News & Views » David Walters

Green Rooms

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Great cities have great parks. New York has Central Park, Paris the Jardin des Tuilleries and the small, seductive Place des Vosges among many others. Boston is renowned for its "Emerald Necklace" and the renovated Post Office Park sitting above seven levels of underground parking. Think of London, and some of the most potent images are of Hyde Park and the Serpentine, or perhaps the smaller, more intimate St. James' Park.

And Charlotte has. . .?

For a city built on a site without any significant natural features (why oh why didn't the city founders pick a site on the banks of the Catawba at one of the river's crossing points?) a great urban park is the next best thing to real nature in creating a sense of civic identity, making a special place. To be fair, new parks are featured in the city's 2010 Uptown plan, but this vision is a long way from fruition. Conjoining the Tryon, Church and College Street bridges across I-277, and extending another block eastward to form a large concrete cap over the freeway is a bold and imaginative idea. Reclaiming lost land for urban parks happens in other cities, and this public investment would repay itself through new development catalyzed by reconnecting Uptown with SouthEnd and Dilworth. This plan won't happen tomorrow, but in four years the idea has transformed from a derided architectural fantasy to a serious city proposal.

Back in 1997, I helped organize a public design workshop where several teams of architects, planners and citizens brainstormed ideas for improving Uptown. One group presented their ideas for. . .a new park across I-277. Skeptical smirks transfixed the faces of the audience. What a crazy idea!

At that time, this concept was free. Four years later, the same idea was included in the high-profile 2010 plan for which the city paid over $200,000, and the price tag engendered respect. If it costs that much, the idea must be good!

One day that park will be reality, but in the more immediate future three new park plans showcase Charlotte's current take on urban nature. Two are good; one is so bad it should go back to the drawing board.

The most visible development is The Green, the private park on South Tryon developed by Wachovia. Sitting on top of underground parking, this excellent small park, designed by Wagner Murray architects and landscape architects Cole Jenest and Stone, is a welcome addition to Charlotte's "public" space. "Public" needs the quote marks because although the well-designed space, replete with public art, lined with offices and shops, and overlooked by the Ratcliffe condominiums and St. Peter's church, is a welcome addition to our streetscape, it isn't truly public.

We're allowed on the grass by kind permission of the bank, and while their intentions are benign, they retain firm control over the space and the activities that can take place there. We may use the space if our behavior fits the owner's rules and regulations. A political demonstration, for example, probably wouldn't be welcome.

The second positive plan is the refashioned Marshall Park, designed by landscape architects Land Design and Deborah Ryan, and illustrated in the city's new Second Ward plan. This promises the same high design quality as Wachovia's Green on South Tryon, but with the added benefit of true public ownership.

Both these projects share similar design concepts. A successful urban park is like a big, green room; it needs well-designed "walls" -- the facades of buildings enclosing the space. Just recall an aerial photograph of Manhattan's Central Park: the grid of the city is carved away, and the great green rectangle is lined with buildings facing the park, making crisp and attractive edges. It's like a giant living room for the whole city.

Buildings around the edges of parks must include housing, offices, retail and civic uses that create pedestrian activity, with lots of people "people watching." This constant public observation, or "eyes on the street," by the way, is also the foundation of community policing and safe public space.

These simple lessons have been lost in the city's other new park proposal, the Third Ward park planned in conjunction with a potential new arena. Here almost every rule of good park design is broken.

Bedeviled by city-county squabbling over the precise location and hampered by a history of bad design for a new arena, this park design still manages to plumb a new low. The area between Mint Street and the railroad tracks is split by a new suburban-style Graham Street that swoops and curves in a way that increases driving speeds and violates the city's grid pattern. An irregular six-acre green space sits forlornly in front of the latest arena from outer space. Defined, active edges of this "park" are non-existent, comprising only a scattered ragtag collection of buildings. Is this really the best we can do?

No: we can do and have done better. But the city isn't listening to the advice it sought on this very topic.

In pre-referendum days, the Planning Commission convened workshops with local design professionals to develop designs for the area around the arena. I was a member of a group, including David Wagner, Deborah Ryan and others, which created a scheme that connected the new train station, the arena, the new park, new housing and additional commercial development to form a lively city district. Other groups did likewise. A very similar version of our design subsequently appeared in the local press under the sole authorship of David Wagner: this raised eyebrows regarding attribution, but nonetheless, the design was a good one, following time-tested principles for urban parks.

Amazingly, that's all been forgotten. The city should take these old drawings out of the drawer and look at them again. It's urgent that staff and elected officials reconsider this new, misconceived design: we don't want to compound the arena fiasco with a bad park. A great, green "living room" for Charlotte is long overdue. *

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