- PRIEST: Nobody thought they'd get this far.
Today, July 23, a Little Rock park group will get $150,000 as the first step in a multi-million-dollar redo. It may not seem like much, but consider this: There's not a single person in the group on the City Board of Directors.
That's not a non-sequitur. War Memorial Park, which is getting $1.225 million, has City Director Stacy Hurst as its champion. Riverfront Park, which has undergone a transformation in the past few years thanks to a mixture of public and private funds, has Director Dean Kumpuris. A tremendous amount of energy has gone into planning and reshaping those parks, directed from the top down.
The effort to revitalize MacArthur Park, however, has been bottom-up, grassroots work. Not that its unofficial leader, Sharon Priest, isn't a political mover and shaker — she's director of the Downtown Partnership and a former Arkansas secretary of state and member of the city board.
But the MacArthur Park Group — known among its fluid membership as the MacPark group — wasn't appointed by the mayor. It doesn't have elected officers, it doesn't publish an agenda and it doesn't take minutes. But this confederation of preservationists, business people, neighborhood folks and museum people has met every Friday since August 2006. They don't have a direct line to City Hall, but they have staying power, because, Priest says, “they are stakeholders.”
When Priest, architect Page Wilson, John Pagan of the Arkansas Arts Center and Steven McAteer of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History told Parks Director Truman Tolefree in 2006 that their group was going to raise $100,000 to create a master plan, “I said sounds great,” Tolefree said. He started attending the weekly meetings. Still, he said, he was skeptical. Then, he said, the group “got traction.”
“Nobody stopped us because they never thought we'd get this far,” Priest said. “I think the turning point was when we got 100 people out for our first work day.” That was in April 2007. Since then, the park has had two more work days drawing in volunteers to paint and work in the gardens, begun an annual evening 5K fund-raiser and used funds from that to create the Arkansas Political History Audio Tour guiding people from the River Market district to MacArthur Park, and published the Museum, Art and Heritage walking/driving trail to 36 points of interest.
With help from 50 for the Future, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and private gifts, the group did indeed raise $100,000 for a master plan, and $5,000 more for a model. The plan, by Conway and Schulte Architects of Minneapolis in collaboration with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, the UALR Urban Studies Program, architect Tom Oslund and McClelland Consulting Engineers, was published in January.
It wasn't until last fall that city directors decided to add the $150,000 for MacArthur Park to its list of projects to be funded by a $6.9 million parks bond issue. The money will be spent on the north boundary, to improve pedestrian access and the sight line from Ninth Street to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, the former 19th century arsenal and birthplace of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The work will include new lighting, signage and benches and, not visible, a “biotrough,” a green element to contain runoff and eventually channel water to other areas of the park. The MacPark Group is also matching a $5,000 donation to the military museum to restore the decorative pond in the front lawn and install a fountain.
A new MacArthur Park should be a magnet for families, Wilson, the architect who got the park ball rolling three years ago, said. It should feel like an extension of the River Market district, a south anchor to the district and a safe and beautiful green space in which to congregate. And it should drive new development around the park.
The master plan — which has one two design awards from national architectural associations — envisions a $15.8 million project built in three phases. The focal point of the park will be a huge pond — or a small lake — to be built behind the Arts Center and military museum. In and around the pond: A fishing pier, a natural grass amphitheater, crushed stone walking paths and a pavilion. A new street to connect McMath to Commerce and a tree border (called the “Freeway Bosque”) would run along the south edge of the park. The plan also calls parallel tree lines on the west and east sides of the park to create “landscape rooms”; a sculpture garden would define the western entrance.
Supplemental to the plan would be a $1.1 million redesign of McMath Boulevard, which runs along the east side of the park and is the access to the UALR law school, an observation bridge at the south end of the park and the Freeway Arbor, community ideas floated at the public hearings on the park. If all are implemented, the cost of the plan goes up to $24 million, Priest said.
Where would the money come from?
Priest said the group is “working to be included” in future city bond issues. It will also seek grants from foundations and other sources. “And hopefully, at some point, the city will be working towards a dedicated tax for parks — a half or even a quarter penny.”
City Director Brad Cazort has proposed such a tax in the past. His favorite park: The Little Rock Zoo, which will get $1.6 million from the bond issue for parks.
Tax or no, director champion or no, Priest believes the park plan, someday, will be realized: “Never underestimate what a group of concerned citizens