theater provides a venue for the new orientation film, which began production in the fall of 2009. In addition, this project allows the park to develop and install high-quality state of- the-art exhibits that address the park’s interpretive themes. These efforts provide visitors with a better understanding of the park’s significance and its resources. The theater addition includes sustainable features such as solar photovoltaic roof panels, which tie into the visitor center’s existing system, as well as a demonstration rain catchment system which provides water for the interpretive landscape environments and ecosystem areas surrounding the visitor center.
In partnership with Arizona Public Service (APS), the local power company, an interpretive green energy project was developed around seven photovoltaic panels that were donated to the park for installation adjacent to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. These panels produce up to 18 kilowatts of power, offsetting the electrical needs of the visitor center by approximately 30 percent. Wayside exhibits outside the building and an interactive exhibit inside explain how the system works while providing visitors an understanding of the park’s and APS’s commitment to renewable energy.
The realignment of the South Entrance Road allowed for an auto free pedestrian experience between the Visitor Center and Mather Point. To help orient visitors as they journey from the Visitor Center to the canyon rim, a landmark feature consisting of large vertical sandstone slabs was placed half way between the Visitor Center and Mather Point. The location for the landmark element utilized part of the clearing from the old road alignment. To gauge the height of the landmark, a helium balloon was placed at several locations and elevations and the viewed by park staff. Once an acceptable height and location was determined the design team then explored various design elements including a tower, a large mound and several configurations of stone elements. These were reviewed with the park, with the vertical stone slabs being selected as the preferred vertical element. The design team also wanted to incorporate interpretive elements from the Native American culture into the stone slabs so they conducted several meetings with members of the park’s 12 affiliated tribes. Out of these discussions came the ideas for the design of the landmark plaza and the acknowledgement of the 12 tribes. The design team developed the initial plans for the landmark location, massing and placement of the stone slabs while the artists and stone masons from Chevo Studios worked with the design team to maximize and accentuate the features and placement of each piece of stone. Chevo Studios also designed the tribal medallion design and sandblasted the image into the pavement. This collaboration between designers and artisans introduced an ongoing creativity where ideas, materials and skilled handwork merged resulting in an artful sculpture that forms a welcoming gathering area that will be enjoyed for generations.
Along the rim a new amphitheater was located to maximize views of the canyon while also providing a sense of seclusion from the main pedestrian route to Mather Point. Constructed with native kaibab limestone, the site provides park visitors a 180 degree view of the canyon, with long views up Bright Angel Canyon and the North Rim. The amphitheater seats approximately 50 – 80 people, providing space for ranger talks or viewing the canyon’s sunrises and sunsets and has been the site of the Naturalization Ceremony for new United States citizens. The design team developed conceptual drawings of the amphitheater and Chevo Studios finalized the design based on materials available, and constructed the amphitheater.
Walking further to the northwest the visitor reaches Mather Point, which is peninsula of stone with incredible views both up and down canyon. Deteriorating stairs and uneven stone surface left the point inaccessible to many visitors. A primary objective was to make the Mather Point universally accessible. This required addressing numerous challenges. Mather Point had a 15 foot vertical grade difference between the existing parking lot and Mather Point. Stairs were required to access Mather Point. The existing stairs were north facing requiring constant shoveling and sanding in the winter The park had very limited funds or staff for daily maintenance. The existing guardrail system along the rim and at Mather Point did not meet current code regarding railing height and openings and the guardrail system was a historic element. To address these issues the entire overlook was redesigned to providing wider stairs an accessible walkway along the rim of the canyon and a code compliant guardrail system which conveyed the character of the historic guardrail system. Designers, stone artists, park staff and contractors worked closely with geotechnical engineers to come up with a sound design for the walk, and safe strategies for construction where a 1,000 foot vertical drop or more was typical. The point was also made accessible by leveling portions of the rock surface.
Prior to clearing and grubbing for the parking lots and new road alignment, nearly 200 pinyon, juniper and ponderosa trees, ranging from 4’-14’ were salvaged, boxed and stored on site. Hundreds of small shrubs, forbs and grasses were also hand salvaged by volunteers and held on site. Park policy dictates that all seed and plants must be genetically pure to the area. All seed was hand collected from within the park boundaries, and all plants were either grown from the collected seed or salvaged from the site or other project sites within the park. Volunteers and park vegetation staff have planted over 13,000 native plants within the site and an additional 8,000 plants will be planted over the next 2 years. A temporary irrigation system was installed that utilizes reclaimed water from the park’s village wide reclaimed water system which was initially constructed in the early 1990’s and has been expanded as new buildings are constructed within the village.
Since completion in June of 2011, the park has experienced a dramatic reduction in the volume of traffic on park roads and within the South Rim Village. Ridership has increase on the shuttle buses, and visitors have a more leisurely yet more informed experience while visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
by Roger Burkart, former principal at DHM Design who has worked on projects in over 30 NPS park units. He is currently president of Burkart & Associates in Boulder, Colorado.
Owner: Grand Canyon National Park; Vicky Stinson, ASLA, Project Manager; Steve Martin, Superintendent; Jan Busco, Horticulturalist; Lori Makarick, Vegetation Program Manager; Jan Balsom, Deputy Chief, Science and Resource Management; Janet Cohen, Tribal Program Manager; Carl Bowman, Exhibit Planner; Ellen Seeley, Interpretive Specialist; Libby Schaaf, Interpretation; Maureen Oltrogge, Public Affairs Officer; Shannan Marcak, Public Affairs Specialist; Tom Pittenger, Interpretation.
Project Management: Federal Highway Administration, Tom Puto, Project Manager; Daniel Onisko, Construction Inspector; Jack Wlaschin, Construction Inspector; Nate Allen, Project Engineer; Bob Bowden, Contracting Specialist; John Hunt, Contracting Specialist.
Prime Consultant / Landscape Architect of Record: DHM Design: Robert Smith, FASLA, Principal in Charge; Roger Burkart, ASLA, Principal, Project Designer; Denise George, ASLA, Senior Associate, Project Designer; Bill Gotthelf, Senior Associate, Designer; Caitlin Weller, Designer; Ann Christensen, LEED Design; Walker Christensen, Designer; Joshua Ruppert, Designer; Pam Cornelisse, Designer; Tom Zinki, Cadd.
Artist: Chevo Studios: Andy Dufford, President; Artists Darin Schulte, Jonathan Courland, Matt Driscoll, Vince Emmer, Joe Kuk, Jack Larson, John Merims, Ryan O’Malley, Kyle Schlagenhauf, Brad Quinn.
Engineer: HDR Engineering, Inc. Doug Emmons, PE, Project Manager; Darin Lockhart, PE, Transportation Project Engineer; Brian Brown, PE, Project Engineer; Rich Thornton, PE, Project Engineer; Gregg Mitchell, RG, Geotechnical/Environmental Planner.
Architect: Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture: Ken Berendt, Principal; Angelo Marasco Theater Project Architect.
Contractor: Fann Contracting, Jason Fann, Gary Hickman, Terry Rice.
Exhibits: EDX: David Edquist, Interpretive Designer; Charles Davis, Interpretive Designer.
Irrigation: Hydro Systems Inc.: Ken DiPaolo, President; Jim Geary, Designer; Dorothy Borland, Designer.
Illustrator: Jeffery Joyce.