Westerville's Highland Park Aquatic Center is being lauded as best of 42 architectural designs in Columbus in the 2012 American Institute of Architecture Columbus Design Awards.

Westerville's Highland Park Aquatic Center is being lauded as best of 42 architectural designs in Columbus in the 2012 American Institute of Architecture Columbus Design Awards.

The center shares top honors with Ohio State's Student Academic Services building.

The Highlands Park Aquatic Center stood out for the integration of the center into its surrounding wetlands.

The center opened in summer 2011 after a $7.6 million project that removed the former Pool at Highlands Park entirely, and build the center in better relationship with the facility's siting in the park. It features environmentally friendly designs, such as rain gardens, pervious pavement and plantings on rooftops to reduce storm water runoff.

The four buildings at the center are stone and wood, which tie everything in to the surrounding environment, the AIA Columbus report said.

The key to the success of the aquatic center was involving the community in its development and design, said Westerville Department of Parks and Recreation Director Randy Auler.

Architects Meyer and Associates were able to take the community's suggestions and goals for an environmentally conscious facility and make it a reality, Auler said.

"The key to the project was involving the citizens like we do in everything, to get their input and to come up with a facility that served the community's need, as well as protecting the environment," he said. "The architecture itself reflects well in the nature of the use of the landscaping.

"It's not your traditional aquatic center. It's one that blends in with the environment and has a welcoming feeling. You don't have the bright colors and umbrellas that you have at other aquatic facilities."

The facility has been well-received by the community, Auler said, as is evident by the same amount of people visiting the center this year that visited the center in its record-breaking first season last year.

"This year and last year, we had over 140,000 user visits to the facility, which is pretty phenomenal," Auler said. "That really displayed itself this year, when the second year of operation you are just as busy as the opening year. To be able to run those kinds of numbers in the second year of operation, usually you see a drop off a little bit. We didn't see a drop off."

The center has been such a success, Auler said, that if attendance numbers continue at their current levels, the city may have to expand into more space. That's especially noteworthy, Auler said, when one considers that the renovated center is one-third of an acre larger than the previous facility.

"The amount of people that are using the facility is significantly larger. If our use continues, at some point we may have to look at how we can potentially provide more space at the site," he said.

Residents aren't the only ones who have taken note of the Highlands Park Aquatic Center, said Westerville spokeswoman Christa Dickey.

City officials also have received compliments from leaders in surrounding communities who admire or hope to emulate what Westerville has done with the center.

"One of the recurring things that other communities recognize in Westerville's recent history is the aquatic center," Dickey said. "It's made quite an impression."

Though praise from residents and high attendance has been clear evidence of the center's success, Auler said the city was excited to be recognized by the AIA Columbus.

"To me, we're thrilled. It's just another way of letting people know that Westerville does things the right way," he said.