'I am genuinely optimistic for our profession as the economy slowly gains strength'

Landscape architect Dwight Kiser talks shop

Dwight Kiser is president of Franklin-based Kiser + Vogrin Design, LLC. The former managing partner with LandDesign, Inc., a land planning, civil engineering and landscape architecture firm, Kiser now works with long-time friend, associate and past LandDesign principal Gary Vogrin. He recently met with Nashville Post Managing Editor William Williams for a chat.

How are the landscape architecture and planning fields faring at this point?

Like most of our country’s building- and development-centric workforce, our profession suffered from the economic collapse. Many lost their jobs, closed their offices, or were forced into an early exit from the field all together. Those of us resilient and fortunate enough to stay the course focused on reducing costs, building and reinforcing relationships, and providing essential services whenever the opportunities arose. In some respects, we reinvented ourselves by re-focusing on our expertise to meet the challenges and demands of a new era.

I am genuinely optimistic for our profession as the economy slowly gains strength. Opportunity and demand for our planning and design services continues to grow and present themselves, but they like me are cautious and deliberate. Offering and delivering indispensable services in a highly creative, efficient and cost-effective manner will place you at the forefront of consideration but there are still no guarantees. 

At one time, you were based in Nashville with LandDesign. Why Franklin now?

I opened the Middle Tennessee office of LandDesign in 1996 when I relocated from our Charlotte, N.C., home office. While exploring the area prior to the move, I found and fell in love with Franklin. It offered the setting and opportunities my wife and I desired to raise our young family. It was also void of the long-established planning and design firms that were primarily located in Nashville. In my mind, this was significant since we would be a “cold startup” having no existing relationships from which to start. It was fertile territory and the obvious growth potential of the area made this initial location decision fairly easy. 

In 2006, we purchased the historic Litterer Laboratory building on Second Avenue South in downtown Nashville and relocated on January 1, 2007.  We chose that space because our firm was quickly running out of adequate space and the partnership was interested in purchasing as opposed to leasing; our younger staff in particular strongly desired to live, work and play in Nashville and the principals of LandDesign felt that a downtown address would positively reinforce our market recognition and enable continued growth.

The move was great — for the first two years. Then the market began to falter.  As the economy continued to decline and the housing bust became reality, our seven-office firm — including the Nashville office — began the painful sojourn of downsizing, which ultimately resulted in the closing of five offices and a staff loss of about 200 great people in the spring of 2010. Our initial goal was to hold on to Nashville as well but we could not.

Following the closing of LandDesign, Gary Vogrin and I opened a small shop under our own names in Cool Springs in March of 2010.  Now we work and play here.

Why did you decide to team with Gary Vogrin and start your own company as opposed to finding work with an already established company?

We were “courted” by some very respectable design and engineering firms in Nashville following the closing of LandDesign.  However, Gary and I have been a team for so long that the thought of separating never crossed my mind.  We complement and feed off each other and I love him like a brother. 

I first met Gary when I interviewed and hired him to join the LandDesign/Charlotte office soon after his graduation in the early nineties.  Gary and I made that move together to Franklin in 1996 and over the years from scratch grew the LandDesign office to a staff of nearly 50 landscape architects, engineers, surveyors and designers. I like to tell the story that we spent our first several months with the yellow pages and a road map in hand, knocking on doors and asking (sometimes begging) for the opportunity to prove ourselves.  Heck, we designed our first project (the Brentwood “flag pole” property) for free; just to show what we could do.

What types of projects are you working on now and in what geographic areas are they located?

At LandDesign, Gary and I had established a strong reputation in the planning and design of mixed-use and master planned communities/office parks and that has carried over to KVD. Most of our work continues to be located geographically in Middle Tennessee but we’ve also traveled out of state.

We are currently planning two mixed-use communities located on abandoned strip mined sites: a 750-acre site in eastern Kentucky called Chestnut Mountain and a 1,200-acre site in Sequatchie County, Tenn., named Vitalia that is envisioned as a retirement/wellness community. We are also the planners and landscape architects for The Grove, a 1,100-acre golf-course community in Williamson County that is under new ownership. We are very excited with this project — both for its envisioned quality of development and the commitment of its new owners. Other residential projects include Bell Historic Franklin and Rachel Springs (both apartment communities in Franklin) and the residential communities of Arrington Retreat (Williamson County); Woodmont (Smyrna, Tenn.); Kings Creek Golf Club (Spring Hill, Tenn.) and Saddle Creek Golf Club (Lewisburg, Tenn.). We’re also currently pursuing a land-use policy change for a significant area just south of the village in the Town of Nolensville that will include a newly announced Williamson County high school site.

On the office and commercial side, we are currently planning the re-development of the Synergy Office Park (Brentwood); the mixed-use Capital View site (North Gulch) in downtown Nashville; significant office/mixed-use parcels in Cool Springs east of I-65; and the planned re-development of the 170-acre Conway, Ariz., municipal airport property. 

