These looser standards [for City Hall Park] that permit the substitution of paving for soil and grass will enable the privatization and donor-branding of a central feature of our city’s civic life. –Charles Simpson
Imagine Pomerleau Park?
This article by Charles Simpson was originally published in Wild Foraged News, Issue I, 2016
IMAGINE POMERLEAU PARK?
There are two “stories” that appear to be guiding the perceived need to redesign City Hall Park. The first is the tale of Manhattan’s Bryant Park. By the 1970s, this two-centuries-old park of nine acres had become a place avoided by tourists and office workers due to drug trafficking and crime. Architects and sociologists traced the problems to poor design, specifically hedges and a raised elevation that shielded the park from street view resulting in the absence of ordinary use. Beginning in 1979, a thirteen year redevelopment project was undertaken that housed underground stacks for the library beneath a “great lawn”. The project was initiated by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund which helped create the Bryant Park Corporation, a private group that now manages the park and provides maintenance and security. Funding is entirely private and now derived from a tax on adjacent businesses which benefit from proximity to the park. Key features of the design include two restaurants, four food kiosks, a winter skating rink placed on the grassy area, free Wi-Fi, free chess boards and instruction, and a round of public entertainment including projection of Yankees baseball games. The American Society of Landscape Architects, social commentators, and the public consider the renovation a great success; it is now the most densely-used park in the world.
Bryant Park’s renovation was initiated and sustained by contributions from businesses in the area. Private funders in Burlington are more canny. The Pomerleau family has agreed to contribute start-up funds of half a million dollars toward what is expected to be a project costing six times that much. What business doesn’t cover will be paid for by taxpayers through TIF financing, a source that masks the expenditure as a levy on future real estate tax income rather than immediate property taxes. Half the park will be cleared of trees for the construction of a performance venue à la Bryant Park. The audience will sit on a “great lawn” below the stage on a downward slope, seemingly in contradiction to acoustical principles and sight lines. Burlington’s weather suggests a limited season for this theater. A wall of shrubs, bike racks, and vendor booths isolates Main Street from the “great lawn” in violation of the principle of open visual access that William H. Whyte introduced into Bryant Park.
The second “story” is local. It involves the effort of the business community to draw out the high real estate values associated with proximity to Church Street to include the waterfront and surrounding blocks. This has become a central tenet of Parks & Recreation policy, that entity now renamed the Parks & Recreation Waterfront Commission. Burlington City Arts, together with the Burlington Business Association, spent $100,000 on a simulated public "visioning" process called 'Imagine City Hall Park'. Property developers have been stymied by the excesses of ‘70s urban renewal downtown, specifically the creation of a superblock between Cherry and Bank streets and the truncation of Bank at Pine Street. The result has impeded both north/south passage and east/west connectivity between Church and Battery. City Hall Park is seen as providing a solution. Thus the re-design is built around a central promenade running due west from Church Street to St. Paul which, while it falls far short of Battery Street, is still expected to enliven St. Paul and lower College and Main streets. Two cafés—one directly on the promenade— will bring respectable patronage to the park. The design also includes the relocation of the Farmer’s Market from the park itself to booths along St. Paul, a process already underway as the market expanded but which will now be the center of the future outdoor market. The northern half of the park—really these are functionally two separate parks—will be slashed by two curving pathways into four small zones, one a restaurant and waterpark, one containing a café, and the last two with benches and play space. A line of trees creates a visual separation between Cherry Street and these areas.
Beyond the challenge of a downwardly-sloping lawn for the theater audience, another problem is that movement from Church Street to the central promenade requires passage through a narrow alley made less inviting by plans to cover it with a canvass room and further extend BCA activities into the park, elongating and visually obstructing the alley. At the west end of the central promenade there is simply the wall of St. Paul Street. There is no direct communication to the Waterfront. Other than on Farmer’s Market day, there seems little reason for the public to take the promenade. Even when farmers are selling their wares, patrons are likely to access the booths via Cherry Street rather than an obscure BCA alley thus avoiding the center of the park. A further problem is that a fountain listed with the state register of historic structures will be torn out and replaced by a shallow, granite-heavy “water park” consisting of sprinkler jets. While a concession to children, the idea is a variant on Los Angeles’ “bum-proof benches” designed to make it impossible for derelicts to sleep. Here the water feature does the trick. The ultimate rationale for the redesign provided by the city is a concern with water runoff and erosion that make park maintenance difficult. It would seem that limited problem could be addressed for less than $3 million.
The park project is made possible by expanded lot coverage standards in parks that City Council approved last year, most obviously to permit a massive Waterfront Pavilion envisioned for the corner of Lake and College Streets and a huge parking structure in front of Echo. New standards allow lot coverage of 35%, up from 5%, in selected parks facilitating private enterprises, paving, and more conspicuous donor-branding.— Charles Simpson