Building a Park One Vision at a Time
The tricky part in creating an almost 20-mile park along Floyds Floyd is having to restore, enhance and then protect the native landscape while simultaneously opening it up to a few million curious visitors with large footprints all of their own.
The vision begins indoors. Dream large; plot, plan, discuss and improvise in great architectural and horticultural detail – always looking ahead to what the park needs to be in 100 years; recreating its past to preserve its future for our great-great-great grandchildren.
It will help to always keep in mind the Louisville legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted – and just how long 20 miles of all new park will be.
Then, over eight years acquire the needed 75 pieces of private property with no condemnation, almost 4,000 acres of meandering river, exposed rock, farm fields and forested hills stretching from urban Shelbyville Road to the more remote Bardstown Road – some of that land already acquired by a group called Future Fund – and connecting with the 100-mile Louisville Loop.
Plant tens of thousands of native trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials to make the vision real – while at the same time dealing with the relentless invasives that want to take it all back.
Along the way construct a two-lane road, arching bridges, public areas and buildings, canoe launches, ornamental landscapes and bike and hiking trails through its heart to keep those millions happy, secure and coming back.
And do it all knowing a park development of this size and complexity can’t possibly proceed without random surprises, changes in plans, funding issues and the eternal Floyds Fork floods.
Much of that ongoing multi-task has fallen to Gary Rzepecki, 50, park superintendent for the Parklands of Floyds Fork. He began two years ago when the Parklands environmental and construction balancing act was in its early phases.
“I was kind of hired as the horticultural and natural areas manager to start with,” he said, “to put together the hundred-year vision of what the forest and other stuff was going to be.
“So when you start thinking about it from that standpoint it’s like, this is bigger than just going to build a park. There’s going to be a lot of thought behind it. There’s going to be a lot of planning.
“And when you’re going for a hundred-year vision there’s no need to rush.”
His work ethic and career path – although not precisely horticultural – have pretty well prepared him for the mission, even as initial park construction is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
The oldest of six children growing up on the rural edge of Milwaukee, he began working on a nearby farm at 10, enjoyed playing football and basketball outdoors in the snow-coated winters.
Even as a kid he walked the nearby woods, checked out the trees, helped his hardworking father build gardens, began reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir – and Jack Kerouac.
He joined the U.S. Marines at age 17 after graduating from James Madison High School. He served in Japan and 29 Palms, California in ordering/inventory and shipping supplies.
“When I got out I went back to Wisconsin for a few months. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then I went to Alaska and was cooking at a lodge where a lot of fishing was done internationally with all the salmon up there.
“And I met a few people, and they said, ‘You should go to college.’”
Fair enough. He enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia as an architecture major, then feared that degree might doom him to a lifetime spent indoors and switched over to Temple’s horticultural program at the school’s Ambler Arboretum.
Still, a natural curiosity and his broad interest in all architecture led him to walk the streets of Philadelphia. He would walk slowly, block by block, taking in the city’s angles, corners and spaces; it’s used book stores and oddity shops, the diverse mix of people, the tenacity and condition of its urban plants.
Taking classes at night and on weekends, he began living and working at the Henry Arboretum, a 60-acre facility near Philadelphia. Its diversity included mature trees, native perennials and greenhouses filled with orchids, hybridized amaryllis, specialty bulbs and exotic plants collected from British Columbia to South America.
“I was at the Henry for nine years, which was kind of a record,” he said. “That was a very tough, demanding place to work and Ms. Henry had gone through a lot of people in the past, so she did trust me.
“But it really opened up a world of plants that I never was taught in college and it was a great experience there.”
He moved from there to the non-profit Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington as a public landscape specialist converting grassy median strips into flowerbeds.
He missed the world of more exotic plants, moved on to the 67-acre Arlie Gardens at Wilmington, N.C., with its mossy live oaks, southern gardens, placid lakes and seaside location.
“It had been beat up by hurricanes pretty bad,” he said, “and the first year I worked there we had two more hurricanes.
“But what it exposed to me was a lot of southern plants that I wasn’t familiar with, including the southern azaleas… And trying to build that garden back was fun.”
Budget troubles forced the Arlie to cut back on staff and in 1996 Rzepecki returned to Delaware working with a landscaper on high-end homes near the ocean.
Working closely with home owners – and being around their children – he became focused on using fewer chemicals, relying instead on building good soil, timely watering, good plant maintenance and integrated pest management.
“We started using organic fertilizers for plant growth,” he said, “and we burned weeds with a propane torch. If we couldn’t do that, we sprayed horticultural vinegar that killed weeds. Strong smelling, but effective.”
His last job before moving to Louisville was as Chief of Park Operations in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland where he led a staff of 40 people, managed over 2,000 acres of parklands and maintained grounds for 13 public schools.
“I’d visit the National Arboretum and take cuttings of plants there and bring them back to grow in the greenhouse—the rarer plants we couldn’t find in the market—so I could get them into the parks.”
The job also provided community benefits beyond the normal realm of horticulture: Winning high school football teams.
“We were heavily into athletic fields. So we would build irrigation systems, turn them over to Bermuda turf and the fields just responded so much better.
“The football fields had been beaten up because they played on them so much, but every field we redid, except for one, the teams went to the state championships.
“Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. But it showed the kids, you give them something like that and it’s like they take it up to another level.
“Something positive kicked in: Hey, we can go deal with the big boys on the western shore of Maryland.”
