The New York urban designer chosen by the city to lead an ambitious makeover of downtown’s Moore Square is not licensed in North Carolina as a landscape architect, a state professional board ruled last week.
Christopher Counts won praise for his concept to bring an outdoor cafe, splash fountain and central lawn to the aging park as part of a $14.8 million refurbishment.
But Counts does not have credentials to do the work of a landscape architect in the state, the N.C. Board of Landscape Architects ruled after an investigation into Counts’ licensing.
Responding to the ruling, Counts and Raleigh officials said the designer’s role on the project does not require a professional license.
The city paid Counts’ firm $216,600 to draw up a master plan, a conceptual design document that guides the development and management of a property.
Counts emerged from a field of 79 contenders in a competitive design contest sanctioned by the city in 2009. A five-person jury included architecture professors from N.C. State University and the director of Marbles Kids Museum.
Questions over Counts’ licensing status were raised by Mike Gibbons, a Raleigh landscape architect. Gibbons said he did not enter the contest. But deserving colleagues in the industry missed out on an opportunity, he said.
“The money could’ve gone to the local design profession instead of some guy who doesn’t have a license,” Gibbons said. “To me, this was a blatant violation.”
Reached last week in his Brooklyn studio, Counts said he did not claim to have a professional license in North Carolina.
“It’s generally accepted across the country that one does not have to be registered in a particular state until they do construction documents,” Counts said. “We’re a year away from that. We were doing a master plan, which involves conceptual and programmatic arrangements.”
Counts declined further comment, saying he must first review the board’s written findings.
City Manager Russell Allen said Counts would collaborate with licensed landscape architects when the project moves forward. The city has not set aside money for the redesign, citing budget shortages.
“Our contract with him did not require a license,” Allen said. The contract “didn’t take it to any level of design beyond planning and conceptual work.”
The jury did not know the qualifications or even the names of the competing firms, said Rodney Swink, a professor at N.C. State’s College of Design who served as an adviser to the selection committee. A blind competition keeps the focus on the quality and boldness of the entries, he said.
The vision offered by Counts preserved the park’s setting while adding new elements such as a cafe and performance area.
“His plan, while honoring historic features, was a very contemporary solution,” Swink said. “It wasn’t just simply reproducing what was there. It wasn’t throwing everything out. It was blending the two.”
The N.C. Board of Landscape Architects was established by legislation in 1969 to register professional landscape architects.
To obtain a license, the board requires education, experience and successful completion of a national exam. In addition, each registrant must complete continuing education requirements.
The complaint marked the latest conflict for a project plagued by delays and setbacks.
Last year, the state balked at plans to install restrooms and a cafe kiosk, saying the buildings would pose liability concerns and compromise the square’s historic nature as an open space.
Councilman Thomas Crowder has said he needs specifics on how the park’s 100-year-old trees will be protected during construction.
With the addition of modern amenities, park planners say they can transform Moore Square into a lively urban oasis similar to Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta or New York’s Bryant Park.
Counts is head of a namesake New York design studio that specializes in urban landscapes. On its website, the firm says its “passion for landscape architecture is reflected in its commitment to create memorable and compelling environments.”
A native of Greenville, S.C., Counts said his projects range from a 55-acre landscape in south China to a green roof for the American Society of Landscape Architects building in Washington, D.C.
Counts said he plans to keep his role on the Moore Square project.
“I think I should be the leader,” he said. “I have a lot to contribute. I’ve worked across the world and have done award-winning projects. I think the citizens of Raleigh deserve a world-class space.”