ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Driving down St. Paul’s Shepard Road, Jody Martinez glances to her left: houses. And to her right: the parks she’s been designing for nearly 40 years. Beyond that, the river; always the river.
Her voice betrays bemusement.
“It’s right here. Right here in the urban core, and these folks, I don’t know if they even know,” Martinez says. “I like to think of parks for the people, not just for the ducks.”
The woman who was the lead designer of parks in a city known for them is about to retire, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1WFFkfD ) reported.
Harriet Island Regional Park. Mississippi River Boulevard. CHS Field. The Great River Passage plan. She led the design or construction of them all.
Her main regret, mentioned recently as she took a ride with a reporter: that the rivers threading through St. Paul - or more specifically, the parks that line them - are underused. For many households, unknown.
Perhaps she’s taking it too hard. Everyone who works with Martinez in Parks and Recreation touts her as pleasant, passionate, a mentor; her work has received national praise.
And, women in her department note, she’s one of the only females to achieve such a high position - overseeing 13 landscape architects - in what had been a male-dominated field.
“I cannot think of one female principal in a landscape architect group at that level in the cities,” said Ellen Stewart, who came from the private sector to work for the city as a landscape architect nine years ago. “At this point, the field is probably half and half, but it hasn’t always been. And it hasn’t reflected in the leadership yet.”
Kathleen Anglo, another of St. Paul’s landscape architects, added, “You’re the one who designs a park, then you have to go out and tell a bunch of construction workers what to do. . There was a time when being a female, maybe you weren’t taken as seriously.”
Tim Agness, who was Martinez’s supervisor for many years before retiring a decade or so ago, remembers one of the first big projects he worked on with her, Mississippi River Boulevard, back in the 1980s.
He took her to the worksite on a hot, sticky day and left her. Bulldozers abounded, ripping up the roadbed. By the time he returned, her long, white summer dress was covered in dark dust. She was smiling.
And the grit seemed to stay.
“That’s what I liked about her - the idea of being out there and getting dirty, she handled it good,” Agness said. “There’s guys that won’t do that - they have shiny shoes on, and when you’re out where the bulldozers are, you’re not going to have shiny shoes.”
Martinez grew up in Moorhead, Minn., and still remembers helping her dad put retaining walls around their house. The design element, limited as it was, sparked her interest. In 1979, she received a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Minnesota.
As a thesis project, she came to St. Paul and asked John Wirka, a division head in the parks department, for geographical information of Swede Hollow, then just a wooded ravine. She wanted to design paths, facilities, an overlook.
Wirka hired her, and her undergraduate thesis was incorporated into Swede Hollow Park’s final design.
“We were very impressed - it all worked out very well. She worked on Swede Hollow I don’t know how long. She just stuck to it,” Wirka said.
Her husband, Bart Martinez, makes a simple observation when asked about his wife’s work habits: “I get home before she does.”
But back to the river. That’s where Martinez always takes the conversation.
“Nothing was here. This was a junk yard,” she says, nodding to the south of Shepard Road.
She remembers arguing with the Army Corps of Engineers about putting a hole in their levy as part of the Harriet Island project.
“They don’t like to put openings in their levies,” she says.
Then she nods to a road across the river, Eagle Parkway, lined up as an entrance to another park.
“Public Works was not planning on taking out utility lines,” she said, “until I sent them a picture.”
That’s what Martinez has been doing the past dozen years, as the parks department’s design and construction manager: managing, finagling, cajoling. However you measure it - 179 parks, 4,000 acres, just under 20 percent of the city - it’s been a lot of work.
“Jody’s left her mark on all of us,” noted a City Hall flier about Martinez’s retirement - an acknowledgement of the fact that Martinez is known for always carrying a coffee cup, and spilling it whenever and wherever she got the chance.
“She’s known for coffee rings,” Stewart says. But the constant caffeine infusion was another sign of her work ethic.
Has it been enough? She’s back to being hard on herself.
“People don’t even know about Pig’s Eye,” she says, referring to a largely naturalized park on the city’s East Side. Again, at the edge of the river.
When asked what the city’s undiscovered gem is, she thinks a bit before replying: Kellogg Mall, a downtown stretch overlooking the river, of course.
“It’s a fabulous park that just doesn’t get any use.”
What makes a good park, something people don’t think about?
“People love watching other people. It’s a balance - you need gathering spaces, but also spaces for people to get away from it all.”
Her pride and joy?
“I hate to bring it up, but it was Lilydale (Regional Park). It was unknown, undeveloped, undiscovered.” And, she remembers, there was a particularly invested neighborhood group that kept the city on its toes.
Will she miss those neighborhood meetings?
“People are passionate about their parks,” she says diplomatically.
“It’s a process,” relays Parks and Recreation spokesman Brad Meyer. Indeed.
Peggy Lynch, the former and longtime executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County, said she found Martinez easy to work with.
“You can’t always please everyone, and I think Jody worked very hard to work with everyone,” Lynch said.
Last year, Martinez was recognized with a national honor by the American Association of Landscape Architects, a fellowship given to a couple of dozen nominees annually.
On Wednesday, she was honored by the St. Paul City Council, and received accolades from the mayor as well.
After 37 years with the city, she says she’ll retire to a cabin north of Brainerd, Minn. After a dozen years managing, she says she’d like to return to something creative again.
“Maybe not designing earrings,” she says. “That won’t cut it.”
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com
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