"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

October 23, 2007

Pulaski Park Redesign Committee Holds Second Meeting, Struggles To Build Community

The next scheduled meeting is November 20, Tuesday evening at 5pm, in City Council Chambers.

A few days after this last meeting, two comments via email from two committee members discussed the proposed design plans for Pulaski Park that were presented at this meeting. They are included below.

Last Tuesday evening at 5pm in the City Council Chambers, the second meeting of the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee was held. You can view the minutes of the meeting here. The turnout was small, maybe 12-15 people attended, a noticeably smaller group then attended the first meeting. As far as I could tell, there was very little outreach made by the committee to reach the greater public, and the local media was largely absent of any recent press covering the issue.

This is potentially one the most important developments in the recent history of Northampton, MA; the committee, and the press, need to get on board with the outreach. I have been very impressed with the concerns and questions some members of the committee have been voicing during these meetings, and I know that many of them have expertise in areas that will be valuable to this process. I want to note that I am heartened by the efforts many have made thus far, as it is clear to me that many involved strongly believe in the opportunity presented here, not only to redesign Pulaski Park in an exemplary way, but also in building community.

But let's be clear here, redesigning Pulaski Park, downtown Northampton's downtrodden and unused town square, critical to equality and democracy in Northampton MA, without the input of the greater public, will have fallen short of building community and democracy. That is the real opportunity here, and it simply is not enough to invite people to the meeting.

If the intent here is to create public space for public use with the input of the public, the public must attend these meetings, and if they don't, I would recommend waiting until they do. We will wait for you to bring them there. There are at least a few people I know of on that committee who have the desire and interest in helping this process be as open and inclusive as it can be, and I thank them for their efforts thus far. For the rest of you who might just be coasting by, I would encourage you to seize the opportunity to associate yourself with greatness. It is your role as the chosen leaders that will have great influence on this process.

I for one, really appreciate the communication that has been taking place online, and would like to see that kind of outreach and communication happen on a much broader scale. Frankly though, I don't want to see the plans being developed, the infrastructure and layout being discussed, until a complete representation of the community is represented and actively participating. These meeting are a one shot deal. They won't happen every week of every month. Four meetings only, and two have already taken place with only 25 or so individual members of the public present. For those members of the committee who might need a reminder, this is about public service. You can't tell the public what they want, you need to include them in the process. If they are not around, maybe you should go find them? There not hard to find, they are all those people walking around on Main St, in church, at school, working in the restaurants, etc...I alone brought a dozen or so of these elusive public citizens to the first meeting, simply by speaking to people on Main St. It is clear that people are interested in this project, please engage them and personally invite them to participate. With 20 or so committee members, you'd think each could at least bring a few people each, and hold a meeting with 50+ people present. Right? I mean, is that too much to ask?

Nancy Dening, who is volunteering her services as a landscape architect to help with the schematic redesign of Pulaski Park, produced two sets of plans, which you can view here and here in PDF format, hosted at the Pulaski Park Google Group. The first plans, with a large oval green in the middle, [pdf] make allotments for a viewing area for films to be shown on the wall of the Academy, which hopefully will be an element incorporated into any redesign of the park. The plans also do a great job of minimizing the presence of the Hotel and it's entrance on the park. Additionally, these plans makes room for an open area with seating on the east side of the park, near the hotel. There are designs for seating built into the bottom section of the oval lawn, with a large open space which could be utilized for performance, or any such activities that now take place on the open cement area around the large spruce tree which is presently the focal point of the current park.

The second design shown, [pdf] has a large rectangular grass area as the central feature of the park, with a seating and tables set along the area of Memorial Hall, and a large covered walkway stretching the length of the park in the bottom east side. It was suggested that this lightly built and see through structure could act as an area to display artwork in nicer weather, creating an art walk in the park. Both of these plans, it was mentioned, are just ideas, and the final results will be adapted and modified if necessary.

