The first phase of Asheville’s signature park is scheduled to be open in one month, after years of on-and-off construction work and the expenditure of millions in private donations and taxpayers’ dollars.
The opening of the Pack Square section of the new Pack Square Park will mark another milestone in a project marred by setbacks, escalating costs and controversy over design elements. The opening is also significant because the nonprofit organization overseeing construction, the Pack Square Conservancy, has been the target of criticism over its management of the project from members of the public and some downtown business owners desperate for an end to the construction chaos that’s forced customers away and displaced major public events such as Shindig on the Green and Bele Chere.
The new Pack Square Park is a remodeling of public spaces in the center of Asheville that have long been at the heart of city life. Pack Square and the former City/County Plaza have served as backdrops for everything from parades, protests and public art to animal drovers, movie-makers and monument-builders. The new park includes 6.5 acres of land running from the steps of Asheville City Hall and the Buncombe County Courthouse to Pack Square. It will feature new art pieces, signs, landscaping, two large water fountains, a performance stage and a pavilion.
Despite the pressure to declare at least a portion of the park open, members of the conservancy cautioned that the April 16 opening of the park on Pack Square was subject to change. Fred Bonci, a park designer, told the conservancy at its March 4 meeting that “substantial completion” of the area was scheduled for April 16. Board Chairman Guy Clerici said there will be a series of work items that will have to be checked for final completion, and those final checks will have to be done in coordination with a number of agencies.
“I don’t think we want to say April 16 is the public opening,” Clerici said.
Construction on the other two areas of the park — the “green” area directly in front of City Hall and the courthouse, and the “mid-park” area across from the Asheville Fire Department — will continue. The completion of the green is ahead of schedule and set now for July 22, according to Mark Durbin, the conservancy’s liaison with general contractor Landscape Valley Development. Meantime, the mid-park area was planned to be finished Sept. 16, but that date’s not certain, according to Durbin. That’s because a 4,200-square-foot pavilion planned for that section of park has been delayed.
Those opening dates come with their own caveats. For example, once construction’s complete on the park’s green, the area will still be off-limits to the public for one growing season to allow the new sod to come in.
Still, the conservancy is working on an event to celebrate the Pack Square opening, and Clerici said the organization is “hoping to do a little marketing and P.R. work” to tout the park. Another event — the placement of several large boulders that will serve as the base for a new Pack Square fountain — is coming up and will be another opportunity for publicity, conservancy members said.
Hurdles remain for the conservancy as it heads toward park completion:
• Fundraising: The conservancy still needs to raise about $5 million to pay for all aspects of the park, including the pavilion, which has been estimated to cost about $2.5 million. At last week’s meeting, board member Carol King said the conservancy had submitted applications to receive stimulus cash, either through the federal or the state government.
• Location of art pieces: The final location of the Energy Loop, Asheville’s first piece of public art, and Urban Trail station #1, still need to be decided in conjunction with other groups.
• Memorandum of understanding: The conservancy must iron-out a final agreement with the city and county about the park’s operation.
The Pack Square Conservancy broke ground on park construction in 2005 after Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners created an agreement that handed construction oversight to the nonprofit group. At the time, the conservancy had a planned completion date of 2007 and a budget of about $10 million. Since that time, the completion date has been pushed back and the project’s budget has risen to about $20 million. The project is funded by a combination of private donations and public money.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor