Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Greene Square formerly known as Park

OPN Architects Inc.'s rendering of the planned Greene Square
(swiped by me from thegazette.com)
Things have taken a strange and alarming turn downtown. Or am I being melodramatic? The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported last week that the Parks and Recreation Department have released revised plans for Greene Square Park that are radically different from what had been earlier proposed. Granted that it's only one square block of a mid-sized American city, but I think the change in plans says a lot about the city's vision for its downtown. I'm not liking what I'm seeing.

There is no question that Greene Square Park is currently underutilized, as indeed is the case for the downtown area writ large. Back in the day, it was called Washington Square, and it was the central park in town, the square bounded by the train station, the high school, the library and First Presbyterian Church. (See George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, Then and Now: Cedar Rapids (Charleston SC: Arcadia, 2003, p. 96.) As the town moved outward so did these facilities (except the train station, which was torn down in 1961, and the church which remains). The park lost its importance, drawing crowds for occasional concerts and, in recent years, farmers' markets, but being for the most part empty.

Efforts to revive downtown began in earnest as soon as the 2008 floodwaters receded. A new public library opened across the street from the park in 2013, and the art museum that occupies the original library space got a spiffy facelift. Away from the park, downtown has seen new and rebuilt offices, restaurants and entertainment venues. Ambitious plans to develop the sort-of-adjacent New Bohemia neighborhood have come to fruition, while a similarly ambitious plan for the Medical Quarter are taking shape. No less a luminary than Jeff Speck has been called in to improve downtown walkability.

But walkability requires more than just sidewalks, bike lanes and four-way stops. It requires places to walk to... and that requires people. By that, I mean a lot more people than can currently be found downtown. The next step in becoming a sustainable, walkable city with "vibe" requires round-the-clock residents. As of now, downtown Cedar Rapids is mainly for Monday-Friday daytime office work and some evening entertainment. A few condominiums have been built downtown to appeal to young people who want to be in the center of this action, but there are few if any housing options for families. Nor, if there were, are there facilities nearby to support them: schools (except for McKinley Middle School), grocery and hardware stores, or parks.

The Greene Square plan as of August was to add a children's play area. This would be attractive to visitors to the public library and art museum, but essential to families with children living downtown. As such it was essential to the transformation of Cedar Rapids from a city that requires a car to one that offered a compact urban alternative.

The children's play area could actually still be in the new plan, though I doubt it. I'm uncertain because the Gazette included two architects' graphics that are illuminating but not complete, and if the complete plan is on the city website I sure can't find it. The main impression I get from the architects' renderings in the Gazette  is gaudily pretentious, like Versailles on the Cedar.

Given my lack of artistic taste, we might allow that the sculptures and other gee-gaws in the drawing above are nice to look at. But, as Jane Jacobs famously said, "A city cannot be a work of art" (The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Vintage (1961) 1992], p. 372). A city needs life, which means people. The new design has no use for people other than as amazed spectators, or at most passers-through from the art museum to the library. Tellingly, the space is now to be called "Greene Square" not "Greene Square Park." The plan doesn't even include rest rooms.

What this says to me is that we in Cedar Rapids expect our downtown to be a showplace, for people to visit (particularly those who can afford an upscale restaurant and an expensive concert) but not to stay. To get home from downtown you'll need to drive your car out to your ranch walkout in a suburban development. (No problem, because gas is currently under $3 a gallon in town, which means it is guaranteed to remain under $3 a gallon for the rest of time.) Maybe you'll be living in the suburban area west of town that's sure to develop once we finish our $250 million interstate connector. If, on the other hand, you're interested in sustainable urban living, you maybe should check out St. Paul or Kansas City.

SOURCES

For the early version of Greene Square Park development, see Cindy Hadish, "Greene Square Park Moving into the Future in Downtown Cedar Rapids with New Design; Plan Retains Some Historical Elements," Homegrown Iowan, 28 August 2014, http://homegrowniowan.com/greene-square-park-moving-into-the-future-in-downtown-cedar-rapids-with-new-design-plan-retains-some-historical-elements/

For the latest version of Greene Square, see Rick Smith, "It's Greene Square, Not a Park," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 16 October 2014, 1A, 11A, http://thegazette.com/subject/news/its-greene-square-not-a-park-20141016#media-well-container

2 comments:

  1. Are you sure you are clear to the vision being presented in this plan? It sure look to me as if they are designing a park to be used by a business crowd that will walk during lunch hour and not need bathrooms or children's play grounds. Maybe the intent is to present a more professional image for that area? Maybe instead of trying to attract families to live downtown they want more professional businesses there? I would agree with your assessment but can't side with you about the merits of the plan without knowing the vision of those that asked for the rendering to be done.

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  2. Bill, you've discovered my hidden agenda! I'm hoping that if I'm obnoxious enough someone will post the plan. I do have an attachment for downtown residential areas that may not bear scrutiny.

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