Dream, Envision, Plan: Community Charrette for Palmer Park’s Future


It was time to dream. Community members were invited to bring their imaginations, hopes and visions to a special gathering about the future of Palmer Park in November 2013. This brainstorming session included some of the most talented urban planners, landscape architects, and architects in the region, who chose Palmer Park as the right place to donate their skills and develop a Master Plan—a roadmap for the next 10-plus years for developing the park.

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People for Palmer Park (PFPP), the nonprofit organization that is the City of Detroit’s official “Adopt-a-Park Partner” for Detroit’s Palmer Park, hosted a community planning session on November 22, 2013 at the Detroit Unity Temple. Close to 80 community representatives participated in a community planning and visioning session to help chart a course for the future of Palmer Park. 

PFPP President Rochelle Lento talks to members of the community who attended the recent Design Charrette for Palmer Park.

PFPP President Rochelle Lento talks to members of the community who attended the recent Design Charrette to create a Master Plan for Palmer Park. Photo: Barbara Barefield


Members of the community attended the Design Charrette to create a Master Plan for Palmer Park. Photo: Barbara Barefield


PFPP board members meet with Gibbs Planning Group and other landscape architects and planners after walking through the park. Photo: Alisha Hunter


PFPP board members, Gibbs Planning Group and other urban planners, architects, students and landscaper architects walked through the Park. Photo: Alisha Hunter

Spearheaded by the prestigious Gibbs Planning Group, affiliates of the Michigan Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Congress for New Urbanism attended and are currently hard at work creating a community-driven master plan for Palmer Park. 

“The Palmer Park Master Plan is a blueprint for the future. This is an opportunity to create a vision that will guide investment in the park and ultimately explain how the vitality of the park is retained and enhanced, how the natural resources are protected, and how the needs of residents and all park users will be met,” explained the Gibbs Group.

Representatives from well-known and respected firms including Archive DS, ASTI Environmental  Conservation Design Forum, Hamilton Anderson, Ken Weikal Landscape Architects,  Landscape Architects & Planners, livingLAB, M. Campbell & Associates, M. Johnson & Associates, McIntosh Poris, a number of individual architects and planners, as well as graduate students in architecture and urban planning from both MSU and UM participated in the Charrette, as well as packing the room at Unity. 

Robert Gibbs, principal at Gibbs Planning Group, along with his colleague, David Mangum, presented a slide show providing historic background of Palmer Park’s 296 acres, originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and his partner Charles Eliot under the direction of Lizzy Palmer between 1893 and 1895.  Olmsted is considered by many to be the father of American Landscape Architecture. He also designed Central Park in New York City, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and Detroit’s Belle Isle. The chance to work on an Olmsted park thrilled the planning team, especially members of the MiASLA, whose national organization was founded by Olmsted’s sons in 1899. Read more about Olmstead and his work at Palmer Park.

Mr. Gibbs shared letters between Olmstead Sr. and Senator Thomas Palmer, who donated the land for the park that now bears his namesake. Through their research, the Gibbs Planning Group found historic photos of a nursery in the park, site of a former farm and orchard, a casino and pavilion, a working majestic fountain, ice skating during winter and fly fishing during summer in Lake Francis! They even located an original handwritten list of the plants in the park. 

Before Mr. Gibbs’s presentation, PFPP’s President Rochelle Lento (a Palmer Woods resident) presented an overview of the organization, its mission, and activities and park improvements undertaken in the last three years. That overview of physical improvements highlighted clearing of over 10 miles of trails, planting three apple orchards of over 700 trees, a new state-of-the art Splash Park, and winterizing the historic log cabin. During that same period, PFPP has sponsored recreational programming such as baseball, bike riding, tai chi, tennis, and yoga, and presented numerous free events for the community.  

Following these presentations, Gibbs and PFPP reviewed existing conditions and priority areas for improvement in the Park such as: 

• Log Cabin restoration including locating some of its original furnishing 

• Maintaining the Apple Orchards 

• Maintaining the Splash Park 

• Rebuilding a new playscape 

• Refurbishing the Tennis Courts 

• Enhancing Lake Francis to allow fishing and ice skating 

• Improving the Picnic facilities in the park with new shelters and better access 

• Developing a Gateway and Entries to the Park 

• Developing an Urban Farm/Community Garden

Then, the floor was turned over the community to offer ideas and suggestions for the future of Palmer Park, some of which echoed the PFPP’s goals and objectives, but many of which expanded our horizons and vision. Ideas were far-ranging and imaginative, covering the following in no particular order:

• Establish a running, walking and biking trail around the perimeter of the park   

• Refurbishing the Log Cabin to use for receptions 

• Establishing a theater or pavilion for entertainment 

• Building soccer fields 

• Developing educational programs and a market with the Urban Farm 

• Enhancing Lake Francis 

• New lighting, incorporating solar or LED lights !!! 

• Improving the Trails with signage for plants, special uses, better accessibility 

• Maintaining the park as a wildlife oasis! 

• Adding benches along trails and in key areas 

• Creating a Gateway/better entrances to the Park 

• Restoring and adding restrooms 

• Bringing back concessions 

• Free Wi Fi in the park 

• Facilitate rentals of recreational equipment, i.e. bikes, cross country skis, roller blades, ice skates  

• Add bike racks in strategic locations 

• Consider layered uses for the Detroit Golf Course 

• Add multi-purpose buildings in the park

• Address the crime problems in the park 

• Create linkages between Palmer Park and neighborhoods to the east

• Improving the Horse Stables and adding trails for the horses 

• Developing a sculpture garden in the park 

• Enhance the Woodward Ave. appearance and entryways to the Park 

These ideas were provided by neighbors near and far who all have a stake in making Palmer Park a regional destination for park-lovers. The following day, a large group of architects and urban planners, who were inspired by the community outflow of ideas, spent hours in the freezing cold walking through Palmer Park to understand its geography and topography, as well as see some of its existing attributes first-hand. Led by board members, Dan Scarsella, Lori Heinz, Helen Broughton, Clinton Griffin, and Rochelle Lento, over 30 professionals experienced an on-the-ground education about Palmer Park. 

Over the next few months, these planners and architects will work in teams, and as challenged by Robert Gibbs will develop alternative master plans that will encompass all 296 acres of Palmer Park. Once those alternative plans are developed, which are anticipated to be no fewer than three and perhaps five, there will be joint sessions between the Gibbs Planning Group, select team leaders of architects/planners and PFPP to review the alternatives. Thereafter, it is the goal to present a Community Mater Plan to the community at the Annual Meeting to take place in early April. The goal is to have a 10-15 year plan for Palmer Park, which will provide a roadmap for its future. 

If you have ideas for improving the park—from adding a dog park to overnight camping site—please visit peopleforpalmerpark.org and click on the link to fill out the survey for Dream-Envision-Plan to help share your ideas for the rebirth of Palmer Park!

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