The pocket park on Church Street was never great civic space. So there have been no tears among Nashville’s urban designers since Metro Parks scraped it down to raw earth—except for the still-spouting fountain—late last month. But the future of the site between Sixth Avenue North and Capitol Boulevard has many urban watchers curious.
What’s next is “just a renovation,” with a budget of $22,400 for an open lawn, small bushes and plants, new benches and irrigation, says Metro parks director Roy Wilson. “There will be perimeter trees, but they won’t be the maples that attracted the birds,” says Wilson, alluding to the “critical issue” prompting the makeover. He offers photos of starling doo coating just about every stationary object in the pre-scraped park as evidence that the winged critters had made the space unpleasant for non-winged visitors. Moreover, the droppings are a health problem because they can harbor a fungus that causes histoplasmosis, a disease affecting the lungs.
Another factor in Wilson’s decision to start over: what witnesses called “rats as big as cats.” He says he’s also received some complaints about the homeless who hung out in the park but insists that the issue didn’t precipitate the bulldozing and won’t “guide us” in renovation. “I’m a parks professional, but I’m a human being too,” Wilson says. “Our goal is to make the park more sanitary and user-friendly for everybody.”
Ben Bahil, vice president of downtown’s Urban Residents Association, lives in the Bennie Dillon building on Church Street and works in the Nashville City Center at Sixth Avenue and Union Street, so he’s familiar with park conditions. Bahil agrees that the starlings were a problem but says that the behavior of some of the homeless frequenting the park—intoxication, public urination and defecation, bathing in the fountain, aggressive panhandling—also “made workers and residents uncomfortable spending time there. And there was drug dealing. Somebody living in the Cumberland actually filmed some from his balcony.” Bahil adds, “The Urban Residents Association wants the laws on the book [prohibiting such activity] enforced. And we’d like the new park to have police security cameras. We want a place that people would feel comfortable pushing a stroller through.”
Given the extreme denaturing of the park, for Wilson to call the project a “renovation” recalls the American major in 1968 Vietnam who famously told a reporter, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” But in the case of this park, destruction could begin the path to salvation.
Church Street Park failed because it was designed to. Not deliberately, of course. But the structure discouraged civic behavior. The park was geared to individual use and not collective gathering. It was all circulation and offered very little space—or reason—to pause there.
The site is bordered by sidewalks on three sides, a ready-made pedestrian system. Yet the design featured a maze of brick paths. There was too much landscaping—bushes and flowers—and not enough open space. The fountain was—and is—too small, a glorified drinking fountain that cannot provide sufficient sibilance to soften street noise. And placing the fountain smack in the middle, rather than against the wall to the north, ate up central space for people.
The paths were relatively narrow—6 feet wide—bordered by benches and raised planters, causing users to sit in a line like pigeons on a wire. Such a layout hindered conversation and forced those strolling through to “walk the line” like cadets in review. There were no areas—or movable furniture—for friends to pull up chairs around a table and have some face-to-face over brown bags. The raised planters also served to block sightlines from the street and concealed uncivil actions—such as drug dealing. The result was a space for those who had no better place to go.
To understand how we got to park as ghetto, a little history: the Church Street Master Plan, a 1996 script for kick-starting Church Street redevelopment, suggested the park location. It was a time of desperation. Church Street Centre, the downtown shopping mall on the site now occupied by the library, was faltering. The last remaining department store had closed. Vacant storefronts and surface parking were endemic.
“We felt we had to have a park,” recalls Seab Tuck, a member of the master plan team. “Everyone was complaining that there was no green space downtown except for Riverfront Park. The idea was to encourage residential development—there was almost none downtown at that time.”
Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) paid $1 million for the land and close to another half-million to demolish the two buildings on the site and for design and construction. Rather than request proposals from a variety of landscape architects, MDHA opted to give the design job to HNTB, a firm that had a standing contract with Metro to do relatively low-budget projects.
“We wanted to get something out of the ground as soon as possible,” then-MDHA executive director Gerald Nicely explained at the time. The design team was headed by a civil engineer whose specialty was bridges and highways. When HNTB’s plan was unveiled, the Scene recommended putting it “in the landfill” and starting over. A decade later, that’s exactly what the city’s doing.
Design can manage, but not solve, the issue of the homeless. And it’s important to acknowledge that those without a room of their own are merely being logical when they congregate near the public library, which is warm in winter, cool in summer, has clean rest rooms and offers free reading material.
“The city had legitimate public health concerns” in bulldozing the park, says Matt Leber, coordinator of the Nashville Homeless Power Project. But he criticizes city officials for a lack of “engagement with the homeless users” before removing “a place for people to get some shade.” Leber says he hopes that the new design for the park “takes the entire public into account. Any place that’s universally used, whether it’s a clinic or a park, has better services for all and that’s good for poor people.”
So how to design for all citizens who agree to mind their manners? For starters, rather than rushing to get another “something out of the ground as soon as possible,” Metro parks should look carefully at successful examples of small urban parks. One of the most famous is Manhattan’s Paley Park. It’s enclosed on three sides by buildings, and a wall of water gushes down the rear side. This water wall is Paley Park’s one expensive feature. Otherwise, it consists of little more than shade trees, stone pavers and lots of movable chairs and tables. It’s an outdoor living room that works for 100—or for two.
Another resource Wilson might tap is the Nashville Street Life Project. This group, composed of about a dozen urban residents, business owners, students, architects and landscape architects, is dedicated to what it calls “place making” and has researched the principles of good urban spaces. Member Randy Morgan says they’ve found that all successful public spaces have flexible design, so that the space can be used in a variety of ways. And programming—everything from newsstands and food vendors to concerts and book discussions—is also key. They’ve also found that in spaces with more non-homeless users, “some homeless can blend into the crowd” and those who are into “drinking and urinating” won’t hang out “because they want to congregate among themselves.”
The Street Life group has spent a year-and-a-half studying why Church Street Park has not succeeded and how it could. “Given the location, with the library and lots of eating places nearby, and the number of residents in the area, that park could and should be the heart of the community,” Morgan says. Members conducted surveys on the park’s pros and cons as well as behavioral mapping—photos and logs—of how people actually used the park. They staged a public visioning session to determine what people wanted to do there and who was interested in working together to make it happen.
Wilson says he recently met with representatives of the Street Life project, “got a synopsis of what they’re attempting and I liked what I saw. But they got a step ahead in planning for the park without going through the Parks Board.” When asked if he intends any other form of community outreach in planning for the park, Wilson says that will happen “when we finish the park and we start to program it.”
The problem is that programming is dependent on design, as the history of Church Street Park so glaringly demonstrates. That’s because design is not merely a matter of aesthetics, but provides a structure for human behavior. Last time around we got picturesque horticulture, bad urbanism and another example of one-step-forward, one-step-back initiatives that have plagued so much downtown development. This time, let’s just take one small, sadder-but-wiser step forward.