Playing a-ground: When architects tackle a park

If all goes according to plan, tiny McGuffey Park– on the corner of High and Second Street NW– is poised to become Charlottesville's first postmodern playground, a kind of "living sculpture," replete with design "footprints" of a Victorian mansion and kiddie equipment named "the Kuma," "the Argo," and "the Spica."

So what's the deal? Will the Spica– which looks like a pogo-stick designed by Salvador Dali– be more fun than the existing paint-chipped merry-go-round? Will architecting the park really make it a better place for kids to play? Or is this just another way for grown-ups to show off?

"It's not so much about changing the park, but about enhancing what's already there," says Pete O'Shea, lead architect for the project. Like his design (with Robert Winstead) for the under-construction First Amendment monument downtown, O'Shea's vision for this .65-acre space is pretty ambitious.

"This was such a bubble-up project," says Katie Swenson, a key backer of the park's facelift. "Input, suggestions, and support just bubbled up from the whole community." Adopting "play" as a central theme, O'Shea plans to incorporate as much as possible from the collaboration.

O'Shea has envisioned a park with multiple layers and functions. As Swenson points out, "Everything needs to multi-task in a park this size."

For example, a sunken basketball court doubles as a small stage, low benches serve as balance beams, and walkways are bicycle paths as well as routes to secret gardens and art exhibits.

In addition, O'Shea wants to include elements that reveal the history of the site. These include raised play walls that shadow the foundation of a Victorian mansion that once occupied the site. "I want the entire park to be a place to 'play' depending on how you move through the space," says O'Shea.

He emphasizes that how adults sit and watch children play should be built into the design, and he talks about artists from the McGuffey Art Center using the park as a creative space. "Why can't it be more than just a park?" he asks. "Hopefully, it will be a place that's kind of a sculpture in its own right."

"It all started with three moms in the park watching our kids play and saying 'What can we do?'" says North Downtowner Elvira Hoskins, who– along with fellow moms Swenson and Kristen Suokko– founded Friends of McGuffey Park.

Things got moving in May 2004 when the North Downtown Neighborhood Association was considering how to spend its $60,000 Federal Block Grant. According to Hoskins, Swenson stood up and gave an "awesome" speech about not just thinking about getting your own sidewalk fixed, but about the improvement of the neighborhood as a whole. The neighborhood association voted to put the entire $60,000 toward renovating McGuffey Park.

Of course, not everyone shares that enthusiasm for the project. North Downtown resident Francis Walton, 62, voted no. "I thought there were better uses for the money," says Walton, citing under-grounding utilities as a way to improve the aesthetics and general maintenance of the neighborhood.

"I think it's generational," Walton says, referring to the new crop of Downtown homeowners who spearheaded the Park Street traffic-calming project and who now want to renovate the park. Walton finds it hard to imagine that long-time residents of North Downtown such as herself would want such "grand" projects.

"But, of course," Walton concedes, "I've always listened to a different drummer."

So exactly how much money is at stake? According to Swenson and Suokko, the park renovation will cost somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000. Between $250,000 and $300,000 of that will need to come from private fundraising efforts, they say. Still, that's $250,000 to $350,000 the City is being asked to provide.

Steven B. Murphy, 47, another long-time North Downtown resident is also less than enthusiastic. "There's been such an emphasis in this town to build things and make noise," says Murphy. "What about keeping the park as it is and honoring a little peace and quiet?" When told about the basketball court/stage idea, Murphy sounds weary. "Stage? I hope there's no noise," he says. "Mimes only."

Murphy worries about additional traffic the park might generate and, like Walton, wonders if the money could be better spent. "Why not build a new, fancy park for poor people?" quips Murphy.

None of these concerns seem to have given the McGuffey Friends pause. Following the May 2004 vote, the Friends began to solicit input from the community via a postcard campaign, a suggestion box at the park, an e-mail address, and special events. With a $5,000 donation from across-the-street Christ Episcopal Church, and an addition $5,000 from another private source, the McGuffey Friends invited O'Shea on board to prepare preliminary designs.

In September 2004, the Charlottesville Community Design Center, which Swenson directs, held a workshop in conjunction with the UVA School of Landscape Architecture that brought neighborhood children and adults together with landscape architecture students to create innovative design ideas. Over 150 people showed up for the event. Children drew colorful drawings of the new park they imagined, and adults gave practical suggestions and told stories about their park experiences.

The last time that many people gathered for a McGuffey Park event was in the 1970s amid the plans to build the McGuffey condos on the site. According to Swenson, neighborhood residents showed up en masse to squelch the expansion plans.

In October 2004, the McGuffey Friends held their first advisory board meeting, at which representatives from the neighborhood, the city, nearby churches, schools, and the art center gathered to discuss the renovation.

"At the first board meeting it was really amazing," says Hoskins. "...people really chose the most ambitious design. And I think it had a lot to do with Mike Svetz. He was fabulous."

Svetz– Charlottesville's Parks & Recreation Director– laughs and dismisses the praise. "I'm just doing my job," he says. According to Svetz, the McGuffey Friends still have a few more hoops to jump through (and Spicas to ride on?) before their vision becomes a reality.

The City's Capital Improvement Committee has already met to review the project; from there it goes to the Planning Commission on November 29. Eventually, City Council will vote on whether to approve the quarter million-plus dollars for the project.

"I do hope we have the chance to renovate McGuffey Park," says Svetz, "because then it will become a great model for other neighborhood projects."

Ironically, it's landscape architect O'Shea, the man who imagines the park as a kind of "living sculpture," who sounds a practical note. "The next stage is to start fundraising," he says. If the Friends of McGuffey can do that successfully, O'Shea emphasizes, then the park has a real chance of being built.

A child and his Spica

The existing McGuffey Park

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