Sunnylands: Forging a new landscape identity by turning off the tap

Sunnylands :  

Forging a new landscape identity by turning off the tap

By Lauren Hackney – Associate  

After four years of planning, design and construction, staff has moved into the Administration, Archives,
and Operations Campus, the most recent addition to Sunnylands. CMG has worked with the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands since 2010 on a series of projects that support the transition of the Annenberg’s historic estate from private home to house museum and a center for high-level diplomatic retreats. Projects include the Cultural Landscape Framework Plan, which established the integrity of historic resources and provided a roadmap for their preservation; the Historic House renovation, which restored the landscape immediately adjacent to the Annenbergs’ home; the Retreat Campus, an adaptive reuse of former staff cottages; the Parkway, which replaced one mile of turf at the estate’s perimeter with desert-adapted plant species and rock; and the new Administration Campus, a 17-acre addition to the estate.


The landscapes at Sunnylands illustrate the arc of changing attitudes toward resource management:
from an era celebrating the display of boundless resources, to one that acknowledges their scarcity through aggressive conservation of resources. Sunnylands balances a preservation mandate for the historic estate,
a cultural landscape rooted in the belief that a well on the site would “furnish all the water ever needed”,
with a critical regional need to reduce demand on the Coachella Valley’s dwindling aquifer.


The new Administration Campus creates spaces for community and spontaneous interactions among Sunnylands’ administrative, archive, and maintenance and operations staff, bringing together everyone
who contributes to the Trust’s mission in different ways, within one shared environment that manifests Sunnylands’ identity.  Institutional identity is defined at Sunnylands not only by its historic figures, and
past events, but also by the practices that shape the landscape, and in turn perception of the institution
over time. This broader definition of identity as cultural memory provides a frame for how the institution
can evolve and be perceived and valued into the future.


For planning of the Administration Campus, efforts toward water conservation and resource management across the entire property were assessed. To support and further Sunnylands’ leadership in these areas, ambitious goals for water use reduction, net-zero energy use, net-zero carbon footprint, and zero-landfill waste through management  of construction and operations byproducts were identified for the new campus.  The campus anticipates LEED Platinum certification.


Achieving these goals in the desert required a further evolution of aesthetic expectations and maintenance practices to prioritize water conservation through four key lenses:

Regional water use imperatives. Reducing the site’s impacts on the aquifer is paramount. Between 1970 and 2013, over one trillion gallons of water have been imported from the Colorado River to replenish the Coachella Valley’s dwindling aquifer, contributing to dire downstream effects on the Colorado River estuary. Despite this recharge, well levels in the Valley have fallen an average of 55 feet, up to nearly 100 feet in some areas, in the same period. Sunnylands has taken on the mandate of reducing overall groundwater use incrementally with each new project. For the Administration Campus, the team set an annual landscape water budget for post-establishment irrigation by calculating the amount of water that falls on the campus’s footprint in one year. After establishment, the campus’s water budget will be approximately 10% of the estate’s equivalent water use per acre. From this budget, parameters were established to determine how that total amount would be allocated across the campus through a range of plant and irrigation typologies.


Regional ecological understanding. The Coachella Valley floor, a particularly harsh blow-sand environment, presents sustained challenges for achieving these goals. Sunnylands is located within the area of greatest wind effects in the Coachella Valley, where winds funnel through the San Gorgonio pass toward the Salton Sea. The project site is part of a detritivore ecology, where endemic species rely on transport of sand and detritus by these strong winds across the Valley floor, and where habitat health is measured by the influx of new sand transport. Most developed landscapes in the region are predicated on neutralizing this ecology. At the new campus, we wanted to take the approach of living with the desert as much as possible as a future paradigm for the rest of the Estate.


Multidimensional planting strategies. The campus is comprised of a series of unique experiences with distinct planting and irrigation strategies, driven by the allocation of the campus’s annual water budget, each with varying degrees of water, resource, and maintenance investment. Areas of milkweed, along with other species that host butterflies and bees, support Sunnylands’ research partnership with the Xerces Society. Within the campus, a richer palette of desert-adapted and native trees and shrubs provides additional habitat for birds, bats, and butterflies. Trees provide much–needed shade for plants and people and help filter blow sand. All stormwater is retained and infiltrated on site.


