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A Dream Come True: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Finally Unveiled on National Mall

Called “America’s Front Yard” by Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the National Mall is the beating park heart of the Nation’s Capital and draws over 24 million[1] visitors a year.  The National Mall stretches west from the foot of Capitol Hill at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial to encompass the Mall itself, the Washington Monument Grounds, the Tidal Basin area, and West Potomac Park before terminating at the Watergate Steps behind the Lincoln Memorial.  Unfortunately this “front yard” never really had a front gate or front door to invite one in until the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was unveiled last week at the Tidal Basin.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial “Stone of Hope.” Credit: National Park Service.

Fourteen years in the making (a record really, it took over 40 years from Congressional approval until its dedication in May, 1997 to complete the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the last person monument built at the Tidal Basin), the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a fitting tribute to a man known for combating racial inequality and advocating for freedom, justice, and love.  It is the first memorial on the National Mall devoted, not to a United States President or war hero, but a citizen activist for civil rights and peace.

A fan-shaped entry court guides visitors to the main entrance of the memorial, first through the “Mountain of Despair,” two massive, roughly arch-shaped granite bookends, symbolizing the struggle faced in the quest for peace and equality.  From within the struggle, a piece of the colossal boulder has been removed and thrust into the open plaza.  This “Stone of Hope” includes a 30-foot tall statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., emerging from the granite and facing southeast, away from the main entrance.  The separation of the “Stone of Hope” is meant to look as if it has been pulled out of the arch of the “Mountain of Despair.”  The statue is angled slightly so that visitors first encounter a quotation by King, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” before they encounter King himself.

The 450-foot long green granite “Inscription Wall” arcs on either side of the “Mountain of Despair,” engraved with fourteen quotes from Dr. King’s speeches and writings, embodying the universal themes of love, justice, democracy and hope.  The four-acre memorial faces inward, away from the Mall, and also includes the addition of more than 180 new cherry trees, ensuring a continuous burst of blooming blossoms around the Tidal Basin come spring.

The memorial takes the final spot on the shores of the Tidal Basin, sitting on the northwest corner beside the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.  Its location on a diagonal axis from the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, to the Jefferson Memorial, inscribed with the unfulfilled “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal,” creates a visual “line of leadership” between three men whose ideals shaped the nation.  The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial cost $120 million to build and is expected to draw an estimated five million visitors each year.

Before the first granite blocks were brought over from China, the site required extensive infrastructure improvements.  The original soils in West and East Potomac Parks came from dredged river bottom during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that created Hains Point, the Washington Channel, and the Tidal Basin.  Because the ground has a very low capacity to carry any weight, the King memorial was built on more than 340 concrete pilings driven to bedrock, approximately 50 feet below the plaza level of the memorial.

Over the past 126 years, 12 monuments and memorials have been constructed on the nation’s most symbolically rich ground, each reflecting an important moment in U.S. history.  The addition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial adds another layer to this irreplaceable piece of our American fabric, providing the first person of color and only non-president, a well-deserved place in the American pantheon.

[1] This figure includes visitors to the Memorial Parks as well as the National Mall.  Visitorship to just the National Mall is 10 million people per year. (From 2010 City Park Facts).

Some news from around…

  • Austin, Texas is embracing a plan that lays out a path towards smart growth and a more vibrant center city over the next decade. The City Council is considering a master plan that will guide $350 million in investment to downtown parks, transport, and moderately priced housing. (The Austin American-Statesman )
  • Jimi Hendrix, one of Seattle’s most recognizable music icons, has a park dedicated in his name, but it doesn’t do justice to his legacy. A group is raising money to carry out a redesign, to take place in 2012, that includes some remarkable music-themed installations. (The Seattle Times )
  • Though the garbage beneath New York City’s Freshkills Park is disappearing beneath switchgrass and wildflowers, the methane gas it produces, and the substantial income that the city gains from selling it, should be around for years to come. (Bloomberg)
  • Muskogee, Oklahoma, in search of a “brand” and an edge over similar-sized cities in attracting businesses, is committing $2.5 million over five years for improvements to its city parks. (Muskogee Phoenix )
  • 14-acre Dolores Park in San Francisco has $7.9 million left to spend from its share of the city’s Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond, and a wide array of users have come forward to express their preferences for improvements and additions. (The New York Times )

Robert C. Stuart Park and Concrete Plant Park Selected as August’s “Frontline Parks”

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two “Frontline Parks” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

August’s Frontline Parks are examples of industrial sites that have been reclaimed and restored as urban green space.

Stuart Park Bayou, Houston.

