Josephine Bellalta started her landscape architecture and urban design firm Altamanu nearly ten years ago out of her home in Chicago’s Uptown. Now, co-led by her partner John Mac Manus, Altamanu has developed a knack for creating and restoring public spaces that integrate pedestrians, bike, and public transit. Both principals had experience with transportation design, and knew plans for parks inevitably had to incorporate additional infrastructure after the fact.
“Transportation gets the funding, not parks,” said Mac Manus in the firm’s North Center studio. “We became interested in how we could control that, rather than being asked to put lipstick on the gorilla.”
Now Altamanu is involved with the rehabilitation of Lake Shore Drive’s northern branch, from Ohio Street to Hollywood Avenue. A slew of recently completed streetscape and urban design projects gives a sense of their work.
Oak Park, IL
Mills Park was once a private estate with buildings designed by Prairie School progenitor George Washington Maher. His 1897 John Farson House remains on site and serves as the focal point of the park’s “historic” segment. To improve access to the once-private property, Altamanu needed new entrances, but could not discard the historic fencing. The firm moved pieces of the fence into the park as historical exhibits in some places, and bent it inward elsewhere, preserving the fence itself but not the barrier it once formed. Benches recall the fence’s zigzag pattern.
Oak Park, IL
Originally designed by Jens Jensen, Scoville Park in Oak Park is on the site of the area’s first European settlement. It sits on a glacial ridge that bends through two other nearby parks—Mills and Taylor parks. Altamanu’s redesign includes wending walkways, whose curves are echoed in a series of benches, and improved sightlines to the historic buildings that surround the park. The architects also improved access to a Frank Lloyd Wright memorial to a large War Memorial, which was originally the focal point of the park. Altamanu also used root aeration matting to preserve an ancient oak tree.
Altamanu’s plan to reconfigure Lawrence Avenue between Western Avenue and Clark Street makes the thoroughfare more pedestrian and bike friendly. The design thins the avenue’s three- and sometimes four-lane cross section into one lane of traffic each way and a continuous turn lane. Pedestrian refuge plazas allow people crossing the street to ford one river of traffic at a time. Bike lanes exist to the project area’s east and west, so when completed the Lawrence Avenue rehab will link six miles of continuous bike lanes on the city’s north side.
To help revive Batavia’s historic River Street downtown area, Altamanu borrowed the Dutch concept of a woonerf: a “living street” where cars share the road on equal footing with pedestrians and bicyclists. Laying brickwork where an aging two-lane street and sporadic stretch of sidewalk once stood, the firm remedied handicap accessibility problems and gave the historic downtown what its residents said they wanted most—something different. Farmers markets and café seating fill the street now, while outdoor concerts make use of an entryway Altamanu designed that references the town’s history of millwork.
Sauganash Elementary hired Altamanu to redesign its grounds with an eye toward flood control. The defining feature of the landscape is a bioswale that, rather than being relegated to the corner of the property out of sight, is crisscrossed with bridges meant to bring the students and their parents into closer contact with nature. Originally Altamanu wanted the bioswale bridges to be free of railings. Since they only sit a few feet off the ground, the firm figured the bridges posed little risk. The school thought otherwise, however, and railings were added for safety.