City parks, bringing urban centers back to life

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By?JoAnn Greco
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 30, 2010; 1:32 PM

I watch as a man lazily makes his way over the steppingstones in a low-slung pool that emerges from a limestone-clad water wall. Nearby, framed by the steel of St. Louis's iconic Gateway Arch, a mother points out a gleaming red Mark di Suvero sculpture to her toddler, and fountains mist two besuited men as they engage in shop talk and scarf down lunchtime hot dogs.

This is St. Louis's Citygarden, a small part of a master plan to redevelop the Gateway Mall, a 1.2-mile ribbon of green space connecting the still-splendid Arch with the once-grand Union Station. The mall's fortunes rose and fell with St. Louis's cycles of growth (in the early 1900s it was among the five most populous American cities) and abandonment (scores of buildings were razed by midcentury) before ending up as a patchwork of empty, littered and overgrown lots.

Citygarden, then, is more than just a pretty face. In the past year, seemingly every city I've landed in has boasted a new park or was in the process of planning one. But whereas parks unveiled in recent years by New York and Chicago - the much-ballyhooed High Line and Millennium Park, respectively - serve as desserts added to the already laden menus of residents and tourists, it seems that new parks in other cities are burdened with a much more challenging mandate.

In cities such as St. Louis, Houston and Detroit - all victims of disinvestment in the 1960s and '70s - new parks are charged with spurring development and creating downtowns that are places to live, not just work. It's a role previously assigned to the '80s-era performing arts center and the '90s-era downtown sports venue. Thanks to parks' across-the-board appeal, wide diversity of uses and heavy programming, though, they may be the piece that ultimately completes the puzzle.

For visitors, these new downtown parks offer more than tantalizing glimmers of hope and welcome rays of sunshine. In St. Louis, world-class sculpture is the standout; in Detroit, a varied slate of live entertainment keeps things hopping; and in Houston, boccie courts and model boat racing offer a perfect afternoon of family fun.

Here's a closer look at this trio.

St. Louis: Citygarden

St. Louis Deputy Mayor for Development Barbara Geisman calls the privately funded $30 million Citygarden (a figure that doesn't include the costs of acquiring the 23 sculptures, some by famous names) "one of the best things to happen in downtown in many decades." Nearby lofts converted from derelict warehouses tout the park as an amenity, and plans for restoring the city's Kiel Opera House, located farther north of the mall, may finally go ahead.

Citygarden (www.citygardenstl.org), which celebrated its first anniversary last month, is set on a narrow, two-block strip dotted with sculptures. But while I found that an Aristide Maillol nude here and a Fernand Lger bronze relief there place Citygarden in the realm ofany big-city sculpture garden, I was most taken by the way the park is connected to its geography. A brochure explained that walls made of locally quarried limestone echo the curves of the nearby Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and a series of terraces represents the high ground of the river bluff. Plantings, too, tend toward the native - thanks to careful curation by the prestigious Missouri Botanical Garden - with seasonal grasses and wildflowers chosen to adorn the park instead of beds of annuals and hothouse flowers.

Unlike other new parks, this one isn't heavily programmed. Instead, if offers serenity and natural beauty. And there's water, water everywhere. Three fountains cascade down terraces, jet across plazas and lap over sculptures. The one concession to commercialism is the Terrace View restaurant, located in a pavilion in one of the park's corners. It serves an all-day, Mediterranean-inspired menu and is great for tapas, happy hour or Sunday brunch.

Detroit: Campus Martius Park

The ambitious relics of urban renewal trends past - the people mover and the new sports stadiums, the casinos and the renewed waterfront - are strewn all over Detroit. But the privately funded $20 million Campus Martius Park - its name means "military ground" and refers to land that served that purpose on the site in the 1780s - places its bets on simpler pleasures. Here in the center of downtown, movable chairs, a fountain, regular arts programming and greenery are all it takes to draw crowds.

After five years, the hoped-for urban development has started to occur: Nearby, Westin Hotels has invested $200 million in restoring the Book Cadillac, a 1924 grande dame that was once the tallest hotel in the world and a favorite of Hollywood's elite.

More piazza than park, the one-acre Campus Martius (www.campusmartiuspark.com) emphasizes lawns and keeps most of its flora - gorgeous flowering trees and botanical beds - along the perimeter. The Michigan Soldiers & Sailors Monument, erected in 1872 at the junction of five principal streets, anchors one corner, giving the space a sense of grandness and civic importance. On the summer afternoon when I stopped by, workers on lunch break clustered at the base of the 56-foot-high granite memorial, which is peppered with bronze figures representing the military branches. On Wednesdays during the summer, a local radio station sponsors noontime concerts from area bands and cover groups (Cheap Trick! Rod Stewart!).

Houston: Discovery Green

Discovery Green lays a LEED-certified carpet of green over the site of two former surface parking lots (the parking has been buried) and is strategically located in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center and between the Minute Maid Park baseball stadium and the Toyota Center football dome at the eastern edge of Houston's downtown. The park (www.discoverygreen.com) celebrated its second anniversary in April.

Houston is a place where no small plans are made. At 12.5 acres, built for the rather astounding sum of $122 million through a public-private venture, the Green features transported 100-year-old live oaks, two restaurants, a playground, a stage, a boccie court, a dog run and a model boat pond/ice rink. Residents can even enjoy a mobile library service and reading room, where you can supposedly have a library book delivered to you. I didn't try it, but it sounded like a great idea.

I did sample lunch at the Grove, the more elegant of two restaurants in the park. Its picture windows, wooden ceilings and great views of both the park and the city skyline would have made me happy no matter what. But the creative farm-to-table, vaguely Tex-Mex (pulled rotisserie chicken tacos with grilled corn, spicy shrimp salad with avocado and mango) menu only added to the pleasures of a lazy afternoon.

This amenities-laden park is a prime example of how investment can transform a neighborhood. Even before it was completed, a developer bought an adjacent lot with the idea of opening One Park Place - a moniker from the mouths of marketers, if ever there was one. The first apartment tower to go up in Houston in decades, it started renting this year and is about 65 percent occupied. Its promised ground-floor retail has yet to materialize. On the western perimeter of the park, an Embassy Suites Hotel and a 31-story office tower will arrive early next year.

The park has been a beehive of activity, presenting some 400 events in a year, including movie nights, children's writing workshops and tango instructions. More than a million visitors, 30 percent of them from the distant suburbs and out of town, have taken advantage of its amenities and performances. The kicker, says Susanne Theis, the park's programming director, is that "weekends have proved to be the most popular days. We weren't expecting that at all."

travel@washpost.com

Greco is a Philadelphia-based travel writer and editor of the City Traveler Web site (www.thecitytraveler.com).


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