Five miles from the Houston Ship Channel, home of the second largest petrochemical complex in the world, a 27-acre remnant of the southeast Texas bayou system is being regenerated.  The source of this emerging life is Robert C. Stuart Park, soon to be an environmental education center and source of respite for nearby neighbors and factory workers. The Houston Parks Board (HPB), whose mission is to create, improve, protect and advocate for parks in the Greater Houston region, initially identified the site during a city-wide evaluation of possible parkland in 2005. Although not listed for sale, HPB contacted the property owners, and after four years secured the site at less than 50% of its market value. By partnering with the Houston Parks Board, the City of Houston obtained grant funding for most of the park improvement.  At Stuart Park, visitors will be invited to embrace and appreciate the historic bayou habitat – to wander trails, cross boardwalks over wetland streams, and watch prairie grasses wave in the breeze.  It will also be a place to learn about nature, with a learning pavilion, teaching stations, interpretive signage and a demonstration garden.

Concrete Plant Park, New York.

A signature project on the Bronx River Greenway, Concrete Plant Park provides a vital link and highlights a unique partnership between public agencies and communities to reclaim the waterfront for public use.   The seven acre park is sited on a former concrete plant, which was in operation from 1945 to 1987. After the plant closed in the 1980s and the city seized the property, the area was saved from the auction block by community residents, led by Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. These efforts were supported by The Point Community Development Corporation, Community Boards, elected officials, and the newly formed Bronx River Alliance who saw the site’s potential as a waterfront park.  During the design phase, residents articulated a vision for quiet contemplation, learning, unstructured play and a sense of the history of the site. Today, the park boasts the stabilized remnants of the concrete plant, acres of open lawn, winding paths, benches, shaded areas and game tables.  On summer afternoons you can watch a pick-up game of cricket and soccer, paddlers out in canoes and kayaks, or fishers casting their lines into the river.  Concrete Plant Park is the result of a decade of tireless efforts, as well as an indicator of what is to come as new links on the Bronx River Greenway open to the public.

Frontline Parks is generously supported by DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Marvin Gaye Park: Renewal by Playground and Peanut-Shaped Plaza

There are many stories across the country of neighborhood groups working together to reclaim blighted and underused space. Marvin Gaye Park, in Northeast Washington, D.C., is exemplary of how a revitalized park can catalyze change in a long-struggling neighborhood.

Mosaic sculpture at entrance to Marvin Gaye Park. Credit: Phaesia2011(Flickr Feed).

Originally named Watts Branch Park, for the nearby stream of the same name, Marvin Gaye Park was created in the 1870s as part of the subdivision of the northeast section of Washington, D.C. Falling into disrepair in the early 1970s as maintenance funding shifted from federal responsibility to city management, the park became a haven for drug users, referred to as “Needle Park” by local residents.

In 1997, through the leadership efforts of the nonprofit Washington Parks & People, the community decided to restore Marvin Gaye Park to its once famed beauty. Throughout the next decade, volunteers participated in the largest community park revitalization in D.C. history, removing an unbelievable 3.5 million pounds of trash, 14,000 hypodermic needles, and 89 abandoned cars. The community also planted more than 1,000 native trees and renamed the park after local music legend Marvin Gaye in 2006.

“Parks are not just an agency of the government, they are the center of public life,” says Washington Parks & People President Steve Coleman. “A park can be the center of helping to move the concerns of a community forward, such as crime, health, obesity, and illiteracy,” he added.

There are many exciting amenities and activities in the park including a permanent mosaic featuring 200 community heroes, a youth-run farmer’s market, an amphitheater, and 1.6 miles of hiking and biking trails.

The park’s revitalization continued in 2009, as a collaborative effort of the National Recreation and Park Association and its Parks Build Community partners, with the installation of a brand new playground that has quickly become the park’s focal point. Funding for the neighborhood’s first playground in thirty years came from donations by Playworld Systems, Kompan, Playcore, and Surface America, altogether raising $400,000.

After the installation of the playground, usage by children and older community residents increased dramatically. Studies have noted that 85 percent of the activity in the park has taken place in the playground area.  According to The Washington Post, “preliminary review shows that 50 to 70 children play for about 25 minutes daily when the weather is nice and that most live within a 10-minute walk.” The new playground has also increased the presence of local law enforcement, which helps to make the surrounding neighborhood safer.

Even more recently, the area around the park has begun to attract investment by both public and private partners – and signs are emerging that the vitality of the park and the health of the surrounding community are closely linked. Though there are still public concerns about safety in the park, recent and continuing efforts have shown that revitalized green space in urban areas can improve more than just aesthetics of a neighborhood.

One such effort is the D.C. New Communities Initiative, which undertook four projects in different wards of D.C. In the ward that includes Marvin Gaye Park, the city is investing in a $100 million, 235,000 square foot high school, $50 million in residential development, and $10 million in improvements to the park itself.

