ONARCHITECTURE- Worth weeping for? McGuffey trees fall for 'water play wall'

Site superintendent Steve Long presides over the renovation of McGuffey Park, which will include a round basketball court and a "weeping" water wall.

While a group calling itself the "Friends of McGuffey Park" is largely responsible for its new $679,000 renovation, having privately raised more than $200,000 for the project and winning praise from City planners for its efforts, an at least temporarily unfriendly excavation of the park began two weeks ago.


Indeed, what was once a shade-filled park is now almost entirely exposed, especially on the High Street side, where the tree-lined bank was completely cleared. In addition, all the play equipment was removed (including the signature merry-go-round) and the sidewalks cut up or crushed.

Although the new design calls for 35 new trees and plantings, the extent of the excavation has jolted some viewers. "Isn't this terrible!" exclaimed a woman invited onto the site May 30 to pick up some concrete shards for a home improvement project, as a chain-saw nearby felled one of the old maples.

According to the minutes of a 2006 Board of Architectural Review meeting, only three trees along Second Street were scheduled for removal: a maple, a sweet gum, and a hackberry that the City's arborist had deemed unhealthy. Somewhere along the line, the number of trees slated for extinction quadrupled. A fact sheet from Siteworks, the firm designing the park, lists five trees deemed unhealthy by the City arborist and another five removed due to "design constraints." In addition, three more substantial trees along High Street were removed.  

Preservation activist Steven Meeks says he was "shocked" to see that so many trees cut down. "It's a shame that the designers did not try to incorporate as many of the older trees as possible with a plan to phase in newer ones over time," he says. 

 The McGuffey Park renovation has already been controversial, with local park-watchers questioning such a large expenditure on such a small facility, one that appeared to violate the old maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Although Parks and Rec director Mike Svetz says the planning process was always open to the public, during which "not one person" objected, it appears the sound of chain saws and falling trees may have finally sparked concern.

For instance, one long-time resident wondered if the parking issue had ever been properly addressed. Presumably, the "world class" park will attract visitors, but no additional parking spaces have been added nearby. As the resident pointed out, it's already difficult enough to find a parking space in the area. "The park will not be accessible to a lot of people," she complained. 

Of course, Svetz has already responded to questions of accountability, pointing out that the project was "completely community driven in a fiscally responsible way," and even promising critics they will like the new park, when it's completed, better than the old one.

But what will the new park look like?

For videos and a cool slide show of the early stages of the renovation, plus images of the new designer play equipment, go to thehook.net.

Whatever the merits of the design or the advisability of an overhaul, one thing everyone can agree on is that the site superintendent brings some heavy-duty experience. Steve Long of Glen Allen-based Messer construction also supervised the landscapes and hardscapes at the recently unveiled $104.5 million renovation of the State Capitol.

Early plans for McGuffey floated the idea of using the outline of a Victorian mansion that once stood on the site to create play walls, to be "visible reminders of the site's history and cultural value." While the site plan Long unfurled for us didn't seem to show a house outline, Jordan Phemister of Siteworks says that the four play walls will "closely align" with the foundation of the old mansion. The walls, Phemister says, will be made of recycled granite curbing that was sitting unused in the City Yard. She also says the existing rock wall along Second Street will be preserved. 

A closer look at the drawings show a round basketball court– yes, round!– a sand area of equal size, assorted play equipment, a picnic area, and even a "water wall" in the center of the park.

In addition, a stone-dust path will circle the park, and a path of recycled concrete will wind through the trees. Hemming all this in are two massive retaining walls on the High and Second Street sides, with three entrances on the corner of High and Second and on Jefferson Street. 

Siteworks' fact sheet also lists ten new pieces of designer play equipment, including three pogo-stick like "Spicas," a yellow plunger-like "Spinner Bowl," and a rotating "Nest" to replace the merry-go-round. Traditional slides and swing-sets will also be part of the mix. According to the manufacturer's specs, all three Spicas move in different ways, and a child must experiment in order to "master its rotations." 

Despite objections from at least one BAR member, who felt it wasn't appropriate for a public park, there will also be a "mosaic" donor wall adjacent to the picnic area on the High Street side of the park. According to Siteworks, they are in discussions with an artist who will engage local school children in the donor wall's design and installation. 

Apparently, the water wall was added late in the design process, as the McGuffey Friends awaited funding, but it may be the most unusual addition to the park.

Phemister says the "water play wall" will have a recirculating system that can be turned on with the push of a button, which, for five-minute intervals, will make the water flow through the joints in the recycled granite wall and collect in a basin.

 According to Phemister, "The source of water will be contained within the wall and be mostly hidden from view, creating a 'weeping' effect."

Three new "Spicas" will adorn the new McGuffey Park.