Design Excellence Program supports multiple downtown projects in Northwest Arkansas

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,789 views 

In this rendering, the renovation of Dave Peel Park is one of the six public spaces that will be connected in the Quilt of Parks in downtown Bentonville.

A gathering place within a series of interwoven parks in downtown Bentonville, art-focused alleyways in downtown Rogers and a redesigned community center tied to downtown Springdale are supported by a combined $1.5 million in grants from the Walton Family Foundation.

These projects are the newest of the 15 that the foundation selected for its Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program since it started five years ago. The projects are in the downtowns of the five largest cities in Benton and Washington counties.

“The intent was to elevate the design of public buildings and spaces,” said Karen Minkel, Home Region Program director for the Walton Family Foundation. “The program has been incredibly successful in adding to our vibrant public buildings and spaces. They have created places for community connection, and they’ve managed to balance authenticity with world-class design.”

The program’s intent also enhanced “our sense of place,” she added.

Minkel cited a recent study by New York-based designer Gehl that shows the projects have achieved a balance between authenticity and quality design, created a place for community connection, and provided an economic impact. She was surprised by the support the projects have fueled and that more than $100 million in public and private money has been raised for the projects so far.

The report also noted future grantees’ challenges to include underrepresented communities in shaping the design and among end-users.

Connectivity between projects was another topic covered in the report, and many of the projects were intended to be pedestrian-friendly and accessible. However, without pedestrian-friendly environments or infrastructure that supports various transportation types, that might not be achieved. Minkel said the newest projects have connectivity features, such as the Bentonville parks and the Jones Center projects, which are expected to tie into other projects of the Design Excellence Program.

“The Design Excellence Program has shown us how quality design can be a catalyst for thinking about all sorts of things in terms of how you use public space and how you connect people to those spaces and within those spaces,” she said. “The idea of community connection and how design can help facilitate that — it’s an important takeaway, especially in a time where we are actively working to be physically distanced from one another and yet still feel connected as a community.”

The Design Excellence selection committee chooses the designers who can participate in the program, and the foundation’s Home Region Program leads the selection of the projects and grant recipients. The grantees choose a project designer from the pool of designers whom the committee selected for the program.

Karen Minkel

Minkel said unique projects, such as the downtown alleyway project in Rogers and the Bentonville parks project, can be replicated, “which I think is exciting for the region.

“The projects are all intending to create spaces that are welcoming for everyone and have a real intent from the outset of the project to include the broader community in the design process and ensure they are including diverse demographics within their communities,” she said.

The three projects, which were announced in October, include The Commons as part of the broader Bentonville parks project, the Downtown Rogers Alleyway Activation, and the redesign of The Jones Center in Springdale. Grantees are the city of Bentonville, the city of Rogers and The Jones Trust, respectively. The following are the Walton Family Foundation grant amounts: $507,150, $336,250 and $656,650, respectively.

Asked about art elements among the projects, Minkel said, “I think of design as being an artistic endeavor in and of itself. Rogers and The Jones Center have specifically said that art will be a feature of the work. So I believe that means we’ll see places for people to be creative and for artistic endeavors, especially of local artists.”

A master plan for the Rogers alleyway project is expected to be completed by September 2021, said Anna Watson, the city’s arts and culture coordinator.

The project is expected to “transform five blocks of alleyways into an arts-focused neighborhood destination and pedestrian network,” according to the Walton Family Foundation’s website. The project is between Cherry and Maple streets and First and Second streets in downtown Rogers.

The city’s Alleyway Steering Committee selected WXY Architecture + Urban Design of New York as the designer, said Mandy Brashear, committee chairwoman and Rogers City Council member. The company was part of the bid process for Railyard Park, another Design Excellence Program project in downtown Rogers, and she expects the park and alleyway projects to “connect and be a natural extension” of each other as part of a broader downtown plan.

“Pedestrians can expect to find a place that is engaging, that is meeting multiple needs of the community and that is somewhere where you want to spend time,” Minkel said.

Examples of similar projects are in European cities that have small alleyways with limited space because of the density but make that space pedestrian-friendly, and in some cases, closed to vehicle traffic, she said. She would expect places to sit or possibly to eat and things to catch one’s eye when walking down the alley.

John McCurdy, Rogers’ director of community development, said initial project plans were developed nearly seven years ago, beginning with the Downtown Rogers Master Plan. A project catalyst was when the city received bond issue money to replace water and sewer infrastructure. That provided an opportunity to do the project as the alleyways would be reworked for the infrastructure work, McCurdy said.

Money needed to complete the project will come from multiple sources, including the bond issue and area businesses, if design shows improvements to their property, McCurdy said. One aspect of the design work is how to pay for the project. Overall project cost will be based on the design in the master plan expected in September 2021, Watson said.

Redesign work for the 52-acre campus of The Jones Center is expected to be completed in early April, said Kelly Kemp-McLintock, chief advancement officer for The Jones Center and The Jones Trust.

The project will “create a regionally connected campus aligned with the Springdale Downtown Revitalization Plan,” the foundation website shows. Plans include green spaces, bike paths, infrastructure improvements and recreational amenities.

Denver-based Civitas Inc. is the designer and will host multiple events to receive public feedback on the project.

The estimated cost for the project is about $25 million, Kemp-McLintock said.

John George, a board member for The Jones Center and chairman of the Facilities Task Force overseeing the campus master plan project, said the grant would allow The Jones Center to consider the community’s needs and redesign its 52 acres in a way that can be better used. After the design is completed, fundraising for the project might take about two years, he said.

The sources and amount of money raised for the project have yet to be determined, but he expected most funding to come from the community.

The project’s aspects are the redesign of the 220,000-square-foot center, which is 25 years old, and to improve connectivity to Luther George Park and downtown Springdale. The 14-acre park also is a project of the Design Excellence Program.

Design Workshop Inc. of Aspen, Colo., is designing The Commons, “a plaza in the Quilt of Parks and an extension of Bentonville Square,” according to the foundation’s website. “The plaza will include passive recreation spaces and areas for public events, outdoor dining and community gathering. All projects align with the city’s Play Bentonville 2025 plan.”

The broader Quilt of Parks project will “thread together multiple downtown open spaces into a cohesive experience,” the website shows. This project previously received a Design Excellence Program grant from the Walton Family Foundation that also will pay for the redesign of Dave Peel Park. Design Workshop will complete this work as well.

David Wright, director of parks and recreation for the city of Bentonville, said a vision for downtown public spaces was developed as part of the Play Bentonville plan approved in fall 2017 to allow the downtown area to expand to accommodate large events.

Design Workshop had completed a project in downtown Houston that connected five or six public spaces with sidewalks, trees and landscaping. “This is actually what we’re trying to do,” Wright said. “We’re trying to connect Lawrence Plaza on the most northern end to the downtown square, and you wrap in Dave Peel Park that’s already in existence. The Play Bentonville plan had identified this 120-car parking lot as a potential future plaza that we’ve titled The Commons.”

The plan is to renovate Dave Peel Park and build The Commons at the same time to mitigate cost, Wright said.

Design work for The Commons and Dave Peel Park is expected to be completed in about six to eight months. How the projects will be paid for has yet to be determined, but he expects it would be a combination of public and private money. The construction estimate for The Commons is about $3 million.

A timeline to complete some amenities of the Quilt of Parks is 2024 or 2025, but the overall project might be completed in eight to 10 years, he said.

“In a separate Quilt of Parks project, the Walton Family Foundation is also supporting the A Street Promenade, a project that will close segments of A Street to vehicle traffic and connect the series of parks throughout downtown.”