ONARCHITECTURE- Little big park: McGuffey renovation gets underway
The City says the new McGuffey design will turn the site into a "world class children's park."
PHOTO COURTESY SITEWORKS
On Friday, May 11 the City will finally break ground on the a $679,000 McGuffey Park renovation designed to transform the site into a "world class children's park." Architect Peter O'Shea– who also co-designed the Free Speech Wall with Robert Winstead– will design it, Messer Construction will build it, and according to Parks & Rec director Mike Svetz, it should be completed this fall.
As detailed in the Hook ["Playing a-ground: When architects tackle a park," November 3, 2005], the park project is a joint three-year effort between a group of North Downtown neighbors calling themselves the Friends of the McGuffey (which privately raised over $224,000), the non-profit Charlottesville Community Design Center, and City's Department of Parks & Rec, which secured $400,000 for the 1.1-acre site in the 2006 City budget.
Some are questioning such a large taxpayer expenditure on such a small park. After all, the City has 23 parks, 18 of which are older than McGuffey. Starr Hill Park, for instance, has no play equipment at all.
Yet Svetz says McGuffey, located next door to the McGuffey Art Center on Second Street NW, should be seen in the context of all the planned improvements to the city's park system. Under Svetz's directorship, Parks & Rec was also allocated $1 million to replace Onesty pool in the 2007 budget, plus an additional $1 million for repairs to Carver and Tonsler parks and the Crow and Smith centers. Other projects include trails and greenway development, urban tree preservation and planting, and general improvements to city and school playgrounds. For 2007, Park & Rec was allocated $1,388,000 more for capital improvements than the year before.
"We've also completed a master plan for Forest Hills Park and currently have funding of $751,000 for that park," says Svetz. "We're set to begin the project this year and complete it in 2008. As you can see, McGuffey isn't all that's being done to improve the park system in Charlottesville."
Indeed, there is more, but repair budgets may pale beside McGuffey. For instance, when the $400,000 was approved for the McGuffey project in 2006, only $84,412 was allocated for maintenance and renovations to the Downtown Mall, and only $100,000 was set aside for improvements to all school and city playgrounds. This year, the City will spend a combined total of $117,000 to upgrade the playgrounds.
"Spending $400,000 on that one little park is a travesty," says Charlottesville resident Kevin Cox. "There aren't enough cops on the street, and the city wastes money on a playground. As I recall, the equipment at Meade [Park] cost about $50,000, and it's great. The kids love it. What's costing so much? Is it fancy landscaping or custom-made and -designed equipment?"
In fact, the new McGuffey will be Charlottesville's first modern playground, complete with state-of-the-art play equipment with names like the "kuma," the "argo," and the "spica." In addition, a sunken basketball court, which will be moved away from the street, will double as a small stage, benches will serve as balance beams, and walkways become bike paths to secret gardens and art exhibits. To honor the site's history, raised play walls will follow the outline of a Victorian mansion that once stood on the site.
"Spending over half a million on McGuffey seems excessive," says preservation activist Steven Meeks. "While I like the idea of recognizing the past history of the site by marking the house location, I don't feel the other elements will withstand the test of time. Why not keep it simple?"
Meeks says that parks tend to be time capsules of the era in which they were built, something that gets lost with a new design. He also worries that such a fancy park might be expensive and hard to maintain over time.
"Look at the fountains on the Downtown Mall," says Meeks. "While they add ambiance to the Mall, it seems no one thought about the long term maintenance. I worry this will happen to McGuffey."
Even North Downtown Neighborhood Association president Collette Hall admits she was surprised when the city allocated so much for the McGuffey project. But she concedes that her neighbors' initiative may have helped. And Svetz defends the expenditure by pointing out that it's only "one of a multitude of projects we're doing."
Through the planning process, which he says was open to the public, "not one person objected to this project."
While Svetz sympathizes with those who are fond of the park at the top of Beck's Hill as it is, Svetz says the park is "not functional as a world class park" and needs to be "brought up to standard." He mentions the danger of the existing rock wall, the steps dropping down toward the street, and the proximity of the basketball court to the street.
"We do not have an agenda," says Svetz. "What we did was completely community driven in a fiscally responsible way." For example, Svetz points out that an architect will begin designing the Forest Hills park this summer, based on suggestions by over 150 people in that neighborhood.
In March, the City Planning Commission awarded the McGuffey Friends the "outstanding neighborhood effort" award for raising the money for the McGuffey Park renovation and shepherding it through the system.
The Hook got a taste of the group's forcefulness when they took issue with our coverage of their project. In a March 21 letter to the editor, Elvira Tate Hoskins and Kristen Suokko accused the Hook of "living up to its reputation of gratuitously trying to stir up controversy by placing a negative spin" on the McGuffey project. "Contrary to the sentiments expressed in your article," the two wrote, "community support for this much-needed renovation has been enormous."
However, as blogger George Loper's photo chronicle of the Free Speech Wall reveals, "community support" is not entirely unanimous. Around the same time the McGuffey Friends were receiving their award, someone took the time to write "Don't ruin McGuffey Park" on the wall [see photo]. In addition, Cox, Meeks, and others have questioned the idea of renovating the "delightful" little park, as the City's own website characterizes it, as well as the fiscal responsibility of spending so much on an amenity that benefits such a select demographic.
With such quibbling now moot, will the "delightful" little McGuffey Park be ruined? Or will it become a "world class" park to be envied?
"I'm not a resident of the city or that neighborhood, but I will visit the site out of curiosity," says Meeks. "I only hope that enough time and thought went into the design work so the park will stand the test of time and not become a monument to wasted money and some architect."
For such skeptics and those who like McGuffey Park as it is, Svetz offers a bold prediction. "I promise you that they will like the park in the future," he says, "more than they do now."
In March, one citizen expressed thie feelings about the McGuffey Park renovation on the Free Speech Wall.PHOTO COURTESY GEORGE LOPER