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02-12-21 | Feature

A New Perspective on Preservation

The Coastal Oaks Preserve
by Dix.Hite + Partners

The entryway to the Preserve will provide signage made of rusted steel and a natural pervious crushed shell entry drive. Low maintenance plantings of bahia grass and native wildflowers will be planted along the entrance and standing dead pines will be used to create tree snag towers with perches and nesting boxes for birds such as the native Pileated Woodpecker.
The plan to create a multi-functional structure and pavilion for educational and research programs is sited for an already disturbed area to further reduce impact to the landscape with a connecting boardwalk providing access from the parking area to the pavilion and nearby trails. A rain catchment system on the structure roof will flow to rain gardens along a reclaimed concrete slab walkway and be utilized for water filtration and distribution. Solar energy will be captured through rooftop solar panels for lighting in the pavilion area and restrooms with waste composting and grey water re-use. Cypress, red maple and tupelo wetland species will be planted with native sabal palm hammocks restored. One of the many tree snags will provide habitats for resident and migratory birds.
A SWOT analysis was done to identify what parts of the site were best to preserve and restore as well as areas for possible construction. Much of the mangrove systems are kept in place to protect the shorelines from erosion and sea level rise while also providing a habitat for many animal species.
A SWOT analysis was done to identify what parts of the site were best to preserve and restore as well as areas for possible construction. Much of the mangrove systems are kept in place to protect the shorelines from erosion and sea level rise while also providing a habitat for many animal species.
A canopy walk, a system of boardwalks starting at ground level and reaching about 15' to tree level, will allow people to traverse the landscape from above giving a different perspective while preserving the forest floor. Boardwalks will navigate through the multiple forest layers of pine flatwoods, palm hammocks, oak hammocks and mangrove forests to the lagoon edge. Pavilions will be built along the boardwalks with a tower 50-60' tall above the forest for greater views.
A canopy walk, a system of boardwalks starting at ground level and reaching about 15' to tree level, will allow people to traverse the landscape from above giving a different perspective while preserving the forest floor. Boardwalks will navigate through the multiple forest layers of pine flatwoods, palm hammocks, oak hammocks and mangrove forests to the lagoon edge. Pavilions will be built along the boardwalks with a tower 50-60' tall above the forest for greater views.
Existing Conditions: 1) Existing buffer area, currently mowed; 2) Oak hammock restoration; 3) Scenic views into pine flatwoods and oak hammock; 4) Large population of epiphytes and air plants coexisting with oak hammock; 5) Existing culvert blocks access to lagoon; 6) Existing research / restoration projects; 7) Historic hammock; 8) Gated launch point / dock / staging area to dump shell for pathways / mosquito control area; 9) Evidence of land crabs; 10) View to bridge; 11) View to spoil islands; 12) View to condos across lagoon; 13) Access to lagoon; 14) Fringe mangrove shoreline creates a protective "wall" of red mangrove; 15) Repaired foot bridge provides access to lagoon; 16) Existing spoil island zoned for conservation (CON-1) and part of the spoil island project; 17) Historic "Old Grove" ruderal area; 18) Area zoned for residential multi-family (RM-6); 19) Area zoned for residential use (RS-6); 20) Area zoned for residential use (RS-1)
Opportunities: 1) Potential waterway access to lagoon; 2) Existing transect through diverse range of habitat types provides potential experimential + educational opportunities for visitors; 3) Potential main entrance to preserve; 4) Existing "primitive" site urges provide opportunity for low-impact lodging infrastructure for visiting partners + reserach groups; 5) Existing road-end provides opportunity for potential overlook / observation point to limit access but allow views to lagoon and habitats; 6) Disturbed rederal area provides potential for more intensive use; 7) Current buffer area along road provides potential buildable area that minimizes damage to site; 7) Current buffer area along road provides potential buildable area that minimizes damage to site; 8) Existing waterway and habitat testing area with views to islands provides potential for education, research, + restoration; 9) Existing spoil island zoned for conservation (CON-1) - provides large habitat area for migratory + resident bird species - opportunities for restoration + education - restricted access; 10) Existing dock area in floodway provides opportunity for potential improvement; 11) Historic citrus grove area provides educational opportunity; 12) Current research initiatives for mosquito impoundment areas provide opportunity for potential improvement.

