This summer, eight acres of thoughtfully designed green space will open on the Georgia Tech campus and provide many new spaces for reflection, engagement, and learning. Currently under construction at the corner of Hemphill Avenue and Ferst Street, the EcoCommons is situated directly west of The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design. Once complete, the area will contain more than 600 new trees, 68 transplanted trees, tens of thousands of new perennials and shrubs, and an abundance of ferns and grasses. Eight different planting zones comprise the new native landscape with the overall design highlighting three distinct areas – an area to reflect, an area to engage, and an area to learn.
The contemplative grove will provide an area of reflection with its tupelo trees strung with hammocks surrounding a center of prairie-like grasses. Situated parallel to Hemphill Avenue, this northwest corner of the EcoCommons is the location of a notable moment in Georgia’s civil rights history.
In 1948 Lester Maddox, who would later become the 75th Governor of the state of Georgia, opened his Pickrick Restaurant along Hemphill Avenue. As a staunch segregationist, Maddox famously prevented three African American theology students — Reverend George Willis, Jr., Reverend Albert Dunn, and Reverend Woodrow T. Lewis — from entering his restaurant by threatening them in the parking lot with a handgun and pickax handles. After losing a lengthy federal court battle, Maddox chose to close the Pickrick Restaurant rather than comply with the court order to desegregate. Shortly thereafter, as the Institute was looking to expand campus, Georgia Tech purchased the building to serve as a job placement center. Known as the Fred W. Ajax Building, it stood on campus more than 40 years and in its final years served as a storage facility for the campus police department. The building was leveled in 2008, as one of many steps taken to fulfill the campus environmental restoration project known as the EcoCommons. A historical marker has stood on the site to honor and educate about this event in the fight for civil rights. The new landscape and hardscape design for this area will work together to symbolically pay tribute to this moment in history.
As you approach the contemplative grove from Hemphill Avenue, the pathway will follow a seated wall on the left. As the path narrows, three openings in the wall appear. Just beyond each opening, you will see that a piece of the wall has been pushed back. Representing both obstacle and door, these pieces of the wall are directly in line with a tree that is different in species from the surrounding grove. The three unique trees in the grove symbolize the three courageous men who confronted the walls of injustice and broke through the obstacles of inequality. Also located within the grove area will be three large, moveable wooden benches to encourage moments of collaboration or contemplation. The footprint of the Pickrick Restaurant will be outlined in the ground by a raised steel edge and the interior planted with a simple tree canopy and a calm, subtle groundcover of woodland ferns. This area is in contrast to the dense woodland that surrounds the Pickrick site. Educational signage will explain and contextualize the events that occurred on the site more than 50 years ago.
The second programmed area of the EcoCommons is designed for engagement. Located just west of The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, this area will feature a granite outcropping, several large, multi-person swings, and a play hill. A meadow at the base of the hill will be conducive to studying and relaxing. Plantings in this area will feature, among others, the colorful blooms of coreopsis, Appalachian rock-pink, and Porter’s sunflowers.
The third programmed area is for learning. Installation is progressing on an extensive network of utility and drainage infrastructure, which will aid in reducing storm water runoff, a major goal of the 2014 Landscape Master Plan. Sensors and meters strategically placed throughout this area will provide valuable data on soil, air, and water. This ecological and operational data is planned to be available to campus operators, researchers, and students alike. A platform overlooking the wetland area will serve as a vantage point for observing effective water stewardship using nature’s systems. Plants such as buttonbush, tussock sedge, and cutleaf coneflower are a few of the many plantings that will comprise this wetland area.
Weaving throughout the EcoCommons will be a network of paths and bridges connecting the three programmed areas into one performance landscape representative of the diversity of Georgia’s native habitats. With more than 10 years in planning and design, this $12 million lush green space project will come to life by mid-year. While honoring its historical roots, the landscape will provide vital ecological functions as well as important data for analysis and research. Georgia Tech students, faculty, and staff will have a vibrant new space on campus in which they can interact in a multitude of ways.