Cheryl Barton winds down after decades as CEO, and her office becomes part of SCAPE.
By Bradford McKee
If there were good, recent books on passing a design firm’s ownership from founders to successors (there aren’t), it sounds as if Cheryl Barton, FASLA, and Kate Orff, FASLA, would have had little use for them. In March, the San Francisco-based Office of Cheryl Barton, Barton’s firm since 1995, became the West Coast office of SCAPE Landscape Architecture, the firm Orff founded in New York in 2004.
SCAPE’s absorption of Barton’s firm fits what Orff describes as an organic enlargement of SCAPE’s footprint, rather than growth for growth’s sake. Barton says the move provides a satisfying answer to the post-CEO life that she has long contemplated as part of a 25-year plan. “It’s neither a merger nor an acquisition. It’s our invention,” Barton said in June on a joint call with Orff. “It’s a designed transition.” On March 31, five of Barton’s employees became staff members of SCAPE, which now has a staff of about 100 people between offices in New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco.
The decision sprang from what the two describe as a discovery of common aims to remake the public realm and to find inventive ways to fix damaged ecosystems. Barton will stay close to the practice for a while but wants to spend more energy on her longtime climate and environmental advocacy, particularly in the San Francisco Bay region. A past national president of ASLA (1987–1988) and Rome Prize recipient, Barton was appointed in 2004 to the board of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a California state agency. She plans to increase her activism in estuary protection and promoting investments in natural resources as capital assets.
Also awaiting Barton is her 40-year archive, which she plans to organize. Early in her career, she worked at the Office of Dan Kiley and later was a principal at EDAW before that firm became a part of AECOM. She has received dozens of awards and honors for her park and campus landscapes (Stanford University, the University of California, and the National Park Service became repeat clients). Recently, Barton, whose undergraduate degree was in fine arts and geology, has been working on a design project for the 5,000-acre Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve at the University of California, Merced. The vernal pools are “climate-informative leftovers from earlier geologic eras, and they’re vanishing,” she said. “Ninety percent of them are gone in California.”
That project is now with SCAPE, which is also working on China Basin Park in San Francisco. In Alameda County, SCAPE has its Public Sediment project to restore the free flow of Alameda Creek into San Francisco Bay and replenish the marshes at its mouth, as well as a project to secure the bay’s eroding shoreline at a site called Eden Beach.
In other words, it’s busy on the West Coast. “We’re going to try to get as much interaction by Cheryl as she can handle—strategic advice and wisdom,” Orff said. Any early notions Orff held of having a boutique office, she said, met the limits that a small firm is likely to find in winning large infrastructure projects. “You have to be able to grow but still have a kind of horizontal empowerment ethos,” Orff said. “I’m not interested in power and control but in empowering a network of people to do their jobs really well.”
When they began talking about the ownership transition, Orff said, “We were able to have just very direct conversations about, you know, what is [Cheryl] looking for? What is going to meet her needs and her legacy and what she’s working on, and what SCAPE is? This thing we both have in common is being kind of straight shooters, not needing buffers of lawyers and a lot of people as interlocutors.”
The two took “the MOU approach,” Barton added, referring to a memorandum of understanding. “We kept the lawyers in the wings.”