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Schenectady-based landscape architect creates meaningful outdoor spaces

Outlook

Schenectady-based landscape architect creates meaningful outdoor spaces

Mary Moore Wallinger looks to build community, improve quality of life with each design project
Schenectady-based landscape architect creates meaningful outdoor spaces
Mary Moore Wallinger in Gateway Park, one of her design projects, in Schenectady.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

Schenectady’s Tribute Park is a simple park, created from three vacant parcels on Eastern Avenue.

There are sidewalks and benches, there’s a large lawn to play on, and a splash pad where kids cool off on hot summer days.

“There’s not a lot of fancy stuff going on, but it’s a great space,” said Mary Moore Wallinger, founding principal and owner of LAndArt Studio, the Schenectady-based firm that designed the park and assisted with its completion.

Wallinger recalled an evening in June 2018 when she brought her kids there to play.

“Another family came and they were having their birthday party in the park and doing a pinata, and they invited our kids to join in and I just thought, ‘You know, this is what parks are about,’” she said.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Aniyah West, 6, of Schenectady plays on the new splash pad at Tribute Park on Eastern Avenue Thursday, August 2, 2018.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Aniyah West, 6, of Schenectady plays on the new splash pad at Tribute Park on Eastern Avenue Thursday, August 2, 2018.

Wallinger’s mission as a landscape architect is to create spaces that build just that sort of community.

“I believe very strongly in the idea that being outside is really important for everyone and that everyone should be entitled to have a space where they can enjoy clean air and clean water and have a place to sit and relax or gather with other people,” she said.

Since she established LAndArt Studio, Wallinger has woven that philosophy into projects ranging from pedestrian walkways to public parks. Her talent is on display in spaces throughout the city of Schenectady and beyond.

Wallinger hails from a long line of gardeners and grew up with a great appreciation for the outdoors. She said she decided to study landscape architecture because it combined so many of the things she loves: being outdoors, art, nature and the idea that spaces can be designed to tell stories and bring people together.

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During college, she studied outdoor spaces throughout Europe – from small, ornamental vegetable gardens to historic and contemporary parks.

“Even today I think back on a lot of those spaces and those experiences and it really influences some of my design thinking,” she said.

After completing her Master of Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Wallinger got a job at OJB Landscape Architecture in Houston, Texas, an internationally recognized firm with some high-profile clients. She worked with OJB on big budget projects including a healing garden for a NASA astronaut recovery center, a plaza for Minute Maid Stadium in Houston and landscape design for several ExxonMobil campuses.

“They just did a lot of bold things in their design that not everybody would pick up on, but the way that they affected you in the space was very powerful,” she said, noting that the work she did with OJB has been influential in her career.

Wallinger moved to Schenectady in 2003, when her husband accepted a job at Union College. She worked for landscape architecture firms in Saratoga Springs and Schenectady before setting out on her own. Her boutique firm, which opened in 2015, specializes in landscape architecture and urban design.

Wallinger called her business LAndArt Studio because the name mirrors her mission: to apply art to land in a way that creates meaningful spaces.

“Sometimes it’s meaningful because you’re safely getting somebody from point A to point B, and sometimes it’s meaningful because it’s a space that gives people joy. And ideally it’s a space that’s doing both of those things,” she explained.

Wallinger’s biggest project to date is on display to everyone who takes exit 4C off of Interstate 890. She designed and oversaw the completion of Gateway Plaza, the public park at the corner of State Street and Washington Avenue, across from Schenectady County Community College. Design work started in fall of 2016 and the whole project was completed by spring of 2018. The $1.7 million park, designed to serve as a gateway to the city, includes a small amphitheater, rain gardens, seating areas, bike racks and three steel sculptural pillars with color-changing LED lighting.

“Prior to Gateway Plaza, there was no significant flat green space downtown,” Wallinger said, noting that the park could be used for concerts, community events and even outdoor college classes. “It could be a regional draw and really have a positive impact on the downtown.”

She said one of her happiest moments occurred one day when she was taking photos of the park after its completion. A woman came up to her and suggested a part of the park that would look pretty in a photo. When Wallinger told the woman she had designed Gateway Plaza, the woman hugged her and told her how much the park meant to her and her children.

“She said that she felt so safe with her children there and that they love the park so much that every morning they came and picked up trash and put it in the trash can so it would stay nice and neat. I couldn’t ask for somebody to say anything nicer,” Wallinger recalled.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
New Music Haven seating in Schenectady Central Park.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
New Music Haven seating in Schenectady Central Park.

Wallinger also recently redesigned the Music Haven amphitheater, which has been the site of free concerts in Schenectady’s Central Park since 1990. She formulated a plan that would accommodate a larger number of people and make the area more accessible. Her design also addressed the lack of shade and the dustiness of the site.

“The hill was, to say wedgie-inducing is putting it mildly,” she joked. “Some of the prime spots, nobody wanted to sit in, because if you were in a chair, you would roll down the hill or if you were [sitting on the ground] in pants, it wasn’t exactly comfortable.”

Those renovations were completed last spring. Music Haven now offers 460 permanent seats, a picnic terrace, several smaller terraces for blankets and lawn chairs, and temporary security gates for use during non-performance times.

Other Schenectady design projects completed by LAndArt Studio include structures and fountains in the Central Park Rose Garden and the creation of Center City Way, a walkway adjacent to the Franklin and Liberty Municipal Parking Lot in downtown Schenectady.

“It’s a very narrow walk, but there’s all these beautiful plantings along it and just these cool sort of beacon lights. I see people going out of their way to walk on that sidewalk all the time,” Wallinger said.

LAndArt Studio is working with PLACE Alliance and the city of Schenectady on a project to improve Schenectady’s Craig-Main Street corridor. Right now, the area doesn’t feel walkable, said Wallinger, who envisions bike lanes, green infrastructure, and wider sidewalks.

When made more pedestrian-friendly, she predicts that the bridge which carries Craig Street bridge over Interstate 890 will become a strong connection between the city's Hamilton Hill and Mont Pleasant neighborhoods.

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“I think this project has the potential to be a tremendous asset to the community,” she said. “More people walk in those neighborhoods than in many others, so if we can create a nice place for people to walk that has a lot more to offer than just a beat up old sidewalk, it could be really more than just a sidewalk. It would be something that would speak to who the neighborhood is and what it wants to be and that offers connections to some of these amazing assets that they already have.”

A founding board member of the Schenectady Greenmarket and chair of the Schenectady Planning Commission, Wallinger said running her own firm gives her the flexibility to spend time volunteering.

“I feel like that inspires a lot of my work and has allowed me to connect with the communities I work with in a very meaningful way,” she said.

One of her aspirations is to find ways to make landscape architecture a more diversified field, and she hopes to interest others in the profession. To that end, in December 2018, she presented landscape architecture workshops for students and faculty at Schenectady’s Howe Elementary School. She has volunteered to design a new playground for the school, which will be constructed with the help of community volunteers. Wallinger is looking for creative ways to involve community members in other upcoming projects as well.

“My goal is to keep working on the kinds of projects that impact different communities and have a chance to improve people’s quality of life, whether it’s for five minutes or, ideally, beyond that – just ways to continue using art and land as a way to bring people together and create a sense of space,” she said.

Seeing people enjoy the spaces she’s helped to create is the best reward anyone can ask for, Wallinger said.

“It’s so exciting and it makes me very happy, but there’s also a realization that I’m just a piece of the puzzle,” she noted. “Those spaces are there because there were a lot of people who cared about them along the way.”
 

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