We are also very pleased to have played a significant role in the property identification, procurement and master planning of the newly envisioned Williamson County campus of Columbia State Community College.

We’ve even planned a major automotive sales park in Rapid City, S.D.,  one of our first commissions under the Kiser + Vogrin Design masthead.

In addition to our planning prowess, we are concentrating on strengthening our reputation in the traditional role of a landscape architecture and visualization firm.  We’ve added key staff with expertise in planting design and 3D graphic visualization, and that has created new opportunities to team with architects, engineers, developers and builders. Planting design for projects such as the Nissan corporate office expansion, Duke Realty office development, Barry Farms landscape architecture and private residential design throughout Middle Tennessee are the result of this commitment. 

What is your take on the Nashville area’s 21st Century design aesthetic and how it relates to land planning? 

The Plan of Nashville is an excellent document that embraces the ideals of placemaking and is reflective of the direction land planning continues to evolve in and around our community. Placemaking is a term loosely used to describe the collaborative process of creating public spaces, be it a city square or a residential community. It is about shaping the places in which we live, work and play to reflect the physical and social qualities and “feeling” we most desire. In some circles, it is considered an art that was lost with the suburbanization of America. But it’s making a steady resurgence and we will be better off for it. 

This approach in planning is most visible in the mixed-used development efforts occurring throughout our community and is reflected in both our urban and suburban areas. The re-development of the Gulch, SoBro and East Nashville embrace this ideal.  But so, too, are communities such as Franklin and Brentwood where Meridian, Westhaven, McEwen and the soon to be re-developed Synergy Park are taking shape.

The last few years of the recently completed decade were rough on architecture, landscape architecture and planning firms.  Looking back, what are your thoughts?

“I’m glad it’s over…I hope it’s over!”  The past decade was, indeed, a roller coaster that started with the lean years of 2000/2001 ramping into some of the best years ever in 2005/2006 only to be followed by the downward plunge in 2009/2010. I have to believe that those of us who experienced and made it through those times learned invaluable lessons about our profession(s), our approach to business and our personal fortitude. I know I did. And oddly enough, as painful as it was to experience the past few years, I think I am a better person for it and I’m striving to incorporate what I learned on a daily basis.

Going forward I feel good about the future.  The Middle Tennessee market is sound but cautious. And while the demand for excellence in design has always been high, I feel it is even stronger today based on the scrutiny each and every project faces at its outset. And that’s a good thing for the design professions. 

I believe that the majority of us still in our professions have shaken off those excesses of the past. We are re-learning to do more with less and are concentrating on marketing and delivering the services that we are strongest in.

Every project is as important as the others and every client is the best. And I appreciate each and every one.

What is a great Nashville example of quality landscape architecture?

The singular project that jumps out to me is the Bicentennial Mall. The conceived vision and corresponding plan, spatial organization and detailed components that make up this space are truly inspiring and reflect landscape architecture in the built environment at its best. The antithesis of the Mall, and equally inspiring, is the Edwin and Percy Warner Parks. These parks reflect the traditional “roots” of the landscape architecture profession and are an outstanding example of the stewardship of our natural environment.

I would also add that The Plan of Nashville is an outstanding document that reflects the valuable role landscape architecture plays in our community. This is something all Nashvillians should become familiar with and embrace as our city moves into the future.

Is Franklin running out of land on which to build?

No. Statistically speaking the land area within the Franklin urban growth boundary is +/- 79 square miles (50,841 acres).  The 2006 City of Franklin Annexation Feasibility Study cited the then-current municipal area as 41.11 square miles (26,310 acres); a fact also supported by a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report. So, there is roughly 48 percent more land area available for annexation and growth, if desired. 

There are several factors that will determine the rate at which Franklin expands its corporate limits; however, the availability and capacity to extend municipal services will be the overriding issue in my mind.

What is your take on downtown Franklin and how it has been, and continues to be, redesigned?

I subscribe to the conventional wisdom of “if you are not growing, you are dying” as it relates to the evolution of our nation’s cities, towns and communities. And thankfully, Franklin continues to move forward and evolve. 

I recently co-chaired the growth and development committee of Franklin Tomorrow, a non-profit community organization that engages the community, fosters collaboration and advocates for a shared vision for the future of Franklin. The occasion for this assignment was the 10-year anniversary of Franklin Tomorrow’s founding and its mandate to revisit, re-asses and update its vision and goals for the 10 originally established key areas of concentration.

We set forth the GOAL of “Strategic growth and development that embraces the community’s historic context while encouraging diverse development that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.” One of the strategies developed to achieve this is “contextual design that embraces Franklin’s historic and natural characteristics.”  I strongly support this and feel it is reflective of the continuing development and re-development efforts of our community.

Is there a local project with which you wish you could have been involved?

I believe that all good designers worth their salt yearn to be involved in landmark projects in the locale in which they practice.  So it’s hard for me to identify just one because I want to participate in all of them. However, Governors Club, the new Nashville convention center, the Bicentennial Mall and the current development of the Riverfront come to mind. We’ll keep trying.