Empathy is a core tenet of landscape architect David Rubin's style and approach.
David Rubin Land Collective, the firm where Rubin is the founder and principal, has been hired by the city of Fort Wayne to design phases 2 and 3 of downtown riverfront development.
The idea, Rubin said, is to create a place that is unique to Fort Wayne and its residents but also encourages private development. It's a holistic approach, Rubin said, that marries those two aspects of society.
“As attractive as it might be to private development, if the public is not engaged in that arena, those private investors will not be successful on their return on investment,” Rubin said. “There's a symbiotic relationship between human engagement and financial success. That is what we're striving to do.”
The City Council on Oct. 9 unanimously approved a $2.4 million contract with Land Collective after a two-month delay. Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, had questioned the process used to select the firm and requested city officials go through a sealed competitive bid process. During that process, Land Collective and one other firm submitted bids.
A prominent example of Land Collective's work is The Sky Farm and Commonground at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis which Rubin and his team helped implement. Located atop the seventh floor of the hospital, The Sky Farm produces about 3,000 pounds of food a year and is a popular spot for community members, patients and hospital staff to gather and relax. It also offers an impressive view of the city skyline.
The Commonground is located just outside of the hospital's main entrance and features a gathering area, fountain and waterfall.
It's a design that screams Land Collective.
“What we do as landscape architects is establish humanist environments in which humans can be very successful in conversation and engagement with each other,” Rubin, 55, said in an interview with The Journal Gazette last month. “An empathetic approach is about problem-solving on behalf of our constituents.”
The concept of empathy took center stage during Rubin's October presentation to the Fort Wayne City Council. Rubin explained that his goal is not only to design something beautiful, but something that encourages people to come together.
An empathetic approach means Rubin is personally invested in the projects his firm undertakes. He said it tends to resonate with clients.
“I never leave,” he said with a laugh. “I'm always checking in after the work is done to see what needs improved and how clients can continue to thrive in the environments that are created for them.”
That commitment resonated with the Fort Wayne team tasked with finding a designer for the upcoming two riverfront phases. The group, composed mostly of city and county staff, is focusing on how to use Promenade Park, which is currently under construction near Superior Street, as an asset to attract more private sector investment, Paul Spoelhof, the city's planning and policy director said.
“We want to create a stable, clear space for investors to come and be confident that when they put their money in these projects in these areas that it's going to have return on investment, that there are benefits that they will be able to take advantage of,” Spoelhof said.
It's important, Spoelhof said, to create something that facilitates seamless movement between public and private spaces. Land Collective's style, Spoelhof said, is very conducive to that kind of work. It's one reason the firm was chosen. Land Collective's contract was not the lowest bid – coming in about 50 percent higher than the lowest bidder – but it was the most responsive, Spoelhof said.
“After David Rubin finished his presentation, we all literally were sitting around the table trying to think of what question we were going to ask,” Spoelhof said. “He had systematically gone through and answered everything we wanted to know.”
Land Collective's level of commitment and the way Rubin's team works together impressed the riverfront group.
“These folks are at the top of their game nationally and internationally and they came to us with a very clear understanding and a grasp of what our agenda is, what our vision is for this area,” Spoelhof said. “So we didn't have to coach them along. They got it from the beginning.”
Land Collective's team has done 53 projects together since Rubin launched the firm in 2013, said Chris Cloud, chief of staff to the Allen County Commissioners. Coordinating the three aspects of the planning process – the neighborhood master planning, the engineering study and the public space – takes a team that works well together, Cloud said.
“We can contract with someone to do one of those, but to coordinate all three of them and the fact that they all inform each other, you really do need somebody who's done this before and worked with the same group, because vendors don't actually work well together sometimes,” Cloud said, chuckling. “When they came to the interview, they knew each other by name, they've worked together on lots of projects, so I think we had a comfort level that there would not be hiccups sharing information back and forth.”
The riverfront project also requires a designer with equal amounts of “imagination and pragmatism,” Cloud said. It's especially important when working with local governments, where there are taxpayers to consider. Land Collective, Cloud added, has done a lot of work in Indiana with local governments.
“They don't want you to go outside the box, they want to push your idea of what the box is a little further out,” Cloud said. “Sometimes you need that outside perspective to say, 'I see this and I don't know why you don't see it yourself.'”
Eskenazi Health Sky Farmer Rachel White can attest to Rubin's commitment. As the finishing touches were put on The Commonground, White said she saw Rubin out by the waterfall, hammer in hand, tinkering to make sure the acoustics of the water feature were just right. Five years after The Sky Farm and The Commonground were completed, White said she still occasionally sees Rubin and members of his team.
Rubin said he's excited to bring his approach to Fort Wayne. The rivers, he said, present a great opportunity.
“It's the beauty of the linear construct, ever moving, dynamic. Rivers are long and slender and have a lot of perimeter,” Rubin said. “That affords an opportunity to engage a lot of neighborhoods both north and south. Every one of those neighborhoods should have a voice on the river so we can create something that is episodic and pedagogic where you can learn about Fort Wayne by simply walking along the river's edge.”