The Washington Post also reports that the transformation of Marvin Gaye Park should help to enliven other city facilities in the area, like the nearby community center:

“Autumn Saxton-Ross works at the Riverside community center across the street from the playground. Since she started there last May as an assistant director in charge of health programs, the number of children going to the community center has grown from 15 to about 50 each month. The increase is partly due to the playground, whose users often drift over to get a drink of water. They stay, said Saxton-Ross, 33, for such things as bike repairs, beat poetry sessions, tree planting, cooking classes and a farmers market.”

There has also been action on the private philanthropy front. Kraft-owned Planters recently announced that it is building four neighborhood parks in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. In this novel twist on private partnerships in urban parks, Planters will embellish the parks with homages to America’s favorite legume, including plazas in the shape of peanut shells and occasional visits from the Planters Nutmobile, a biodiesel-powered, peanut-shaped bus that will promote youth volunteerism. Though some questions were initially raised about whether the interweaving of corporate advertising and public outdoor space was a positive development, the neighborhood’s character was carefully incorporated into the park. The path that cuts through it is lined with white posts that echo the front porches that have traditionally lined neighboring homes.

This new investment may be a sign of things to come: the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation has just been granted the authority to allow corporate advertising in parks. Fortunately, as the city moves forward fleshing out the details of this new arrangement, they have a positive example of how corporate involvement can enable much-needed improvements without overwhelming the park’s appearance or character.

Creating and Financing Infill Parks in the Bay Area: Part II

The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence performed a study for the Association of Bay Area Governments, one component of which was identifying examples of how recently completed infill parks were financed. We will be publishing each of the four case studies (see the first one here), with Windsor Town Green as our second case study.


Windsor, a town of 27,000 almost 30 miles north of San Pablo Bay, is the site of one of the newest central parks in the Bay Area. Interestingly, the Windsor Town Green grew not from the needs of a park-starved citizenry, but from a community’s desire to reclaim a largely abandoned downtown, provide a public gathering place – and, not least, compete with nearby towns for Sonoma County wine country tourists.

Even before Windsor incorporated in 1992, there was momentum behind the idea of transforming the underutilized downtown area into a public plaza. That vision, first articulated by Sonoma County in 1986, remained in place after incorporation and served as the foundation for turning the downtown, once a wine processing and railroad hub, into a true walkable civic center anchored by shops and residences.

A crowd gathers on a summer night in Windsor's Town Green. Photo courtesy Windsor Department of Parks and Recreation.

Windsor decided to develop the Town Green, as well as its new municipal center, on the grounds of a vacant junior high school campus, thus fortunately eliminating any opposition from neighbors.  Owned by the Sonoma County Office of Education, the 21-acre site was broken into two parts and sold — 7.5 acres of buildings to the town (for a new town hall), and 13.5 acres to a private developer, subject to a town planning process.

In 1999, after the exact location of the Town Green had been selected, the Windsor Redevelopment Agency purchased the 4.84-acre park site for $1,142,670, which included more than $450,000 in matching grants from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation Open Space District. The remaining funds came from the agency’s capital fund, which is replenished by the collection of the tax increment in the growing area. Two years earlier, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District had acquired another small part of the property to protect a stand of historic oaks. The remainder of the land has been (or is in the process of being) redeveloped for housing and retail around the park.

Finding a private developer willing to gamble on a unique project in an area of traditional subdivisions was not easy, even with the redevelopment agency spending $2,900,000 to build the park, widen sidewalks, bury utilities, and improve the surrounding streets.

“The town had been promoting the concept of mixed use for a long time,” says Senior Planner Rick Jones, “but no one was willing to take the risk” on a new urbanist development. Finally, in 2001, a developer named Orrin Thiessen took the plunge. In addition to the park, Windsor provided Thiessen with some other incentives. He was given the right to develop his three properties at higher densities than code allowed, and also to encroach on sidewalks for restaurants and commercial use. He was also given an expedited planning review process and reduced parking requirements. By now, almost 14 acres of colorful three-story townhomes with commercial space below have been built.

The Town Green itself features a stage, covered pavilions, a playground, a plum tree orchard, a fountain, reflecting pools, and a historical time-line walk. (The historic oak grove is directly adjacent.) The park, as well as the adjacent restaurants and businesses, are supplied with a Wi-Fi network. In 2008, a community member offered to help underwrite the expansion of the stage, which is now outfitted with a sound system, used for the numerous programs held on the green. Programming is varied and popular, and all events are free. The Summer Nights on the Green concert series is expected to attract 40,000 attendees in 2011. Other regular summer events include the Farmers Market, Tuesday Night Kid Movies and the outdoor Shakespeare Theater on the Green.