Mears Park in downtown St. Paul, MN, is a brilliant example of an urban park and a community square on which to model many aspects of Arlington, VA’s Courthouse redevelopment plan known as Envision Courthouse Square. This plan is an effort to redesign a no-frills, blacktop parking lot in the heart of Arlington, VA. Currently the site is a quintessential urban concrete jungle where a parking lot is surrounded by high-rise apartment and office buildings including county administrative offices, a court and a jail.
The site’s massive concrete structures create a classic urban heat island, absorbing and then re-radiating the sun’s heat. Residents and office workers in the area dodge cars across the bare parking lot to reach the subway entrance and a small plaza with shops and offices.
The entire area is unsafe for children and for old people–who walk more slowly–to traverse the parking lot to get anywhere. There are no benches to sit on, no shade trees to relax under. It’s a classic, thoughtless arrangement of public space that residents pay for with their taxes, but is wholly given over to the use of private automobiles — which pay small change to park for a few hours.
The goals in the 1993 Sector Plan for this site are to create a “public square” which reflects the area’s site as the seat of the Arlington County government center, and to offer an “urban plaza” which offers passive recreation, and create a safe, pleasant, and attractive pedestrian environment.
During “Envision Courthouse Square” planning meetings in early 2014, under the rubric of open space goals, community members expressly stated their preferences for
-increased tree canopy,
-water features such as fountains,
-rain gardens which are landscaped features to absorb urban rainfall runoff, and
-restful seating for community gatherings.
Overwhelmingly, the community “envisioned” and voiced their desire for
-a place where someone can sit down under a tree and read the morning paper
-a place where a family can shop at the Saturday farmer’s market then sit on benches with their kids and eat, instead of having to squat on the street curb as is the case currently
-a place where children and elderly are safe to walk, instead of dodging cars circling parking spots
-a place to rest in some shade and a cool breeze on a hot summer day,
-a place for children to play
-a place to enjoy flowing water or a fountain a place to meet your neighbors and engage in civic life.
These elements are currently embodied in Mears Park in downtown St. Paul, MN. Just like the Courthouse site in Arlington, Mears Park is located in a densely urban setting, surrounded by high-rise condominiums and older warehouse buildings. The park itself is designed for multiple uses. The principle attraction of the park is a scaled representation of the Mississippi River lined with birch trees, which flows diagonally through the park. Shade trees have matured around the park with plenty of benches for people to relax on. Areas of lawn are maintained for people who want to picnic or enjoy open space. The City of St. Paul uses a paved corner of the park for public recreational use, hosting Thursday night open-air movies and bands, and for renting out for private events such as wedding parties. A covered bandshell gazebo has been built for exactly such events. At one end of Mears Park about a block down, is a permanent shelter which is used by a weekly farmer’s market throughout the summer season.
The value of trees to increase property appeal is well documented. Many studies have demonstrated positive health impacts, reduction in crime, rise in property values, temperature moderation effects, and general emotional happiness associated with living in urban neighborhoods where there are trees. Mears park offers a ‘nature break’ in an urban environment of straight lines and modern, concrete buildings. The park’s mature shade trees provide rest, a calming aesthetic feel, much needed shade, and a place where children can play under and develop a small connection to nature in a dense urban setting. The park feels like an oasis in an urban center.
Along the Park’s water feature — a simulated Mississippi River– there are sections of landscaping which are maintained by local residents. These residents’ names are advertised on their little patch of flowers, creating a source of community investment and pride in the space of the park. Every fall the flowing river is cleaned up in annual maintenance and the park is winterized for the long Minnesota winter.
Today the park’s beautiful landscaping features are so attractive and so conducive to community and street life, that downtown St.Paul residential unit values have risen, and new restaurants and cafes have sprung up at the street level around the Park, adding commercial value to the area. Based on the model of Mear’s Park in St. Paul, MN, it is absolutely vital that the Envision Courthouse Square effort include a strong component of increasing tree canopy. I would urge the County’s planners to consult in detail the design concepts, planning, and management of Mears Park in St. Paul, MN.