by Gene Marrano
What do Roanoke City residents want Elmwood Park to look like after its proposed multi-million dollar makeover? What should the redesigned amphitheater look like? Do they want more places to sit and reflect, or fountains to cool off in during the long hot summers? The city has held several public meetings at the downtown library to get feedback; over the next few months the landscape architect firm it hired (David Hill, Hill Studios) will put together a rendering of a plan to be delivered to City Council for consideration.
Hill, who calls himself the project manager for the Elmwood Park master plan, describes it as “a beautiful green square in the center of the city. But a lot of people don’t know it’s there, [or] they don’t go there often.” The city does host over 140 events a year in the park, Hill noted. He wants to make Elmwood Park, at one time a private estate, “more successful for everybody” on a daily basis.
While some parts of the park are overused – “trampled” is the word Hill chose – others see little use at all. “There are some places in the park that nobody ever goes. We want to make it more lively and available to Roanoke citizens.”
A relocated amphitheater that would include a terraced seating area for 1500, and room for more on a grassy hill above is part of the proposed master plan. Water fountains that people can play in have come up “over and over again” in discussions with the public. “They want a place to bring the kids, where they can get completely wet, during the summer,” said Hill.
In earlier discussions City Manager Chris Morrill has described a park in Savannah, Georgia, where he was the assistant city manager, that underwent such a transformation and became much more of a focal point and gathering spot for citizens there. According to Hill, others say the trees lining the walk where the linear lily pond was “doesn’t work very well,” and is “not a pleasant place” to eat lunch for example. People want it to be livelier, “more 24-hour,” said Hill. The influx of downtown residents in recent years may have much to do with that sentiment.
The return of the pond in Elmwood Park may bring back “pleasant memories” for some, added Hill; fed by underground springs, the pond could take shape again in front of the amphitheater, which may be moved towards the Bullitt Avenue side of the park. Bullitt could be reopened as a through street under one design plan, as has been suggested in the past. Visitors during the two open houses posed questions to city staffers and to Hill Studios personnel, then pasted sticky notes with suggestions on posters.
“We’re going to take all these notes and see where there is convergence … a consensus,” said Hill. Incorporating the public library next door into the park – with a deck, permanent bathrooms and entranceways – could be in the offing. “The library wants to be better integrated into the park,” said Hill, who hopes to present a master plan by the end of the year. “We’re on a pretty quick timetable. We’ll bring it to council in late November or December.”
Ron McCorkle, a Roanoke resident and activist for sustainable lifestyles, liked a concept that included the original pond. “It’s also a natural flow for rainwater,” said McCorkle, who said a pond would help clean up water as part of the city’s new storm water management plan. “It’s serving a useful purpose and it’s attractive,” said McCorkle, also a co-owner for Sharebike. The plan in general “has many different aspects that are good.”
Like David Hill and city officials, McCorkle said he wants Elmwood “to be a more useful park.” He would like to see several “grand entranceways” that would invite people into the park. Others will have their chance to weigh in over the next several months, and at a public hearing once the plan reaches City Council.
“There may be better ways to spend the four million dollars set aside for Elmwood Park improvements in Roanoke,” said McCorkle, but since it’s approved and budgeted already, “I think this is a really good process. Some of the ideas that have come out [at the public meetings] have been really great.”