Transforming a quick stop into a memorable stay through the power of design

January 2, 2019 Olga Gorbunova

A comprehensive Welcome Centers program in New York redefines what’s expected of a public project

 

Imagine a space where you can enjoy regional specialties and locally grown produce. Where you can learn local history and view historic artifacts. Where your little ones can use their imagination in a custom play area with local inspiration, while your pup enjoys a walk in a comfort area. And where you can even save some time by obtaining a camping or fishing license at an interactive Department of Environmental Conservation kiosk. Would you believe that all of this, and more, can be found at a New York State (NYS) Welcome Center?

In New York, the rest stop—that unassuming place along the highway that provides a respite for drivers who may be fatigued or are simply in need of a break from the road—is being transformed into a regionally influenced cultural destination for locals and travelers alike. This effort is part of the NYS Welcome Center program led by New York Governor Cuomo’s office, in collaboration with the Department of Transportation, Thruway Authority, Empire State Development, Department of Agriculture and Markets, and local tourism agencies.

 

The exterior design of the Long Island Welcome Center was inspired by Long Island’s historic grand estates. The design incorporates a shingle-style portico entrance with arched openings framing an ornamental window, expansive doors, and a large welcoming porch. 

 

The program goal is to create destinations that embody the spirit of a regional community, support the local economy, and enhance the experience for residents and visitors—all while promoting tourism across New York state. Launched in 2015, the effort will bring 11 new _q_tweetable:Our project mission: to redefine what’s expected of a public facility, with an elevated level of design that engages with visitors and members of the community._q_Welcome Centers to the state’s tourism regions upon completion, redefining the role a public realm project can play in embodying regional spirit.

Through our prior relationship with several state agencies, Stantec was brought on to support the design and delivery of seven NYS Welcome Centers: Mohawk Valley in Root, Southern Tier in Kirkwood, Long Island in Dix Hills, Western New York in Grand Island, Capital Region in New Baltimore, Adirondacks in Queensbury, and North Country in Collins Landing.

Our work focused on all elements from project concept to completion. Over the course of four years, more than 300 Stantec team members from across the country have collaborated on this ambitious effort with teams focused on site planning, building design, MEP engineering, landscape design (including stormwater management), and interior programming.

Our project mission: to redefine what’s expected of a public facility, with an elevated level of design that engages with visitors and members of the community.

 

A canal-themed play area at the Mohawk Valley Welcome Center reflects the region’s ties to the nearby Erie Canal.

 

As a project manager overseeing our team’s role within this multi-faceted program—making sure our project elements were moving forward on schedule, within budget, and up to expectations—it’s been thrilling to see the individual welcome centers designed by Stantec come to life, all while working to knit together the fabric of the state’s unique tourism regions to tell a cohesive story.

There have also been many lessons learned in designing these projects to make sure they speak the same language, while also embracing their own local dialects. Here are three key lessons:

 

1. Embrace local character

Anyone familiar with New York knows each region carries a unique history and strong sense of local pride. As we shaped design concepts for each Welcome Center, our team focused on using building design, interior programming, and exterior site elements to express each region’s individuality and history. Our designers immersed themselves, conducting research and taking site visits when appropriate. For example, the Western New York Welcome Center was heavily inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and was informed by a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright House and extensive study of his designs. In the meantime, the Adirondack Welcome Center reflects traditional Adirondack architecture embracing rustic materials and texture.

 

Design features serve to embody local character, such as the exterior of the Western New York Welcome Center, which was influenced by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

 

2. Define common elements

While each Welcome Center reflects a unique personality, it was also important to ensure all projects featured common programming for a sense of unity. This was accomplished by incorporating similar features that are recognizable for folks whether they’re in Long Island or in the Capital Region. These aspects include an artifact wall that highlights regional history through images, video, and objects. Floor maps are also included as way to provide a bird’s-eye view of the region and highlight notable destinations. And, of course, all Welcome Centers put local products in the spotlight with areas for cafes, shops, vending machines—and even outdoor farmer’s markets creating opportunities to showcase local products and small businesses.

 

Common design features such as floor maps and artifact walls (shown here at the Long Island Welcome Center) create cohesive programming, while allowing the individuality of each region to shine.

 

3. Establish a common language

With any program of this scale, it’s also important to ensure all project team members—both internally and on the client side—are speaking the same language. Define expectations early and consistently between all groups and be open to discussing challenges to reach clear solutions. For example, on this project we quickly learned that something as simple as a rendering can mean very different things for a building architect, civil engineer, or landscape designer. Once we understood our differences, we were able to much more effectively march in step toward project goals. We also found Revit to be an especially invaluable tool for internal collaboration. It allowed our project team to communicate in real time about changes and in making sure we were all working toward one goal in mind.

 

The interior of the Adirondacks Welcome Center includes rustic elements and materials, reminiscent of local design.

 

As designers, architects, and engineers, we play a vital role in making sure projects authentically resonate on the local level, while aligning with larger program goals and needs. It’s only when these pieces come together that a program of this scale is truly able to shine in the eyes of the client and end users.

About the Author

Olga Gorbunova

Olga Gorbunova specializes in highly visible and complex projects, and her experience encompasses many aspects of engineering, project management, and program management. She’s supported a variety of clients, including the New York State Department of Transportation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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