Focus on John Howell Park

Comments Solicited for Proposed Improvements

It has been a busy and productive year on the Virginia-Highland Civic Association Parks Committee.  Forming a new committee, coordinating with the City Parks Department, addressing challenges at the corner of Virginia and N. Highland, and doing a long-overdue comprehensive analysis of what was working and not working at John Howell Park have made for a very active spring and summer.  In each of these efforts, we’ve had tremendous support from a variety of volunteers – experienced and new – and professionals. We’re excited to report on what’s been done thus far and what lies in front of us, and we need your ideas, thoughts, and support, particularly at John Howell Park.

The year began in winter with the establishment of a new committee – John Becker, Lauren Wilkes Fralick, Laura Voisinet, and Jack White – and the repair of a half-dozen damaged benches in the Streetscape near our namesake intersection.  Several benches there had lost a significant number of slats from their back frames, and several more were about to do the same.  One of the causes was a mortise and tendon joint that could have been stronger.  The bench manufacturer shared our disappointment that the benches’ strength was less than expected and provided new backs at cost and additional metal braces for free.  Those were installed, but as an extra measure of support, the craftsman making the repairs – Gary Jones, recommended to us by the woodworking crew at Highland Hardware – added new reinforcement strips along the backs of all the benches and the fronts of several others in high-use locations.  The results have been excellent so far; the new backs will soon age to grey to match the original parts, this design is significantly stronger than the original, and the cost of bringing every bench up to this standard was less than the price of even three new benches.  The visual and functional improvements were obvious, and feedback and results thus far has been excellent.

Of course, no design will withstand deliberate abuse, so if you see any such behaviors, please call the police and let us know.

An even more dramatic change at this same corner was VaHi resident Nonie Daniel’s design and supervised volunteer installation of a planting in the Triangle in front of Taco Mac’s, in and around the Virginia-Highland sign.  Nonie is a longtime resident of the neighborhood; her professional landscaping skills have been on display for many years at the corner of Hudson and Lanier.  At the Triangle she created a lovely mix of perennials and annuals, with a lot of different colors and textures and led an enthusiastically-supported planting effort and a carefully-monitored ongoing watering plan.  This formerly drab space is now lovely and peaceful-looking.  There will be additional work there this fall; like all successful planting sites – especially public ones – ongoing maintenance is part of the project.

It would be easy to underplay the importance of Nonie’s establishing a support team of volunteers who are invested in the work at the Triangle and provide a host of eyes upon the results.  This model has been wildly successful over the last decade at Orme Park, where a vigilant and enduring band of neighbors and enthusiasts have been instrumental in the redesign and remaking of that park.  That sort of organized support is critical to the success of neighborhood parks; helping that happen in all our public spaces is a major goal of the new Parks Committee.

With Orme functioning well and the Triangle humming along under Nonie’s direction, the preponderance of our effort has been directed to John Howell – which is appropriate, because (as several citizens have pointed out, in thoughtful detail), it needed it.  This park holds a special place in this neighborhood’s heart and history.  It sits upon land redeemed from the successful early 70’s highway fight that saved and defined this community.  (The VHCA was created specifically 40 years ago to fight the road.)   It is named for and is a tribute to the vision and courage of neighborhood resident (and VHCA President) John Howell, whose early work in leading and establishing the fight against AIDS made him a revered figure far beyond the boundaries of this city.   And it’s the site of the Cunard Playground, which memorializes the three members of that Virginia-Highland family who were killed in a tragic accident nearly a decade ago.

Constructed on two levels, it is our largest and most-visited park; its lower half contains two separate playgrounds, two volleyball courts (that also serve as the city’s largest children’s sandboxes when not used for sport), two small grassy areas, and winding walkways.  The upper half (the part nearer Barnett) was designed with lawns and larger open areas to allow assemblies and quieter sitting and strolling spaces away from the oft-busier and noisier lower one.

The neighborhood and civic association put a huge amount of effort and money into establishing the park, but very little has been spent there for the last half-decade, with obvious and painful results.  The Parks Committee began by repeatedly walking through and talking to users about what they liked and didn’t, what they’d change, and – curiously – where they were from.  All the responses were informative and interesting; we met tons of neighbors and folks we knew, but we were also surprised by the number of people that travel from distant neighborhoods to play there and the variety of distinct groups that use the area at different times and days.  The enthusiasm for the park displayed by lots of people and ages was fortifying and great to hear.

