By CHAD CAIN
(Published in print: Friday, June 27, 2014)
NORTHAMPTON — A long-awaited vision to give the iconic Pulaski Park more green space, an expanded playground area and a permanent stage, among other features, is finally coming into focus.
With the help of feedback from residents at three separate forums this spring, a Cambridge architecture firm is nearing completion of a final site plan for the 1.1-acre park in the heart of downtown between the Academy of Music and Memorial Hall. In outlining the project’s latest design for about 30 people who attended a final brainstorming session Thursday night, Lauren Stimson, landscape architect at Stephen Stimson Associates, said many of the ideas were inspired by feedback from residents at two previous forums.
The design’s signature feature is a large green area in the center of the park called “The Green,” which would replace much of the concrete sidewalks and steps currently in the middle of the park. A permanent stage would be constructed off the northeast side of the green space, level with a walkway that would stretch from the park’s entrance at Main Street to the Roundhouse building below the park.
The project also includes a nature play area that would be twice as big as an existing small play structure for children. The play area, which Stimson’s team envisions would incorporate natural play structures, would connect to the southern edge of The Green not far from the Academy of Music’s back entrance.
Other features include a redesigned entranceway off Main Street called “Pulaski Plaza” that would feature a seating area with tables and chairs surrounded by trees, a reconfigured bus stop, and a small water fountain connected to a water garden that would run vertically through the park. The water garden would include plantings and serve to treat stormwater from the park.
Another feature includes a switchback ramp at the back of the park to allow cyclists and pedestrians to travel between the park and the Round House lot below. The ramp would be constructed at a gradual incline, replacing a steep set of stone stairs. At the bottom of the ramp would be a lawn area with benches. Trees would also be planted throughout the Round House parking lot and a walkway would also be constructed through the lot and connect to the rail trail on the opposite side.
Stimson said these improvements were made to address concerns from many residents about the look of the back of the park.
“People are overwhelmingly excited to reclaim this part of the park,” she said.
Those in attendance seemed to like the plan, but were quick to make suggestions and tweaks.
Tala Elia, who lives on Fruit Street and is a frequent visitor to the park with her children, is excited to see the space get some much-needed attention. She particularly likes the emphasis on green space and incorporation of natural elements throughout the park. She also likes plans to connect the park from both sides at Main Street and the Round House lot.
“I think The Green will be a really nice common space,” Elia said. “There’s a lot of concrete now and I think this just feels a lot more natural and green.”
She’s equally pleased that Stimson has listened to suggestions from those who attended the forums, including her desire to see an expanded playground.
Another city resident, Hannah Coyle, also praised the design.
Michael Keeney, a landscape contractor who owns Treefrog Landscapes in Northampton, praised Stimson for designing a project that reflects many of the community’s desires. He particularity liked the switchback ramp and the water garden feature.
“I think that they’ve done a great job at balancing the programming and the needs of the space. And it’s a tight space,” Keeney said.
Thursday’s event was the third and final forum to solicit public opinion for the park’s first redesign in nearly 40 years. The redesign has been years in the making but until now has not moved forward because of funding woes. That changed recently when the state changed Community Preservation Act funding requirements that allow grants to renovate parks, rather than fund only projects for new parks. Mayor David Narkewicz has made the project a priority.
The DPW, which oversees the park, landed a $194,500 CPA grant last fall that enabled it to hire Stimson to build on its previous designs. City Engineer James Laurila said the recent additions to the back of the park would likely boost the project’s initial $1.5 million budget to more than $2 million.
The department has also applied for a $400,000 state Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities, or PARC, grant and will likely apply for another CPA grant. Laurila said other money might come from the city’s general fund or by phasing the project over two years so that the city can apply for a second PARC grant.
Stimson is expected to finish the design of the park this fall, and if funding comes through, construction might begin next spring, Laurila said.