NWA downtowns get $3.6 million from Walton Family Foundation to enhance public spaces

by Jennifer Joyner (JJoyner@nwabj.com) 4,712 views 

Lawrence Plaza in downtown Bentonville. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

The Walton Family Foundation will give $3.6 million toward the design of five projects to enhance public outdoor spaces in downtown Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville, the organization announced Thursday [Nov. 16].

The grants are part of the Walton Foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, founded in 2015 with the stated intention of elevating the design standard in public buildings and spaces throughout the region.

The city of Bentonville will receive funding to design its “Quilt of Parks,” a plan to expand and connect the open spaces in and around the downtown square. The intention, as outlined in the Bentonville Parks and Recreation’s 10-year Play Bentonville report published earlier this year, is to create “seamless pedestrian connectivity in a park-like setting” throughout downtown.

It calls for tying together the area’s trails with Lawrence Plaza, the downtown square, Town Branch Park, Dave Peel Park and a planned outdoor area called The Commons, which is described in the plan as a new “urban cool” community area just southwest of the downtown square.

According to the city, the Quilt of Parks will help “redefine downtown Bentonville and provide a stage set to support social interaction, community engagement, foster economic development and support public health. It is critical to workforce development and retention of young professionals and families.”

The money also will be used for a “full redesign” of Dave Peel Park, according to the foundation.

Visitors’ surveys indicated Dave Peel Park is the most used park in the city, according to the city. Potential changes include a new central lawn or terracing with sitting and gathering spaces, according to the city’s plan.

The city of Fayetteville will receive a grant to design a series of open spaces within an interactive, 12-acre cultural arts corridor downtown, according to the foundation. The planned corridor would provide better pedestrian access to key entertainment destinations, including the Walton Arts Center, the planned TheatreSquared facility nearby, the Community Creative Center and Fayetteville Public Library.

The city of Rogers will receive funding to design and rebrand Frisco Park and the surrounding open space as part of the Downtown Rogers Initiative Plan, dated 2015. The plan states Frisco Park is the busiest in the city and therefore needs reinvestment. It calls for a possible new, large-scale lawn area, which the plan states would help the park to equally accommodate both large and small events.

The city envisions Frisco Park serving “as a gateway from downtown Rogers to key amenities in the area including residential neighborhoods, restaurants, retail and public spaces like the Railyard bike park, Rogers Historical Museum and Lake Atalanta,” according to the foundation.

The Downtown Springdale Alliance, a nonprofit tasked with supporting downtown development, will receive a grant to “jump-start implementation of its downtown master plan with the expansion and renovation of Luther George Park. The park is part of the city’s larger plan to create vibrant public spaces and plazas, with the flexibility to support public art, performing art and seasonal outdoor markets,” according to the foundation.

To qualify for funding for their open space projects, area governments and nonprofits “had to present innovative ideas for spaces that would increase public access and leverage the region’s existing trail network. In addition, projects had to show a commitment to sustainability by encouraging residents and visitors to engage with the spaces in new ways,” according to the foundation, which starting taking applications for this round of the design program this past March.

In addition to its investment in green spaces, the foundation also announced a project tackling a common pain point for the region’s downtown neighborhoods: lack of affordable housing.

Walton Foundation will give $120,000 to the low-income housing organization Community Development Corp. of Bentonville/Bella Vista for the schematic of design of four auxiliary residential units in downtown Bentonville.

Robert Sharp Architects & Massengale Architecture PLLC were selected from the Design Excellence Program pool of architects for the project, according to the foundation.

Once the process is complete, design specifications and construction documents will be made available online to commercial developers and the public, “with the goal of encouraging additional affordable housing development in Bentonville and downtown markets,” according to the foundation.

The Design Excellence Program in previous years has supported the design of a new performing arts venue for the TheatreSquared in downtown Fayetteville, renovation of the Rogers Historical Museum, a new facility and playground for the Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center in Bentonville, new municipal facilities in downtown Springdale, a five-acre park in downtown Siloam Springs, and design of the campus and landscape at the new Thaden School in Bentonville.

Its current pool of regional, national and international architecture and landscape designers now includes more than 50 firms representing 15 states, Washington, D.C., Canada and Denmark, according to the foundation.

“The Design Excellence Program is focused on more than simply elevating design,” Home Region Program Director Karen Minkel said in a press release. “It’s about creating spaces that improve livability and quality of life.”

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