And we needed to hear it, because the more time we spent with citizens, potential contractors and landscape professionals, the longer the list of challenges became.  It included – take a deep breath – the need for long overdue pruning of the original plantings, the removal of numerous invasives and volunteer-installed plants (some in odd and inappropriate locations), the need to stabilize and replace several sections of fence, address broken light globes, replace missing bricks, clean and sand benches covered with mold, repurpose a granite box that once served as a sandbox but had become a litter box, fix eroding and unplanted banks along Virginia, re-establish grassy areas that had not been fertilized or aerated for years and were filled with a variety of weeds, mulch trees and plantings, and address the highly-visible challenge of either re-planting –  or changing to a path – an eroding gully functioning as a dry-weather connection between the two levels.

Around the volleyball courts, there are more challenges.   Sand spilling unchecked from the courts onto Arcadia makes planting on that side impossible; the same situation exists at the back of the first court, where sand migrates freely up to and through the fence.   Also problematic is the absence of good delineation between the volleyball courts and the adjacent playground; children not infrequently are on the volleyball side of the granite wall and bumpers during warm-up and play, a situation that makes no one happy.

We found good news, too – lots of supportive citizens willing to volunteer time and money, and knowledgeable contractors (even the ones we didn’t wind up using) who thought the park was fundamentally beautiful and offered useful suggestions.  The City of Atlanta Parks Department is and has been helpful and enthusiastic, even though we and they wish that their overall budget – particularly on infrastructure issues like leaky water lines and electrical work – was larger. Their maintenance crews have been thoughtful and communicated well with us.  Challenges abound and will continue, but their effort – particularly at carefully not cutting the grass so low – has been great.  The Parks Director, Doug Voss, and Design Director, Paul Taylor, could not have been more supportive.

Another key partner in this area has been Volleyball Atlanta, the group that built and has maintained the courts from day one.  Reconnecting with them was critical to make sure that any changes meet their needs and in having them as a partner in fundraising for work on that end of the park.   Lauren Wilkes Fralick has spent a huge amount of time on this, with excellent results.

Our contractor, Walter Bland of Rock Springs Farm, is a knowledgeable and experienced professional with particular expertise in native plants and horticulture.  His crews have done an excellent job reacting to unexpected challenges under variable conditions.

Quarterbacking all this has been the park’s original landscape architect, Peter Frawley, who lives nearby and is also the designer at New Highland Park.  Peter’s knowledge of the park’s original design goals has been a key in this, both in contemplating solutions and in evaluating and validating the priorities and perspectives offered by various contractors.

Here’s the way we approached it.  With Peter and Walter’s guidance, we divided the list into short-term and long-term projects.  We first addressed as many as possible of what we identified as park ‘quality of life’ issues: pruning, mulching (still underway, as fast as the city can get chips to the park), relocating maverick plantings, sanding, sealing, and cleaning benches (still underway, with some easily visible results), fixing broken bricks and undercut sidewalks and the worst sections of fence (nothing easy about it), removing invasive plants, and planting the littered and abandoned planter.  We also aerated, fertilized, and removed weeds from the grassy areas, to see and support what useable lawn was still there, and to set the stage and to define the scope of what we needed to do on the lawns this fall.

While these efforts to protect and enhance John Howell’s existing features (planted and built) have been underway, the Parks Committee has been working with Peter and Volleyball Atlanta on some potential solutions to the long-range challenges.  They do not represent any fundamental changes to the park’s original master plan, but some of them will be noticeable, particularly around the volleyball court.  The city is very much in the loop; all of the ideas – there are likely to be more as we hear from more users – have been vetted through the Parks Department.  We didn’t want to spend time discussing ideas in the neighborhood only to discover later that Parks had objections.  They had some useful comments, but are fine with the concepts.

A more detailed plan view of them is available on the web site here:

And here’s a brief summary of the more notable changes:

Around the volleyball courts and along Arcadia:

1.      Need:  Sand spilling off the court through the fence onto Arcadia, making planting impossible and smothering trees.

