Monday, February 22, 2010

"Architects Anonymous" Donates Time, Vision To Four Mile Run Park

Area architects may be struggling to find enough work to fill the day in the last year or two, but this informal group checked the wish lists when the want ads went dry.  The highlight of last Wednesday's inaugural Arlandria Action Plan Advisory Group meeting, planning for Four Mile Run Park (4MR) expansion, received a pro bono shot in the arm that can only be described as transformative.

The architects presented the group an exciting presentation and took questions (and accolades).  Parks and Recreation Commission Chair and Architects Anonymous member Judy Noritake was quick to point out that this is only a vision, and a formal planning process will follow.  However, the group went out of its way to identify some of the most cost effective and quickly implementable solutions possible for this blighted stretch of Mt. Vernon Ave.  They laid out the framework for a phased approach that could have a usable public amenity available to the community as soon as this summer.  I have a feeling the planning process will likely be more like project management, figuring out schedule, funding, and process to implement their suggestions.

First, a quick bit of history.  The city purchased the lots for park expansion 2+ years ago and completed a lengthy environmental remediation. They tore down 3 of the buildings and were hoping to re-purpose the Duron building for park use.  See two of our prior posts on the topic here and here.  The problem was there's barely any money to fix it up.  On came the wrecking ball... or so we thought.  The architects adopted this pet project to provide the public with a valuable amenity that the City would not be able to otherwise afford (it will still be tough going money-wise).

The vision all starts with a re-purposed Duron building--see following image.  The architects propose punching a hole in the North wall and building a stage that faces the three vacant lots.  The opening will be covered by a 'barn-style' door.  The mural that is currently mounted on the South wall would be moved inside and enhanced by surrounding it with more art, perhaps the product of local artists.  The space would be lighted with light tubes (~$400 each) that would harness the sunlight to light the space during daylight hours with zero operating costs.  The architects suggested painting the exterior in bright, creative patterns that reference the cultural elements of the neighborhood and the artistic uses of the re-purposed building.

The building could host community meetings, indoor/outdoor markets, performances, temporary art displays, act as a base for school field trips to study the stream, and much more.  Existing restrooms would be refurbished for daytime public use.  One resident suggested the space could house periodic immunization clinics to relieve some of the pressure on overburdened local health clinics.



The three vacant, paved lots could be handled in several different ways.  The asphalt is in decent shape, so for the short term, it can be left as-is.  Hard-scape restrictions for areas near 4MR mean that, if we ever plan to use hard-scape in the area, we must keep the impermeable space intact for now.  Each asphalt ring surrounds a gravel space where buildings used to stand.  This space could be planted over with grass, gardens, or any permeable use.  The lots could be used for outdoor markets, seating space for performances, or just a community gathering space.

The park expansion could interface with the existing park much better than it does today.  The architects suggested tearing down the various fences that break up the space and separate it from the rest of the park.  They also suggested connecting existing trails to the space with walking paths.  Lastly, tree and garden plantings would tie the formal "outdoor rooms" to the athletic fields while creating distinctive places within the park.

The architects introduced a number of creative, affordable, and sustainable ways to improve the space over time.  They suggested using recycled concrete to beautify the vacant lots (my favorite... see following image).  The entire area would be bordered with a rain garden on the eastern edge to mitigate some of the runoff, and permeable paving options may be possible, as well.  They suggested cisterns to catch the roof runoff for landscape maintenance.  Over time, simple banners could give way to public art that announces the plaza to the public.


Often, municipal planning processes are bureaucratic, snail paced ventures.  There is generally a group opposed to any kind of change, a group that wants to maximize change, and the planners that want to make sure that whatever happens is in line with a long-term vision (sometimes an outdated one, but their intentions are mostly good).  Arlandria is both blessed and cursed with overlapping plans and zoning overlays that can make project implementation even more difficult.

Not this time.  The architects were careful to adhere to the vision laid out in the 4MR Restoration Master Plan.  The community was in attendance, and almost everyone spoke out in favor of the presented vision.  Arlandria has been starving for some attention for too long not to move forward with this potentially iconic project.


The formal park planning process will begin sometime in March.  It looks like a Special Use Permit (SUP) will be required to re-purpose the Duron building, but Open Space Coordinator Laura Durham and Judy Noritake hope that they can rush through the SUP process so the community does not miss out on an amenity for this season.  We may request some community support for this in the near future to grease the wheels.  Also, please start shopping around for interest from farm markets, arts and crafts fairs looking for space, and performers looking for a venue.  Showing that we're ready for our day in the sun may "prime the pump" for this new amenity.

We'll probably have to rely on sweat equity, donations, and limited Open Space funding to convert the existing site to into the vision over a series of years.  In year one, we hope that the community will rally behind this and lend their hands to help where possible (plantings, generating interest, painting... who knows).  We will announce any volunteer days that occur and hope this will be a rallying project for the community.  The architects have done their jobs, now it's up to us and the City.  What do you think?  Discuss in the comments!
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