According to the minutes of the Jan. 19, 2012 meeting of the Hemming Park Ad Hoc Committee, its objectives were to make Hemming Plaza safe and secure for all who visit the park.
While the focus of the committee’s work was the park, the homeless in the park was considered an ancillary issue. Those appointed to a sub-committee to determine recommendations to improve the park were Terry Lorrince (Downtown Vision), Jerry Moran (La Cena Ristorante), Chris Warren (Chamber of Commerce), Stephen Dare (Metro Jax), Ron Chamblin (Chamblin Uptown), Sheriff John Rutherford (or a representative), Fred Sarkees (Mental Health Resource Center), Karen Nasrallah, Jacksonville Economic Development Commission), Assistant General Counsel Jason Teal, Mr. Hudson (Bryan Building proprietor), and a Salvation Army representative.
New York City’s Bryant Park was used as a prime example for what should be done with Hemming Plaza. According to the sub-committee, Bryant Park, a place once plagued with crime and drug use was successfully redesigned by removing trees to improve sight lines and increase safety.
At the February 15, 2012 meeting recommendations to make the park more attractive to office workers and downtown workers included conducting both an online and in person use surveys, the removal of distressed trees and replace low growing plants, remove some benches to discourage large groups from congregating in a single area, identified the Northeast portion of the park near Duval and Laura Streets as a problem area and suggested removing tables from that area first, asked for increased police presence, suggested that Downtown Vision handle the assignment of setting up temporary chairs and tables if the permanent ones are removed.
Other suggestions included a greater presence by the Hope Team to address homeless issues, increase park programming, and consider hiring a private security company to augment the JSO officers who from time to time have to be called away from Hemming Plaza. At this time, Councilman Gulliford appreciated the recommendations but suggested actions be more pro-active rather than reactive when considering the park. The councilman then suggested the formation of a “Friends of Hemming Plaza” to help invigorate the park and bring about positive programming to draw new potential users.
At the March 9, 2012 meeting the sub-committee suggested the elimination of a certain number of benches, redistributing 15 to 20 benches in the park, movable tables and chairs as replacements that would be available for use from 11 am to 2 pm, and the recommendation that DVI oversee the utilization and storage of tables and chairs.
Later in March, the results of the public survey were released. Respondents wanted to see food vendors and family events. Respondents were not in favor of removing tables and chairs from the park.
In fact, 90% of respondents indicated they somewhat or definitely want the park to be made more attractive. 90% were somewhat or definitely against removing tables/chairs. 90% somewhat or definitely wanted more lunch time programming. 84% somewhat or definitely wanted more evening programming. 89% somewhat or definitely wanted more food vendors. 81% somewhat or definitely wanted a permanent café or restaurant.
According the the March 30, 2012 meeting minutes, despite the results of the survey, which include 90% of respondents being somewhat or definitely against removing tables and chairs, the major budget item in the short term list of recommendations focuses on the removable and replacement of existing furniture with high maintenance movable chairs and tables. At a cost of $94,500, short term improvement recommendations include:
- Closing a portion of the park to complete short term improvements.
- Removing distressed trees and replacing them with low growing plants.
- Identifying local garden clubs to adopt planters for installation and maintenance of plants.
- Eliminate ‘groupings’ of benches and spread benches throughout the park.
- Moveable furniture would be allowed to be used Monday – Friday from 10:30am to 2:00pm.
- Replacing broken tables and chairs with moveable furniture. Moveable tables and chairs have been identified as a best practice (i.e. NYC’s Bryant Park, Atlanta’s Woodruff Park). While maintenance is higher, the subcommittee believes the extra annual costs are worth the effort.
Short Term Programming
At a cost of $179,795 annually, short term programming recommendations include:
- Implementing lunch time programming.
- Additional staff to manage scheduling at $30,000 annually plus benefits.
- Improving the park’s PA system.
- Having local schools, artists, and businesses utilize the plaza.
- Allowing MOCA and the library to take advantage of the plaza.
- Consider ‘food trucks’ and higher quality food vendors.
In 2009, the City contracted with HDR Engineering, Inc. to provide a conceptual design to improve the functionality of the space and enhance the user experience with landscape, paving, site furnishings and signage improvements within the eastern half of the plaza. That design, which is 60% complete suggests a single level plaza that offers better sight lines and the removal of the fountain along Laura Street. The committee recommends finishing this design and beginning construction of this $649,620 complete park makeover by January 2013. This section includes $10,800 to remove the remaining trees in Hemming Plaza.
Cost of Recommendations
It appears that the recommendations fail to properly address the desires indicated in the public survey. Instead the recommendations tend to focus on finding ways to rid the park of its existing users and clearing the tree canopy for better security sight lines, as indicated in the NYC Bryant Park case study example. Without the addition of amenities and programming to attract a more diverse population, many of the suggested recommendations may not result in the development of a vibrant public space.
Despite the survey suggesting that removing benches is the least of the public’s concerns and desires regarding the park, $74,500 has been recommended to do just that. In addition, it seems highly questionable to invest nearly $275,000 into the space to only shut it down for a complete makeover by January 2013.
In addition, the HDR plan calls for the complete reconstruction of the park, which will eliminate its tree canopy at a cost of $649,620 to taxpayers. Quite frankly, the plaza’s tree canopy is its best remaining asset and given Jacksonville’s extreme weather conditions, should be preserved at all costs.
One suggestion that should be considered by the committee and City Council should be the programming of events and ideas on the recommendation list that don’t result in excessive costs. Another suggestion would be to spend just as much time studying and resolving the dead zones created by surrounding land uses on the park’s perimeter before investing $923,915 in a redevelopment plan that may not resolve the park’s core issues.
Article by Ennis Davis