New material and aesthetic approaches. Meeting the water budget also required looking beyond plants to shape experience, by using inert materials that provide beauty and variety with their color, texture, and shape.  A varied rock palette characterizes three outdoor spaces that connect the campus buildings. The Administration Drop-off provides a formal entry to the Office Building, and is characterized by specimen cactus garden, lava rock boulders, and the dramatic view to the horizon that also characterizes Sunnylands’ other formal building entries. Two distinct gardens surround the Office Building. The Central Courtyard is the primary social space and is the most significant physical connection to the desert as it opens up to dramatic views of the landscape and surrounding mountains. In this rock garden, several types and sizes of rock provide variety of color and texture. Sculpted into mounds, the rocks define outdoor rooms. This garden has minimal accent planting and a canopy of olive trees. In the South Garden, a lush oasis where the water investment is concentrated, shrubs and succulents define a series of quiet meeting spaces of varied scale, shaded by a canopy of Mesquite trees.

Sunnylands’ maintenance and operations staff contributed horticultural and scientific insight to each of these strategies, and they have been eager to test new technologies and practices on the new campus. A key example is the Engineered Wetlands. This facility ties together the water systems across Sunnylands and physically connects the new campus to the Center & Gardens, treating blackwater from the Campus and the Center through a series of tanks, reactors, and an outdoor polishing wetland. After disinfection through a series of filters, this water is suitable for reuse for toilet flushing at the new campus and to supplement the property’s irrigation system. This infrastructure supports Sunnylands’ goal of 100% reclaimed water sources by 2025 and eliminates the need for septic treatment of blackwater, which is important regionally where areas of the Coachella Valley aquifer have been polluted by septic systems, among other sources. Sunnylands saw piloting this technology in the desert as an opportunity for institutional leadership.


Together, the goals and strategies expressed through the Administration Campus support the mission of Sunnylands as a living laboratory and leader in responsible desert development.  As development in the Coachella Valley region continues unabated, the sustained commitment of Sunnylands to understanding and demonstrating best practices for conservation of cultural, historic, and ecological resources in the desert points to a critical leadership role for Sunnylands that manifests its institutional identity.


UCSF Precision Cancer Medicine Building

Project of the Week

Situated across the street from the future Chase Arena in Mission Bay, UCSF PCMB is the latest edition to the university’s Mission Bay medical campus master plan. CMG was asked to create a small plaza at the intersection of 3rd and 16th street that would help to bring an identity to the corner, and that would also provide seating opportunities for UCSF medical staff, visitors, and future Warrior fans. The building and plaza will open in the spring of 2019.

San Francisco’s East Wharf Park

Project of the Week

The Pier 39 East Wharf Park Concept plan lays the groundwork for a destination waterfront park with a world class waterfront promenade experience.

The guiding principles for the plan are: Enhance visual and physical access to the Bay; Create a dynamic, waterfront destination open space; Introduce sustainability with urban ecology and stormwater treatment.

Located between Pier 39 and Pier 35, East Wharf Park is situated at a unique point on San Francisco’s Embarcadero pedestrian promenade, where the historic pier bulkhead buildings give way to a larger open space with views of open water and a lively marina. The park provides important public access to the San Francisco Bay waterfront and expansive views of Angel Island, Alcatraz, Mount Tamalpais and the North Bay.

The concept plan seeks to leverage the special qualities of the site to bring out the full potential of this uniquely situated waterfront open space. The most significant improvement is to widen and enhance the promenade at the water’s edge. Wider connections and multiple points of access to the promenade create new physical and visual connections to the Bay. The existing plazas, lawns and decks are reconfigured with social uses and incorporate new park amenities to serve neighbors and tourists alike.

Two new plaza spaces anchor the promenade and park design at the east and the west ends. A new large plaza at the west end, adjacent to the Aquarium of the Bay, will provide ample, flexible open space for festivals and events, as well as the regular gathering and play of visiting school children. Between the waterfront promenade and the Embarcadero three new public amenity areas are linked from west to east: a destination play area, emphasizing discovery, and bay-side urban ecology; a social picnic area; and a community dog park.

New water access areas are proposed at both the east and west plazas. These spaces will allow direct physical access to the bay and will enhance educational programs associated with the Aquarium of the Bay.

Pamela Conrad: “Leading the Charge for Change”

Pamela Conrad, CMG Associate, is “Leading the Charge against Climate Change” – speaking on the subject at both the World Design Summit in Montreal on October 17th and at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles on October 20th.

Pamela’s talks will focus on what landscape architects can do to ‘Drawdown’ the carbon footprint of their projects. Not only can we reduce the impact that our work has on the environment, but landscapes also have the unique capability of becoming ‘green machines’ that can help to reverse global warming.

This comes at a critical time as the landscape architecture profession is defining its role in the fight against climate change.