Coastal Oaks Preserve is located within one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America - the Indian River Lagoon off the coast of Florida. The Indian River Land Trust (IRLT), whose mission is to preserve, protect, and provide access to the Lagoon, collaborated with local landscape architecture firm Dix.Hite + Partners to create a vision plan that celebrates the IRLT's mission through restoration, education, research, and experience. The design team performed site inventory and analysis to map areas most suited for preservation, restoration, or development. A stakeholder charrette and workshop provided further insight into the goals and mission of the Preserve. As a result, a plan was developed around three key activities: enter, gather, and explore. The plan includes design solutions that preserve the land and restore its significant ecosystems, defines edges, provides space for research and education initiatives, and creates opportunities for users to engage with the site.

Home to over 2,500 species, the Indian River Lagoon is a thriving ecosystem. The IRLT seeks to protect this 200-acre preserve from the impacts of adjacent development, pollution, invasive species, and coastal deterioration from sea level rise. The design team researched the region, the history of the site, and performed a thorough site inventory by walking the site and exploring the waterways by boat. The team inventoried the existing uses of the land and water, roads and paths on site, species and locations of wildlife, areas of unique interest, types of ecosystems present, and locations and types of invasive species. Areas in need of restoration and/or preservation were noted as well as the extent of existing disturbance.

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Following the site visit, the design team discussed overall goals and objectives with the IRLT Design Committee, consisting of members of the IRLT Board of Directors. The team then presented their findings and initial concepts to the entire Board. After incorporating feedback from this meeting, the design team led a two-day Stakeholder Charrette and Workshop which resulted in a list of desired functions for the Coastal Oaks Preserve: to create environmentally-friendly permanent shelters for the students, scientists, and community members who use the site for research or educational events; to restore and preserve important ecosystems; to establish boundaries and control access to the site; and to create opportunities for physical exploration without further impact to the site.

The design team performed a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis to identify the areas most suited for restoration, preservation, and potential future construction. The analysis revealed a unique transect of ecosystem types ranging from mangrove, coastal oak hammock, transitional wetlands, cabbage palm hammock, and pine flatwoods. Several areas of unique interest were identified, such as cypress stands, natural waterways and mangrove ponds, a maritime epiphyte forest, salt marshes, and a former citrus grove. It became clear through mapping the site that built structures could be located on already disturbed land. Many of the existing waterways and trails revealed opportunities for expanding the site's recreation without further impact. The opportunities far outweighed the weaknesses on site and ultimately informed the vision and programming plan.

Accommodating the needs of the IRLT while also protecting the sensitive ecosystems on site required a lot of restraint throughout the design process. Three key activities were outlined in the plan: enter, gather, and explore. The entry into the site was designed to subtly identify the Preserve with low-profile signage, a gated entry and simple fence to control access and establish boundaries, and a restored meadow. The main entry is proposed along the existing access road and paved with natural crushed oyster shells to reduce further impact.

The Landscape Architects proposed reusing the existing roads as trails for guided groups to explore without impacting the site further. A canopy walk floats above the existing landscape to offer unique perspectives and experiences. Educational signage overlooks help visitors better understand their surroundings. Accessible drop-in areas for paddle craft allow visitors to explore the site from the existing streams and waterways.

A multi-functional structure will become a flexible facility for existing education and research programs. The building is located in an already disturbed area to reduce impact and uses green building techniques with rainwater reuse systems, a solar panel roof, and composting waste facilities. The surrounding area would become an outdoor classroom with restored native plantings, seating, and clear connections to surrounding trails and boardwalks.

The vision plan has been approved by the IRLT Board of Directors and the landscape architects will deliver schematic design and construction documentation as part of the next phase. By restoring and protecting the sensitive ecosystems on site, this plan could help educate future generations, provide research opportunities, and rebuild damaged wildlife habitat for the diverse species on site. Providing opportunities and spaces to enter, gather, and explore creates a platform for IRLT to promote stewardship of the Lagoon and ensure the future health of the site.

As seen in LASN magazine, January 2021.

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