2.      Need: Sand spilling off the rear of the court onto the walkway, making planting impossible.

Response:  Move the court nearest Arcadia 10’ toward Virginia Avenue. Remove the existing fence and ugly sandbags and replace with a u-shaped granite sitting wall around 3 sides of the court nearest Arcadia, with a new fence atop it.  The granite wall will contain the sand; plantings can be installed behind them.  The new fence will be about 18’ from the curb on Arcadia; there should be room for plantings and a new sidewalk connecting to Virginia Avenue, if we want that.  The new fence atop the wall (with the same net currently in use) will contain more volleyballs.

3.      Need:  There is insufficient separation between the volleyball courts and playground.

Response:  Extend the existing granite wall on both ends; install appropriate plantings around the existing light pole, for shade and delineation purposes.  When the courts are empty, children can still walk around the extended wall to access the sand, but the break between the two areas will be clearer.  An additional new sandbox can be installed on the lightly-trafficked piece of the playground walkway on the end nearest Virginia, if desired.

4.      Need:  A second fence along Virginia to catch errant volleyballs that clear the first fence and go into traffic.  There’s room for the fence, but the JHP sign would be behind it.

Response: Peter had suggested moving that sign in any case, and Parks Department concurs. Install a new wrought iron fence to match the once across the street at Inman between the easing columns.  Raise those columns slightly, if needed.  Move the sign toward the now more-spacious corner, where it will be more visible and can be part of a design that includes a formal planting of annuals and perennials to match a similar planned for the Barnett corner.

5.      Need: The upper-level banks above the sidewalk along Virginia Ave. are barely planted and often used as a pedestrian shortcut.  It’s hard to keep mulch or pine straw there; when events are held, those doing set-up and teardown often use the hillsides instead of the walkways.

Response: Install low granite curbs along the sidewalks to hold the soil, and plant appropriately.  Monitor access during growth and events until the plantings are established.  A wrought iron fence would work too, even a low one.

6.      Need:  The upper level walkway is partly bricked and partly not.

Response: Sell and install inscribed bricks there, bringing closure to a project initiated a decade ago and giving another generation of citizens a chance to be memorialized in the park.

7.      Need:  There’s an eroding gully between the upper and lower level that conveys water and silt in rainstorms and is frequently used as a shortcut, though it can be slippery and tough to walk on.

Response: Citizens appear to be voting with their feet for a pedestrian connection here, and many interviewed users were supportive of the option.  Install granite steps; connect them to the existing upper walkway via stepping stones amidst low plantings that will absorb flows.  Plant the areas along the sidewalk to absorb water there too.

There are other contemplated changes; these are the major ones, at least in our view.  The VHCA web site will have detailed pdfs; links will be readily visible on our home page.  There are many ways you can provide input.  Landscape architect Peter Frawley will conduct walking tours at 7 PM on Wednesday, July 18th, and Monday, July 23rd.  Parks Co-Chairs Lauren Wilkes Fralick and Jack White will conduct tours at 7:30 AM on Tuesday, July 31st and 9 AM on Saturday, August 4th..  Please come to those if you are interested.  You may also write us at parks@vahi.org.  If none of those times work for you, let us know.  We’re there a lot, and we’ll find a time to meet you.

Your thoughts and concerns are welcome.  These ideas are a synthesis of many different observations and ideas, but they are very much notset in stone.   Please let us hear from you – what you like and what you don’t, and your new ideas.

“What might all this cost, who will pay for it, when might it happen?”

Good questions, every one.  Obviously final costs will depend on whatever plan is adopted.  Costs vary with fits and finishes; there are some variables there, but the broad conceptual criteria were that the proposed changes address the known problems, were practical, needs as little maintenance as possible, and were consistent with the park’s overall standards.  We went through a similar process at Orme and approved a plan with much broader changes than those currently on the table here without a specific notions of how we’d pay for it; then we costed it (with some options) and went out in search of grants to support it, did fundraising internally, and asked for help from other groups.  Some of these solutions stand alone and can be sequentially; some are closely-related and need to be done together.

Searching for specific support requires an approved plan; until you have one, we’re still talking.  We think it’s all doable, as it proved to be at Orme.  For openers, we’ll look to our colleagues at Park Pride for grant opportunities, possibly as early as this fall if we’re ready; perhaps we can be.  Volleyball Atlanta will be going through similar processes to raise money for their part of the changes around the courts.

Many grants require matching funds; we’re hoping that twixt all these parties and citizen volunteers, we can bring some good grant applications with substantive support to the table.

Please write us: parks@vahi.org

For the Parks Committee,

Lauren Wilkes Fralick and Jack White

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