Public Trashes Pulaski Park Plan
By Edward Shanahan
You could hardly blame members of the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee for rushing headlong out the door of the Municipal Building the other night after a rancorous meeting, which ended in the meltdown of the four- month process to reconfigure the downtown city park.
They had heard more than enough withering criticism from some 40 citizens unhappy with the latest design scheme or even with the need to tinker with the current park layout.
As they hurried out the door seeking cover, committee members could still hear Paige Bridgens of the Tree Stewards shouting at Bob Reckman, chairman of the Board of Public Works, “you are controlling, you are controlling” after he terminated the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.
In the end, Reckman had declared that after four public hearings that phase of the process was over and the evolving plan would be kicked back to the Board of Public Works, which has jurisdiction over the park. The board would try to figure out what to do next, he said.
Members of the Redesign Committee went out of their way to say they liked aspects of the second version of the redesign as presented to them, but also seemed relieved that their official role had ended.
It was members Kenneth Jodrie, who serves on the planning board, and City Councilor David Narkewicz, who finally found a way to get the committee off a very uncomfortable hook.
“I think we should say that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do and it doesn’t satisfy everyone,” said Jodrie. “We should close this out; there won’t be more satisfaction a month from now. We have a concept, a good concept.” Let the Board of Public works take it from here, he argued.
Narkewicz said that is was now up the BPW to “to take a great starting concept in whatever direction we need.” The committee hearings produced a “very substantial public record,” he said, which the BPW can consider as it looks at costs and fund-raising needs. Others also might still come forward with new design ideas, he suggested. “I don’t think we’ve failed, if we don’t all agree on this.”
Reckman said the board would resume its discussion of the plan at its meeting next month.
The earlier anger directed at Reckman, and the committee, was not merely about aesthetics, or saving trees, or the design process, it seemed to revolve around politics, mistrust, and a lack of understanding about why there was such a rush to develop and adopt a total makeover of the park.
Words like “railroaded” and “bulldozed” popped during questioning of Reckman challenging the park design process.
"I think we should slow down, just slow down,” said Susan Lantz of 74 Lyman Road. “How did this all come together so quickly?” she asked. With uncertainty surrounding the park’s neighbors – the Academy of Music and Memorial Hall—she said: “I question the timing and importance of having another fund-raising campaign that probably does not have to be done now. Put this on the back burner.” Her comments prompted enthusiastic audience applause.
Responding to a question from downtown resident Charles Simpson, Reckman said that with the prospect of a Hilton Hotel being built in the next two years on the southern perimeter of the park the BPW initiated the redesign. Construction of the hotel will fill in what is now a steep slope down to the Roundhouse parking lot, creating additional parkland. Also utility relocation to serve the hotel will require changes in the park’s layout.
Reckman said Mayor Higgins had reviewed the plan and “liked it” although she stressed that no city funds would be used to renovate or staff a remodeled park.
Looming over the park redesign debate were the hard feelings remaining from the recent controversy over city approval of plans for the proposed 110 room hotel, which virtually bumps into the park.
A number of speakers suggested that the redesign was driven by the need or intention of benefiting the hotel by making it more visible from Main Street. Sigrid Schmalzer said “talking to people around town there is a lot of bad feeling about the hotel being shoved down our throats.” The park renovation appeared to be an additional way to aid the hotel, she said.
“This plan is worthless,” said Robert Rechtschaffen of Jewett Street, referring to the latest version tacked to the City Council chamber wall. “The main feature of the park is the hotel and we cannot see it; it’s not being shown.”
Reckman and Terry Culhane of the Board of Public Works, vigorously denied any link between the park redesign and efforts to aid the hotel.
Despite lengthy presentations by Reckman and landscape architect Nancy Denig about the proposed changes to the park, there was little public comment about the design itself – other than concerns about trees to be removed. There was, instead, more focus on whether such a costly undertaking was necessary.
“We are a struggling city,” said Claudia Lefko of Valley Road. And spending money to renovate the park should not be supported in the face of the other pressing city needs, she said. “Why would we do this?” she asked. “The whole thing seems insane. Why not wait until the hotel goes up and see what it looks like?”
One committee member Joseph Blumenthal, downtown businessman, said he was concerned that “whatever consensus was building (for the park plan) has totally fallen apart.” He said the Denig design “addresses what we don’t like about the park and what I’m hearing is that no one wants to have any changes.”
The plan’s critics, he said, believe that “We’d really be better off if Northampton would just be as it has been for the last 30 years.” If the plan does not go forward, he said, “Northampton will have lost an opportunity to make the park more used, more interesting.”
A subtext of the citizens’ outbursts was why only a single landscape architect, Denig Design Associates, was given a crack at preparing the park’s redesign.
Clearly as the meeting wore on Nancy Denig, while praised for donating her time to the preparation of the two possible designs for the park, showed signs of discomfort as the public debate continued. At one point, she said, she did not take criticisms of the process personally, but a number of speakers asked why there had not be a design competition.
“Extend the design period,” said Lilly Lombard of Munroe Street, who said she favors improvements to the park. “I want to have more choices, to get other designers out there.”
Denig’s involvement in offering her service for free to the committee came about as a result by a request to her from Planning Director Wayne Feiden, according to Reckman. Her firm has done other similar “pro bono” work for Forbes Library and the landscaping for the Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence.
Charles Simpson, who said he had attended all but one of the hearings, criticized “a lack of transparency” in the design process, “which was much, much too fast.”
Joel Saxe of 4 West St. said: “I feel like public input has been ignored. We can create a democratic process. We have two proposals by one designer who was invited by the planning director, who pushed for the hotel. There’s a bias here in the whole plan.”
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