It will be the backyard of Texas A&M, a Central Park for Aggies: A sprawling 45-acre garden on west campus where students and visitors can enjoy indigenous flora, take in plays and concerts outdoors, tailgate, play in the greenspace and where students can get their hands dirty.
The Gardens and Greenway project, which has been in the making for two years and was partly designed by Aggie students, has officially kicked off its fundraising campaign. Headed by program coordinator and horticulturist Doug Welsh, the project needs nearly $60 million to come to fruition.
The project will be located along White Creek near the offices of the Agriculture and Life Sciences College near Reed Arena. The area is set to see an influx of foot traffic when the west campus dorms open in 2015. The gardens will be built next to the 4,000-bed dorm. Officials plan to eventually connect trails across John Kimbrough Boulevard and, someday, all the way to the George Bush Presidential Library.
There are two main components of the project: creating an outdoor classroom for students and providing a green space for what Welsh calls “spontaneous recreation.” The most expensive portion of the project is a $15-million recreation of The Grove, a former open-air theater on main campus that was used for yell practices and movies.
We’ve lost so much green space on campus due to our growth, and this is really our last opportunity to capture a green area and create it and enhance it with the beauty that is within the interest of the master plan,” Welsh said. “It gives an off-campus, on-campus experience where we can get out of our dorms and offices and go enjoy something that’s right here on Texas A&M’s campus. You don’t have to get in your car and go anywhere. You can do it right here on campus.”
Many top-tier universities have gardens, and A&M has had floral projects crop up and die off. To ensure the project is sustainable, the university seeks about $30 million for the capital expenditures and about $30 million in endowed funds that will pay for the upkeep of the gardens over time. Welsh said he expects the gardens to cost about $1.2 million per year in upkeep.
The Texas A&M Foundation is leading the fundraising efforts and has taken a piecemeal approach. The foundation is soliciting smaller gifts as well as larger or corporate gifts, but what gets built and when depends on which projects donors want to fund, Welsh said. If Aggies quickly fund a plan to recreate the iconic Grove, then it will be built sooner. On the other hand, if projects aren’t funded, they could be deferred.
The project could take anywhere from three years to 20, Welsh said. The first steps are restoring the creek and building the trail infrastructure that will help handle the foot traffic from the new dorms. Those initial components could break ground as early as the summer, he said.
“Most universities, certainly the top universities in the nation, already have arboreta, botanical or public gardens,” Welsh said. “The good news is we’re late getting into the game and we can learn from everybody else — what they’ve done and what’s good and bad and how to create the best teaching and public garden at any university in the nation.”
Trails will take visitors through three distinct areas featuring plants native to the Brazos Valley: a Post Oak Savannah section, an area with natural grasses and a wildflower meadow. The trail is planned so that the flora complements the surrounding section of the trail.
The wildflower section will include bluebonnets, and yes, Aggies, there will be maroon bluebonnets, too. Another component is a toxic plant display and garden, where visitors can get an in-person, but safely blocked-off, view of problematic Texas plants such as Oleander and Sago Palm.
The native grasses blowing in the wind will give motion to the landscape and the bubbling water of the creek will combine with the 50 species of birds in the area to provide audio for the garden.
A teaching garden will anchor the project. Welsh said the teaching garden will have a greenhouse, experiment fields, an activity lawn and an education complex with classrooms. It will also have three types of gardens — one for demonstration, one for sustainability and a vegetable/herb garden.
Welsh expects the planned rose garden to be a destination for Aggie engagement and wedding photo ops. The rose garden, with a pergola in the center, will feature Texas roses. He said the bushes of pink, red, white and yellow roses are situated so that the southeast winds will blow their scent into the larger garden area.
The Grove recreation will have a classic feel to it, Welsh said. The venue will have a capacity that ranges between 500 to 1,000 people with both assigned and lawn seating.
The “Howdy Station” will be the primary entrance to the gardens and will essentially be a railroad-themed bus stop built next to the parking lot across the street from the Reed Arena lots. The station will feature three open-air pavilions which can be used as rentable space for farmers’ markets.
An assist from grad students
The origin of the project can be traced back to 1998, when the A&M System Board of Regents voted to preserve the area around White Creek. However, the project really took off in August 2011 under the direction of Mark Hussey, vice chancellor and dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences. Hussey pledged about $100,000 to the creation of a Gardens and Greenway master plan and the hiring of Welsh to work on the project full time. Partly to save money, the university opted to allow graduate students to design the project’s master plan. The master plan will basically serve as an outline, with professional architects and construction crews building the individual pieces of the project as they get funded.
A small team of landscape architecture graduate students under the oversight of professor Jon Rodiek worked through both the fall 2012 and spring 2013 semesters to complete the master plan.
“We were well positioned — we were on site,” Rodiek said. “Every day they could get out to the site and that really made a big difference.”
Graduate student Dan Zhao, 25, worked on the project and specifically designed the coffee station, which she said would attract visitors drawn to the presidential library. Zhao touted the eco-friendly design of the project, which needs little irrigation since it is xeriscaped. She said it’s one of the most complex and comprehensive projects she’s ever been a part of.
“I think the unique aspect of the design is we used a lot of sustainable technology like the rainwater harvesters, a rain garden and solar energy, like solar panels on the rooftops,” Zhao said.
Hussey said it was important to include not only the students, but staff and faculty throughout the design process. He envisions the project as a gateway between A&M and the surrounding community.
“We’re just really excited about where we are today and kicking this off and making the A&M community and the Bryan-College station community aware that this project is at the point of transitioning from the early planning to the early implementation phase,” Hussey said.