April 18, 2002

Finding an identity in the forest

  • As a new city, Maple Valley looks for guidance in the Northwest landscape
    Swift & Co.

    King County Maple Valley Library
    Photo courtesy of Swift & Company Landscape Architects
    Rainwater collected from the roof recharges the groundwater through a sculptural cistern in the library’s courtyard.

    You may remember Maple Valley as it was 20 years ago — a wooded enclave between Seattle and Mount Rainier, where Puget Sound’s lowland forest blanketed glacial rolling hills and the most identifiable landmark was the Maple Valley Highway.

    Back then, Maple Valley was not unique in unincorporated King County. With its forested, rolling hills, it was easy to miss.

    Two decades of progress, prosperity and explosive regional growth, created a new image of Maple Valley that was also not unique.

    Housing developments have removed all signs of the Northwest forest. Rows of deciduous street trees native to some other place shade patches of lawn and ornamental shrubs and flowers.

    Commercial developments encourage you to drive across parking lots to get from Starbucks to the bank to the gym.

    This story is, unfortunately, common to our region, and to our country. You could replace the words “Maple Valley” with a dozen other communities, and the story would be the same.

    But the Maple Valley story gets more interesting. As residents grew frustrated with what was happening around them, they voted to incorporate in 1997.

    As Maple Valley City Manager John Starbard, explains, “The residents did not want to stop growth, but wanted it more reflective of the community. The prevalent feeling was that the amount of capital revenue the area was generating was disproportionate to the investments that were being made by King County.”

    The city wanted to gain control of development and to retain or regain its sense of place.

    To this end, the city’s 1999 comprehensive plan describes a wilderness theme for the city.

    “We would like the built environment to reflect the fact that Maple Valley is on the edge of the wilderness,” says Starbard. “After all, Lake Wilderness is in the heart of the city.”

    The wilderness theme is hard to define, but with the help of the new award-winning King County Maple Valley Library, the community is closer to an understanding of what it means.

    “The Maple Valley Library has given us a definite and community-embraced example of the amorphous term ‘wilderness theme.’ It provides an excellent illustration of site planning, the preservation of trees and the use of natural materials in a highly sophisticated design,” according to Starbard.

    The Maple Valley Library has become a model for citizens looking for a civic identity and a better way to accommodate growth without losing their remnant forests.

    What makes the library so special?

    Its identity lies in the way the building preserves and reflects the forest, its irregular parking lot tucked between the trees much like in an older campground.

    The project was designed by James Cutler Architects in association with Johnston Architects and Swift & Company Landscape Architects. It has recently won multiple awards from the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Landscape Architects.

    The Maple Valley Library demonstrates how a 12,000-square-foot facility and its 61-stall parking lot can be integrated into a mature, second growth native forest ecosystem. The building and site development take their direction from the forest.

    A harmonious relationship between the built and natural environment is achieved by siting the wood and glass library snugly among the towering Douglas firs.

    The dappled light of the forest and the interior of the library have a calm, shared light level, and the experience is like a tent in the woods. The visual connection between the inside and outside creates a welcoming civic place that clearly puts value in the natural world.

    The entire design team studied the forest structure, soils and hydrology as a living ecosystem and took an innovative and multi-disciplinary approach to site development.

    An evaluation and mapping of all trees and understory plants by Swift & Company and Urban Forestry Services informed building placement and site design.

    This effort produced a clear understanding of the site’s ability to absorb development. The result is a building fully integrated into the landscape.

    To retain as much forest as possible, the construction area was kept to an unusually strict minimum. With technical leadership from SvR Design Co., a surface water management strategy was developed to divided the site into small watersheds and disperse the collected water throughout the site.

    Rainwater from the roof flows into the central courtyard via a sculptural cistern designed by Cutler.

    The parking lot is an irregular series of stalls tucked into the vegetation. Each small area drains through a duff filter to a rock well or swale, allowing groundwater recharge. All storm water is handled on site, and managed in an apparently invisible way that blends into the forest floor.

    Planting and irrigation occurred only in areas of disturbance. Native plants were salvaged from the construction site by volunteers and cared for by the nearby South King County Arboretum.

    These were replanted by the contractor along with purchased native shrubs and groundcovers. Duff and forest floor litter were harvested from areas to be developed, stockpiled during construction, and redistributed over planting beds. This allowed beneficial forest floor organisms such as mycorrhizae fungi to help establish the new plantings.

    The resulting landscape looks deceptively natural. This small site has given the people in the community something to point to: a attractive new public facility which respects the native forest.

    The Maple Valley Library has helped change the trajectory of development by providing an achievable prototype of their wilderness theme.

    The influence of the library can be seen in two new projects in area: the Maple Valley Community Center and the Maple Valley Place Legacy Project.

    The Maple Valley Community Center, across the street from the library, recently adopted a master plan by ARC Architects and Swift & Company Landscape Architects.

    With phase one design under way, the plan calls for a central sunny meadow joining the Maple Valley Historical Society complex with a new community center tucked into the edge of the forest. Many of the same preservation techniques implemented at the library will be used to preserve the forest surrounding the new building.

    The Maple Valley Place Legacy Project is a 54-acre maple and Douglas fir forest purchased by the city. Located in the geographic center of Maple Valley, it is connected to the library and community center by a regional trail.

    The city, a citizen advisory group, Hewitt Architects, Swift & Company Landscape Architects and PRR are working together to develop a plan for a legacy which is a source of identity for Maple Valley.

    To familiarize residents with the land itself, the city hosted an open house in July 2001. Visitors received a booklet prepared by consultants which provided a guided tour of the property, and explained natural process and interesting features along the route.

    The booklet also showed other developments as examples of the possible uses allowed by code for this property.

    At the annual Town Hall Meeting a week later, approximately 200 citizens met to discuss the future of this land. The library was repeatedly cited as an example of the preferred model of development for the community.

    The ultimate plan for the Maple Valley Place Legacy Project is still being determined. The citizens are engaged and working hard to make the choices that are right for this new city.

    As designers on the land, it is heartening to realize the impact one project can have on a growing city.

    One of the joys of our collective efforts is helping people see beyond the ordinary, or, in this case, to see the extraordinary aspects of what many used to take for granted, our native Northwest forests.

    Lisa Corry is a landscape architect and project manager with Swift & Company Landscape Architects.

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