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Reshaping a park

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Planning for the redevelopment of Little Rock’s War Memorial Park moves at a glacial pace, complete with competing studies, opposing interest groups and strong emotions all around. In this instance, perhaps it is best that there has been a deliberate debate so correct decisions rather than hasty decisions are made about these priceless 200 acres of public land in the heart of Little Rock.

War Memorial Park should be to Little Rock what Central Park is to New York and what Forest Park is to St. Louis: A popular gathering spot for the thousands of residents who live within a few miles of the park; a place to hike, sunbathe, let the dog run, have a picnic, throw a Frisbee. What exists now is far from that. It is actually a collection of disparate attractions with no ties to each other. There’s no signage to unite these elements, and you would have to look hard to find a spot to hike, sunbathe or throw that Frisbee.

Granted, War Memorial Park is far smaller than either Forest Park or Central Park. But for a city the size of Little Rock, its location and natural attributes make it a potential jewel. The linchpin of the entire debate is the 18-hole golf course that takes up most of the park. Without a decision by a majority of those on the city board to reduce the size of the golf course or eliminate it, the status quo will rule at War Memorial Park. There simply will be no space to do anything innovative. If reducing the size of or eliminating the golf course is not a viable option, the task force studying the park’s future is wasting its time.

Unfortunately, the voices of the visionaries have too often been drowned out by a tiny but highly vocal group of retirees who consider this precious public space to be their private playground. The City of Little Rock did not help matters when, unbeknownst even to some members of the War Memorial task force, it hired a subsidiary of the National Golf Foundation to study the golf course. The name alone — National Golf Foundation — tells you that this is not a group in the business of recommending the closure of golf courses. The National Golf Foundation board of directors consists of representatives of entities such as Callaway Golf Co., Golf Digest, the PGA Tour and the Golf Channel. The consultants never had any intention of producing the unbiased look at the acreage that is so badly needed, especially in light of the explosion of golf holes available for public play that has occurred in Central Arkansas the past several decades.

Little Rock residents will be much better served to listen to John Hoal, the St. Louis consultant hired to study the park as a whole. Hoal, a native of South Africa and a former Fulbright Scholar, is internationally recognized and led the way as St. Louis completed its Forest Park master plan, a $100 million facelift.

There are no doubt good things happening in what has become known as Midtown. U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson is moving forward quickly in ending the lawsuit that has stifled the redevelopment of University Mall. Add to that the multimillion-dollar renovation of Park Plaza, the opening of the Midtowne Little Rock shopping center, the more than $300 million in construction occurring on the campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the expansion of St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, the recent improvements made by the state to War Memorial Stadium, new doctors’ clinics and office buildings on University Avenue north of Park Plaza, continued improvements on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, additions to Forest Heights Middle School and more.

A well-conceived, environmentally sensitive redevelopment of War Memorial Park would lead to millions of dollars in additional private investments in Midtown, including perhaps restoration of the fading residential neighborhoods south of the park. In addition to providing space to play, a comprehensive redevelopment could include a branch of the Central Arkansas Library System geared toward children, a combination soccer and track stadium built in partnership with UALR, an expansion of the Little Rock Zoo, a Little Rock version of Tavern on the Green restaurant in the Markham Street building that currently houses the golf pro shop, a restored Ray Winder Field for high school and college baseball, a revitalized Coleman Creek and enhanced landscaping.

It’s time to think big. The proper redevelopment of War Memorial Park will determine whether the current positive trends in Midtown continue in the years ahead or stall. In the end, it will come down to whether the city’s new mayor and its other board members listen to an expert like Hoal or allow themselves to be held hostage by the vocal minority.

Rex Nelson is a member of the city task force studying the future of War Memorial Park.

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