At the World Design Summit Pamela joins a group of experts and panelist from around the globe that are focused on Designing for the Earth and at ASLA Pamela is co-presenting with Martha Schwartz.

In addition to presenting at ASLA, interviewed with podcast America Adapts. Here she is featured on the episode Landscape Architects Adapt to Climate Change, where a series of speakers talk on the role of landscape architecture in mitigating climate change. Pamela is featured at (1:27:45).



Project of the Week

Alexandra Zahn’s SOLARberg entry won honorable mention in PennDesign’s LA+ imagination island competition.

SOLARberg is an inflatable, modular solar still. It passively generates fresh, clean water from the ocean by replicating the way nature makes rain. This water is pumped inland using wave energy, without the need for electricity. SOLARberg extracts from the ocean the freshwater we are losing due to our melting glaciers. With enough of these solar still modulars (roughly the size of the Great Barrier Reef) Solberg’s have the capacity to harvest enough water to lower sea levels 3 feet over 100 years. 

Thanks to the LA+ publication team, PennDesign and the jury: James Corner Marion Weiss, Javier Arpa, Mathew Gandy, Mark Kingwell, and Richard Weller.


Irishtown Bend

Project of the Week

Irishtown Bend embodies latent cultural and ecological opportunities in America’s post-industrial river cities. This 34-acre site on the steep banks of the Cuyahoga River, once home to a vibrant Irish community and a network of railroad depots, warehouses, and docks, has sat vacant, disconnected from its surrounding neighborhood, and unsafe for use for decades.

A new vision plan leverages the immediate need to keep the severely eroding slope from sliding into the Cuyahoga River, a critical infrastructural corridor and active shipping channel, with the creation of a new urban waterfront park providing open space and recreational opportunities to the adjacent underserved community now disconnected from the river. The vision celebrates the site’s cultural and industrial history while adding ecological value to a traditional bulkhead stabilization.


Resilient by Design

Project of the Week 

We are excited to be part of the All Bay Collective, one of the 10 teams selected to participate in the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge. The challenge addresses the threats of sea level rise, severe storms, drought, flooding and earthquakes as well as issues of affordability and inequity in the Bay Area by bringing together local residents, public officials and local, national and international experts to develop innovative, community-based solutions that will strengthen the area’s resilience.

As part of the All Bay Collective, we are excited to collaborate with AECOM, University of California Berkeley – College of Environmental Design, Berkeley Center for New Media, the Terner Center, California College of the Arts, IDEO, Silvestrum, SKEO and Moll de Monchaux!  Our team is a diverse and innovative group of locally based/globally experienced professionals, academics, students and policy makers.

To learn more about the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, click here.

Terminal One

Project of the Week

This new waterfront park built on a historic wharf will provide public access to a previously off-limits stretch of the San Francisco Bay shoreline. A Bay Trail extension, waterfront promenade, picnic deck, and coastal sculpture garden allow spectacular views of the Bay, Mount Tamalpais and San Francisco.



Dogpatch Arts Plaza

Project of the Week

The Dogpatch Arts Plaza is a converted dead-end street, creating about 8,000 square feet of art-focused public space at 19th and Indiana Streets in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood.  Inspired by the popular Decompression Festival held on Indiana Street each year, the plaza combines Burning Man’s artistic spirit with the Dogpatch’s industrial heritage to create an outdoor gallery and gathering space.  The space is meant to act as a “third place” where neighbors and passers-by can come together to engage with art and with each other.  The plaza is set to open later this year.

Dogpatch Arts Plaza Plan

More information on the Dogpatch Arts Plaza can be found here.

Headlands Center for the Arts

Project of the Week

With more than 3,000 square feet of new programming space, The Commons expands the multi-disciplinary Headland Center for the Arts’ services for resident artists and day visitors alike with three newly commissioned, permanent artworks by local, national, and international artists; and additional places to gather, relax, and enjoy the area’s renowned natural beauty.

Promenade View

Promenade View

The site is nestled between and immediately surrounding Headlands’ two main buildings, where it will feature a new central plaza with a  casual outdoor amphitheater for performances and events;  a  new  pedestrian  walkway  that  connects  the  artist  residency  studios  and  main public buildings  on  campus;  and  a  comprehensive  redesign  of  the  current  public  entryway that’s  more  welcoming  and  accessible. The design resonates with Headlands’ overlapping cultural and natural histories, creates more social interaction, and carefully places the architectural elements in a way that allows them to be discovered almost as artifacts.