Centennial Park is referred to as the crown jewel of Metro’s parks system.
It includes the iconic Parthenon, Lake Watauga, an arts activity center, a band-shell, historical monuments, walking trails, playgrounds and gardens, all planted on 132 prime acres on West End Avenue at 25th Avenue North.
If anyone thought developing a master plan to update, restore and modernize the Nashville landmark would lack vision, creativity or ambition, it appears they were wrong.
The famous park — revered not only as a place of historic significance, but arguably as the public centerpiece of the city itself — has been under review by architects, designers and Nashvillians themselves since the fall of 2008, when Mayor Karl Dean assigned a nine-member restoration committee with the bold task of piloting a long-term master plan for the park, an undertaking paid for by private donations.
A final plan has not been drafted, but citizens who attended a mid-July community meeting caught the first glimpse of a preliminary plan published by Seattle-based Gustafson, Guthrie, Nichol, the landscape architecture firm tapped in February to lead the long-term design efforts at Centennial Park. If nothing else, the plan, though rough, offers some clues to the type of changes that could be in store for the more than a century-old park.
“When you look at the plan, it’s nothing short of breathtaking,” said Sylvia Rapoport, president of the Conservancy for the Parthenon & Centennial Park, a group that is raising private cash to help fund restoration. “But it is a concept and a draft. It is not final.”
At the core of the conceptual layout is a suggestion to limit parking and vehicular traffic in the park. To compensate, parking would dot the perimeter through a combination of on-street parking and parking lots. The idea, designed to both improve safety for walkers and remove roadways that currently break up the park’s flow, has caused many to raise eyebrows. Some have applauded the move, arguing a park should value greenery and be a place that accommodates pedestrians. Others, some who are physically handicapped, have wondered how they will be able to access the revamped grounds.
Buzz generated by the pitch to scale back on-site parking has also done something else –– it’s overshadowed several other bold suggestions found in the master plan draft. Ideas include a new, possibly grass-seated, amphitheater that would have a direct view of the Tennessee State Capitol building; a reflecting pool west of the Parthenon; a winter garden equipped to grow vegetation indoors; a vibrant show of cherry blossoms to the Parthenon’s northeast; new grass on the park’s main lawn designed to remain sturdy during events with heavy traffic; and perhaps even a “land bridge” over 31st Avenue that would unite two of Metro’s dog parks with Centennial Park.
Lending an experienced hand
Park landscapes with Gustafson, Guthrie, Nichol’s fingerprints can be found throughout the country –– from Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C. and the firm’s hometown of Seattle.
For Centennial Park, the design team has emphasized the overarching importance of utilizing the park’s acreage in its entirety.
“There’s so much of the park that could be used that’s being neglected at the moment,” said Kelly Majewski, an associate with Gustafson, Guthrie, Nichol, who’s been working on the Centennial Park master plan. “So what we wanted to start looking at was how we could start expanding the park to its edges so it could be fully utilized, and so we can get as much green space as possible.”
One of the most audacious proposals in the plan is a land bridge over 31st Avenue that would connect an area known as Flagpole Hill with the rest of Centennial Park. Traffic along 31st Avenue would pass through a tunnel underneath the bridge. Another strategy to address the same issue — although with much less gusto — is to create an at-grade crosswalk across 31st Avenue.
Either way, Majewski said, the team’s main goal is to create one unified park that efficiently uses all available resources.
With that goal in mind, designers have also recommended pulling many of the park’s attractions and programming to the periphery of the park to generate activity in all corners. For example, playground equipment and the Centennial Park cafe could be moved to the area on 25th Avenue across the street from Centennial Medical Center. The nearby art center, meanwhile, could be accompanied by a new sculpture garden — again, bringing more activity to the edge.
Another goal is to create a “definite edge” around the park, so when visitors enter the park, they know they’ve entered a distinct and separate destination. Designers have suggested extending the small historic stone wall that currently fronts West End to frame the park. Sidewalks and trees would run parallel to the new walls.
Some structures and monuments would be renovated and remain in the same location. Others, like the small band-shell where Shakespeare in the Park is held, could be replaced by a new amphitheater, situated to the northwest of the Parthenon.
These are only a few of the new features and enhancements outlined in the 66-page draft plan.
George Anderson, a member of the parks board who chairs the master plan committee, said the final plan should reflect the park’s dual roles, both as a neighborhood park and a destination park.
“On one front, it needs to be a neighborhood park, where people take ownership in their park, and they feel they can go into it as their backyard,” Anderson said. “From another perspective, our visitors want to come and have that experience visiting the only full-scale replica of the Parthenon in the world. There’s a balance to accomplishing both.”
Unlike the Parthenon’s massive columns, proposals aren’t set in concrete. They’re ideas. Over the next few months, the park restoration committee will share community feedback with the design team.
The goal is for an October delivery of a polished master plan, which would then require approval from the committee, the parks board and the mayor. And even then, the city is left with just that — a plan, the sort of broad-stroke document that’s helped pave the way for the upcoming redevelopment of Nashville’s downtown riverfront, among other projects.
For the plan to become a reality, there needs to be funding, presumably from a combination of public and private dollars. Metro’s share would likely need to be inserted into the mayor’s capital spending budget, which has been put on hold due to May flooding.
“In terms of moving forward with Metro money, it probably wouldn’t be until next fiscal year,” Dean said. “We’ll probably do [a capital spending plan] relatively shortly, but it will not include anything here because nothing’s final with the Centennial Plan at all. So, we’re a year away or more.”