Throughout the last 40 years, BR&P has had the pleasure of working on a multitude of interesting projects. One that stands out is the restoration and modernization of Park Central Square in Springfield, MO. The Square has a storied history, from a booming center for business to decline to rebirth. It’s also a story about a world-renowned landscape architecture firm recreating the Square followed by designs that took it further and further from its design intentions. This month we follow the story of the Square finally being restored back to its former mid-century modern glory.
The Creation of Park Central Square:
Lawrence Halprin & Associates
In 1969, the Downtown Springfield Association agreed to finance improvement efforts for the Public Square, which had been in decline for many years. That same year, the federal government provided $1 million in grant money. That, along with $500,000 in pledges by the Downtown Springfield Association, allowed the Public Square to be renamed to Park Central Square. The DSA set out to find a design firm that could assist in the improvement efforts.
The DSA hired Lawrence Halprin and Associates, a well-known landscape architecture firm that had a reputation for innovative design. The goal was to develop the Square as a traffic-free pedestrian area. Halprin wanted to extend the vehicle-free zone to the edges of downtown as well. There would be landscape spaces that would be open to the air or have some sort of cover over it. “Conceptually, you could compare it to a suburban shopping mall,” explains Tim Rosenbury, BR&P Architect and Partner.
The Square was completed in the early 1970’s, a period when outdoor shopping malls were growing in popularity and public spaces were becoming cultural centers that often incorporated large-scale art. The space was intended to be, in Halprin’s words, “an active space for public assembly, devoted to pedestrians and their needs and comforts.”
While the Halprin firm did the initial planning and the design of Park Central Square, the city went a different direction in closing off the streets. Another design firm was responsible for that. “The approach that the successor designers took was not consistent with what Halprin had proposed, and things no longer functioned the same way. It made the Square more isolated from the perimeter,” says Tim. Downtown Springfield also went into decline, as people’s shopping patterns changed. Most downtown-based retailers moved or opened second locations in the newly opened Battlefield Mall.
The Square Reborn
In 2006, the city of Springfield had federal funds available for a public gathering place. By then, the Square had fallen into disrepair. Over its life, the power of Halprin and Associates’ design was diminished due to deferred maintenance and numerous unfortunate “improvements.” “Each change took it further and further away from the original intention. Each transformation, although it was done with good intentions, damaged the functionality and image of the Square,” Tim explains.
The city issued to design firms a request for qualifications. BR&P put together a team that included Project for Public Spaces as a consultant. “PPS is a design consultancy and think tank about how public spaces work. They have a track record of being able to analyze and help designers reinvigorate public spaces.” Tim adds. The project was awarded to BR&P with the assignment to first analyze what went wrong, and to make recommendations on how to make it right.
A Redesign to a Restoration
BR&P participated in community focus groups and led design workshops. After the completion of community input, a redesign was proposed. The initial design included preserving some of the major elements including the fountain. Each change intended to increase functionality, livability and sense of place in the Square.
Word spread of the impending changes to Park Central Square, and several local and national interest groups emerged in opposition to changing Halprin and Associates’ work. “Because it was designed by Halprin’s firm, which had quite a bit of fame, the Square itself was seen by a number of landscape architecture enthusiasts as historically significant,” says Tim. Those groups nominated Park Central Square to the National Register of Historic Places, and because the project was to be funded with federal dollars, what was originally intended as a redesign, turned into a restoration.
BR&P’s efforts changed to restoring and re-invigorating Halprin and Associates’ square – a trip to the Halprin archives in Philadelphia was a significant part of the research – and then making design changes, only when necessary and consistent with that intent. “Our concept was to restore the Square as an artifact, but whenever it was feasible and allowable, under the review of the State Historic Preservation Office, we made improvements that increased accessibility, increased functionality and the overall contribution to downtown.”
Pedestrians First, Vehicles Second:
The Square needed to be opened back up. “We eliminated curbs altogether. The idea was trying to merge pedestrians and vehicles in the same space. We said this is a pedestrian-dominant, vehicle-secondary space,” says Tim. This reconnected the interior with the perimeter of the Square and made it easier for people to move across from one place to another.
Other needs that were met included stabilized paving, supportive bedding for new trees (planted according to Halprin and Associates’ original plans), new lighting, jets and mechanical components in the fountain controlled by a state-of-the-art computer system, underground vault with controls for the fountain, and sound and lighting systems to animate Park Central Square.
“This is a real test for a designer, to take someone else’s ideas and to learn about them enough that you have an appreciation for them.” Tim continues, “What we decided to do was to accept Halprin’s ideas and understand why it was done the way it was done. The research we did really helped to say now we understand, and now we know how we can come in and make changes that are truly sympathetic to what this place was intended to be.”
A Lasting Impact:
It’s safe to say that the renovation of Park Central Square has had a big impact on the downtown Springfield area. “By the city making an investment in the Square, it showed the private sector that there is a willingness for the city to take care of what is public,” says Tim. The iconic Heer’s building was renovated into apartments and commercial space, and other businesses around the Square have also opened.
The DSA has also taken the lead on programming activities in the Square. Some are conventional, such as weekend festivals like the upcoming Route 66 Festival or musicians in the pavilion for First Friday Art Walk. Others are out of the ordinary including yoga or wiffleball games. Tim says, “People are starting to get more inventive with the Square, and part of that is that Park Central Square is a lot more welcoming.”
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