Nancy Dening went through a presentation of the positives and negatives of the park and also discussed the history of the park, displaying historic photographs juxtaposed with current photographs taken from the same angle. This part was very informative, displaying for instance the clear sight line once available in the park to the beautiful roof of the round house building. Asked if the material and notes used during the presentation would be made available online, Nancy stated that it will. It is not online as of yet, but I imagine it will appear on Nancy's site, or the Pulaski Park Google Group, soon.

As Nancy spoke of the positives of the park, I took note of the reference to the current integration of multiple modes of transportation, i.e. the bus stop and bike racks currently in the park on it's Main St. side. It was mentioned that a taxi stand might be something to look into adding there.

During the slide that made note of the negatives of the park, Nancy went over each negative aspect individually, notably skipping over one 'negative use' noted on the screen. Chris Kennedy, a member of the Historical Commission who is sitting on the Pulaski Park redesign Committee, interrupted Nancy.

"You skipped over one," he said. "'Use by Vagrants.'"

Up there on the screen, listed as a negative of Pulaski Park, was the use of the park by vagrants. Chris continued, "By vagrants you mean homeless people?" Vagrants, by definition, describe people without domiciles. Their offenses are described in law by vagrancy, which refers to offenses of people without home or means of support who are able to work.

Nancy noted that at the last meeting, the presence of vagrants in the park was something many people expressed concern with. Unless that concern was expressed privately, and it very well may have been, I do not recall this concern being mentioned at the last meeting. Multiple people spoke up at this point to note that what they recall being mentioned at the previous meeting was a concern over drug use and a general sense of lack of safety at night, and made pains to note they did not have homeless people in mind specifically. Nancy duly noted this, and offered to strike the reference of vagrants from this list.

After this presentation, committee members made comments about their thoughts and concern. Andrew Crystal, on the Committee representing the Academy of Music as President of the Academy's board, expressed his concern with the design of the plans presented, as they seem to obstruct the loading dock and parking area of the Academy. Later on that evening after the meeting ended, I had a discussion with a city official about Article 97 of the MA State Constitution in regards to the planned removal of the back staircase of Pulaski Park, which I have noted here before, some have told me triggers Article 97. (Article 97 states that any changes to a park that constitute a 'change of use' of transfer of ownership require 2/3rd approval of the state legislature) During this discussion, I asked this city official what his opinion of Article 97 was in reference to the Pulaski Park redesign. He noted some examples where the City has indeed had to go before the legislature for approval, specifically mentioning when the New South St. apartments were built, as they encroached onto Pulaski Park by ten feet. It was his opinion that the current redesign of Pulaski Park did not need such approval, though it is worth mentioning that other professionals in this field have stated otherwise. It was then that he gave an example of what might need approval, and referenced the parking of cars on Pulaski Park by people using or associated with the Academy. He noted that is something that could be argued is a 'change of use' that would not be allowed under Article 97. It was noted however, that allegedly the City is not in possession of any paperwork noting the property lines of the Academy of Music, which clouds the issue of the Academy's use of land at the back of it's building for parking. Is that really park land, or is it land on the Academy's deed? Without being able to define the property lines, it is a grey area, and hard to assert affirmatively that the parking of cars behind the Academy is in violation of Article 97. I wonder if one wanted to find an answer to this, where one might find paperwork that defines the property lines of the park and the Academy?

After the committee members spoke and offered their thoughts and comments, the audience spoke, and people expressed their own concerns and suggestions. You can read those comments and more here in the minutes that have been posted online.

Below is the email mentioned at top discussing the plans and suggested revisions that Rosa Ibarra, a member of the committee as a resident of the New South St. apartments, sent to the email list that is open to anyone who wants to be a part of the discussion. The email offers many thoughtful and intriquing revisions to the plans shown at the meeting. Send an email to Bob Reckman at bobreckmanATaolDOTcom if you would like to be included on this email list.

Rosa's email said,

Dear Nancy,

Since it’s easier for me to explain with images, I took the liberty to draw and modify your nice drafts. [ED.: Here is her drawing] These are some of my thoughts:

Maybe a way to keep the "quirkiness" of the park would be NOT to make it symmetrical.

See how I drifted the open area slightly to the right. The entrance to the park from Main St would remain pretty much where it is now.