There are no high school football fields at The Parklands of Floyds Fork, but its 22-acre Egg Lawn was created to fly kites, toss Frisbee, play touch football, kick soccer balls and host large community events. The nearby Humana Grand Allee has space for lacrosse and field hockey and the John Floyd Fields includes sports fields primarily used for soccer.
Rzepecki said his wife, Carrie Fredland, first saw The Parklands job posted online during a nationwide search. He had been looking elsewhere, anyway. Queen Anne County was beginning to go through another budget crunch, his key workers were being asked to retire early, and after seven years of building parks it looked like his future would be primarily in maintaining them.
“And I was like I just can’t spend the rest of my life doing maintenance,” he said.
He began work at The Parklands on Oct, 10, 2011 – just as its four separate parks were beginning to unfold across the eastern edge of Louisville.
The job was instantly appealing; he’d worked at a park with Chesapeake Bay running through it but never a park with its own river and riparian opportunities. He found The Parklands’s geology interesting, studied the plans of park designers Wallace Roberts and Todd (WRT) and Bravura and wondered where his role might be in the implementation.
He read the reports of Naturalist Michael Gaige, who had walked or canoed almost every acre of the proposed park before any planting was even begun, and the writings of 21st Century Parks Chairman Dan Jones.
“When I start a new job I like to build a foundation,” Rzepecki said. “I like to understand all the processes, can we fine tune them? Can we change them?
“The thought always was this is a huge project and you don’t want to make a mistake early. You want to really understand it as thoroughly as you can because once you start developing a park and begin going through the construction phases you’ll notice those unanticipated problems.
“You’ve really got to become a good problem solver…most people don’t understand that choosing the right plants, and planting plants, is more difficult than they think.”
The Parklands is being developed in four phases – generally moving downstream from Beckley Creek Park at Shelbyville Road with construction now making its way closer to Bardstown Road.
Part of Rzepecki’s job became reviewing the plants the designers had selected for certain areas to be sure they would work, and that they will adhere to the original design intent 20 or 50 years from now.
He also foresees a time when the designers might just designate that a particular area should require plants of a certain height, texture and color but the horticulturists would pick them out.
The key to planting success is good soil. The Parklands plantings often followed heavy construction which flattened the soil. Other areas were heavy clay, or more water logged than anticipated.
These problems can be exacerbated when buildings, walkways or memorials are specifically designed to create a park flow through certain geographic areas.
“If the soils aren’t conducive,” he said, “you either have to amend these soils to get them up to par, possibly add irrigation or a drainage system, or you change the plants and you change the design intent of the area.”
One such area was the Humana Grand Allee, where soil compaction, cold temperatures and very high water tables did-in such normally water-tolerant trees such as bald cypress, sycamores and shingle oaks. An irrigation system was put in place, and the soil was amended with sand, compost and pine bark mulch before replanting.
“And, yes, we’ve done a lot of tweaking, and we will continue to do that as each phase goes through.”
Some of the tweaking was a lot easier. An early design planned called for clear cutting all trees on a particular hillside. Rzepecki, fearing erosion, the overall aesthetics and thinking some of those trees might produce good seeds for seedlings in time, tagged some of the best trees, saving them from the grinding blades of a forestry mower.
“To me that was important,” he said. “Let’s hold on to our good stuff, let’s just remove the bad stuff, and then let’s observe what nature’s doing.”
That philosophy has already produced some results in areas where invasives like bush honeysuckle, poison hemlock and ragweed have been cut back and sprayed several times. The ever resilient native wildflowers are beginning a comeback, to be followed by acorns becoming oaks.
He and his landscape crew – a staff that takes as much pride in its hands-on clearing and reforesting work as he does – along with volunteers, planted about 30,000 seedlings of almost a dozen different native trees from the Kentucky Division of Forestry in an often wet, 45-acre, bottomland site behind the Stout House in what will become Turkey Run Park.
Because of the nature of the land, the seedlings – among them pecan, oak, hazelnuts, persimmons, walnut, Kentucky coffee trees and black cherries – were planted in bunches by soil type and ground elevation.
“What we tried to do is just utilize the site and put the plants in the best place,” he said.
It’s also an area where native trees such as sycamores and box elders are just waiting to invade. This winter Rzepecki and a crew will walk the entire planting row by row to take inventory, evaluate the situation, see what’s doing well and perhaps replant certain areas using volunteers.
Every mile of the park presents its own issues and challenges; trees being cut down to make way for the main road; Johnson grass in the meadows; finding a way to hide at least part of massive overhead power lines; always being flexible.
“I love plants and I know the problems construction can cause plants,” he said, “and to me it’s fun in a way because sometimes even mistakes can turn out to be beneficial in relocating trails or doing some other things.”
Some of the solutions are surprisingly easy, popular and effective; like running a park trail through a big soybean field planted in the park to give the tourists an up-close look at Kentucky agriculture.
Still waiting for more evaluation and restoration work are the more remote and picturesque areas at the center and southern end of the park with hillside forests, huge beech trees, waterfalls and great annual bursts of wildflowers.
The work is a continuing blend of big picture and little details. Completion of the original park construction in 2015 is not the end of anything. There’s no way to just sign off on almost 4,000 needy acres when the ultimate goal is how the park will look a full century from now when newly planted seedlings will be a towering forest.
There’s no down time. Rzepecki, who sees community involvement as the best way to preserve and protect The Parklands, often walks the park with wife and their baby daughter, Willa, on weekends to see how people are using the park – and what else needs to be done.
“It’s not work,” he said, “it’s research.”
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.