by Jack White
Four years ago, the VHCA Parks Committee undertook a thoroughgoing renovation of John Howell Park.Designed on two levels a quarter-century ago by local landscape architect Peter Frawley, John Howell is really two side-by-side parks, each complementing the other.
Bordered by Barnett Street, the eastern half is primarily passive, though its two grassed areas can (and do) accommodate periodic large assemblies. This year’s Summerfest Community Dinner and music stages were on (what we call) the Great Lawn; birthday parties and impromptu volleyball games are frequently seen there on weekends. The area is surrounded by a sweeping pedestrian path with benches and is generally quite tranquil.
To the west, a thick vegetative border (with no internal link to the rest of the park) marks the end of the upper area. While the lower section has some reflective spots and benches near the John Howell Memorial, it is a much more active area, defined by two popular playgrounds and two well-used sand volleyball courts.
Peter’s design was not the only possible approach – he considered creating one or more level playing fields, which would have been very popular – but it very successfully accommodates a range of divergent and seemingly incompatible uses in a relatively compact space. (Peter knew very well, of course, that such field spaces existed right across the street at Inman. Will those fields be available a decade from now? That’s another story for another time, but that outcome has never been far from many citizens’ minds, and we certainly aspire to have the neighborhood be part of the processes that decide the issue.)
Carefully maintained until about 2005, John Howell received very little systematic attention from VHCA for the latter half of the decade, and it showed. The grassy areas were in poor condition, a huge gully twixt the two levels was sending mud onto the walkways and De Leon Ave, the benches were shabby, the base of the John Howell Memorial (the black wrought iron piece at the east end of the lower level) was missing bricks, extensive bamboo had invaded the lower playground, the adjacent fences were in poor repair, the walkway planter was filled with trash, the faucets leaked, and well over a dozen lamps weren’t working. Those that did featured a variety of different bulbs and broken globes. The sand on the volleyball courts was barely restrained by a wall of sandbags that hemorrhaged sand onto Arcadia and into the storm drains leading to Clear Creek.
How the park got so shabby raises several interesting questions – first among them the issue of who was (and is) responsible for the variety of tasks it takes to run an upbeat park.
Some of the answers are clear; the city has always covered the park’s basic utility services (water, electricity) and playground infrastructure. (The latter, then relatively new, was functional.) The city mowed and looked after trees.
Those basics are important; doing more than that requires a lot more, and neither the city nor anyone else was providing it. The city was nearing the end of a quarter-century of reductions in park staff and professional capability. It fixed only what was obviously broken, and it often didn’t do that very quickly. Even the mowing was not to be taken for granted; the folks who did the work did not have a regular schedule, nor did they service the same parks repeatedly. The Parks’ utilities staff was overwhelmed. All in all, the outcomes were dispiriting and frustrating and left a big functional vacuum.
What the park needed was a major organized maintenance response from VHCA; what it got was individual volunteers randomly taking on various tasks on their own. It was the culmination of the citizen do-it-yourself park movement all over this city, a tradition that produced a lot of odd practices. Some of those citizen responses had real value, of course, including monitoring tree conditions. Many others were well-intentioned but ill-informed. John Howell got a bunch of plant material put in inexplicable locations by well-meaning citizens who needed some horticultural direction. A great many of those plants did not survive and have been removed.
If there were a bright side, the large-scale disorganization and randomness led to the growth of Park Pride, which increasingly sought to meet the obvious need to provide some organized direction and shape to citizens’ responding to the city’s own shortcomings.
In early 2012, VHCA began systematically addressing the conditions mentioned earlier. Two procedural points (both very time-consuming) turned out to be critical – the need to communicate and work closely with the Parks Department and the necessity of finding and hiring capable professional assistance – park designers, horticulturalists, and tradesmen. Get some intelligent recommendations, vet them through Parks and get their consent, and then get going.
Over the next few years – and a huge amount of meeting time later – the approach proved to be reasonably successful. The design aspect was critical. To VaHi’s great good fortune, Peter Frawley was still active and eager to participate. His skill and humor (and connections with capable contractors) proved to be key elements. (And he has a lot of patience, a virtue he repeatedly asked us to emulate.) Walter Bland has supervised almost all the horticultural work. An expert on native plants, he made and implemented a wealth of practical suggestions about what to do and when to do it.
Having these folks in the picture helped change the dynamics with the city’s Parks Department, who originally seemed a bit surprised that we were seeking to include them in the process. The hiring of Doug Voss as Parks Director in late 2012 was a huge step; he helped create a rational new internal system of tracking repairs that immediately produced better results. Maintenance crew assignments were more regularized, with much better public better access to the Parks staff. Some gradual progress slowly built the mutual levels of trust.
Much improved, the Parks Department still faces some real challenges. Their increased budgets and larger staffs have helped, but the latter are nowhere near where they were 35 years ago, even though the amount of acreage they care for has grown considerably. Local parks benefit hugely from active neighborhood support, an element that works well for us. We can afford it, but good parks shouldn’t be as dependent on that as they are. Many neighborhoods don’t have the volume of active citizens or history of successful fundraising that we do. Our parks are a direct beneficiary of the work of the neighbors who produce Summerfest and the Tour of Homes make all this possible.
Quite obviously, we have been very fortunate to have Park Pride in the equation. That organization has played an enormous role in the most visible changes at John Howell, the granite walls and fences around the volleyball courts. Their $50K grant from Park Pride – matched by VHCA (more than matched, actually) – made that work possible. (We will be honoring them at the Sept. 17th AGM; we hope you can come.)
The other changes are also worth noting. The Parks Department is now performing much more systematically and reliably, with very visible results; they deserve a salute. Safety and tree inspections are conducted regularly. Over the last few years they have installed new faucets, rewired over a dozen rusted-out lamps, replaced all the globes, and installed uniform light bulbs throughout. (Go for a walk there at night; soon – before a bulb burns out.) A new safety surface and the replacement of the equipment on the lower playground are on their regular rotation schedule.
Using Parks-approved contractors and Parks-approved scopes of work, VHCA paid for all the design work, fence and brick repairs, regular care of the lawn (aeration, fertilizer, weed removal), the repair of the gully, removal of invasives (still working on them), a host of new plants (more to come), refurbishing benches (more work always needed), and installed erosion control measure hither and thither. John Howell is – we suggest cautiously – in its best shape in a long time.
All that said, there is a lot more to do there, and David Brandenberger has written on that topic elsewhere in this issue of the Voice. Please check out his article, look at the further refinements being considered, and come to one of the scheduled walk-throughs with Peter Frawley later this month.
Jack White is a member of the VHCA Parks Committee and Board.