I am not personally fond of the Christmas tree. I prefer large trees that offer shade to rest underneath. But I understand what it the this tree symbolizes. I see that in times of so much change and construction in Northampton, it may be important to keep some continuity of the past. When we rotate the grassy area, the tree falls nicely on it, which will be fun to skate around it in the winter.

Adding an island with grass and trees –just as you suggested in the rectangular drawing- will provide an area of shade for those looking to relax or picnic on a hot day. A small sidewalk will allow for the short cut to the bus stop.

We should keep the wall of the Academy clear for summer evening movies.

The idea of using the outside of Memorial Hall with tables and chairs is good. Electric outlets to use laptops will be a plus. A nice shady area to sit and work will be welcomed in the summer.

Inside Memorial Hall where the Council of Aging was, the chamber of commerce could have a tourist information desk; there could be a space to exhibit crafts/art, temporary storage for performers, a water fountain and public restrooms.

The playground needs large trees for shade and should be open to the rest of the park so parents and children can enjoy the activities happening next to them.

With this design we are leaving enough concrete space for dancers, hoola-hoopers and strollers. At the same time creating different interesting spaces for gathering in the park.

Nancy, I want to thank you for your time and professional expertise. I’m enjoying the meetings very much.

Below is the response from Bob Reckman, Chair of the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee.
Dear Rosa:

Thanks for taking the time to write and sketch your suggestions for Pulaski Park. My responses are as follows:

--Overall, I like the formal symmetry of Nancy's drawing. I understand that it will be quirkier if we rotate the lawn slightly, but I think the symmetry works better, in part because the park is so small and oddly shaped. Having buildings on 3 sides also makes symmetry more appealing to me. I did not think that would be the case when we started, but I have changed my mind.

--While I appreciate your desire to accommodate those who want to retain the "holiday tree," it may be hard to grow grass around it and even harder to skate around it. I know that people like to gather around it when it is lit for the holidays which will be hard on the lawn, even in winter. Keeping it will also constrain what we can do with the elevation of the ground in the Park. I do like the idea of a sleeve in the pavement that could accommodate a cut tree or other seasonal additions to Pulaski Park.

--I agree with the idea of using the side of the Academy of Music as a screen for movies in the Park.

--I agree that table and chairs outside of Memorial Hall would be excellent. I do not know if the City will allow us to use any part of the interior of Memorial Hall. I have e-mailed the Mayor and asked if we might be able to have public restrooms in it which would only be accessible from the Park and would not allow people to get into the rest of the building. We would have to figure out a way to get them locked at night. If more of Memorial Hall is available to use as you suggest that would be great. We might be able to get power from Memorial Hall for laptops the people could use at the tables. We should certainly have a drinking fountain.

--I also agree with your suggestions about shade trees for the playground area and good sight lines to the rest of the park.

I hope that other members of the committee with also weigh in with their comments and suggestions in the next few days. I know that they help stimulate my thinking and that Nancy appreciates them as well.

Bob Reckman
You can find the minutes from both meetings at the Pulaski Park Google Group, in addition to much more. Anyone is welcome to and can join the group, and may add any information they feel is relevant.

More info and press accounts below.
Previous notes:
Possible funding sources for the park
Things we dislike about the park
Uses of Pulaski Park
Things we want in the future park

News Accounts:
Where the Park Ends
Committee to oversee park fixup
Pulaski Park: The heartbeat of the city
Mayor Higgins discusses Pulaski Park, "I had nothing to do with that Committee"
Pulaski Park design proposals at Northampton Redoubt, with great discussion in the comments
Park committee has ideas, needs funds
Patrick hopes to heal 'failing park system' with new appointees
Northamptonist on Pulaski Park

NorthamptonMa.gov/Pulaski Park
Trust for Public Land
Parks succeed when people come first
Top Ten reasons parks are important
Why parks are important
Parks for livable cities
The world's best and worst parks
Pulaski Park MySpace Page

LABELS: pulaski park redesign, public space, public policy, community building, downtown, placemaking