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City Manager Takes Elmwood Park Plan “On The Road”

City Manager Chris Morrill makes his case for Elmwood Park.

by Gene Marrano

Ahead of a vote by Roanoke City Council on approving $300,000 for a consultant’s study of Elmwood Park, City Manager Chris Morrill said he is willing to state his case concerning a park makeover to whatever group wants to welcome him.  After presenting his vision for the park to Council early last week, Morrill made a stop at a meeting of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, a citizens group that weighs in on proposals.

Morrill spent 30 minutes showing slides of re-born urban parks from all over the country, including Ellis Square in downtown Savannah, a project he worked on while assistant city manager there.  “Good downtown parks are something that cities all over the country have invested in,” said Morrill to a group that also included Roanoke Parks & Recreation director Steve Buschor.

Morrill wants council to approve the $300,000 for a study from $1.2 million that had been earmarked for the now-shelved Elmwood Park amphitheater; $4.7 has been set aside in the city budget for Elmwood Park renovations as a whole. The city manager, on the job for a year now, wants to see more synergy with the adjacent library, where permanent bathrooms could be added and made accessible to Elmwood Park users from the building exterior.

“[It’s] an incredible opportunity for the library to relate better to the park,” said Morrill, who would also “like to do it for less [than $4.7 million] if possible.” The amphitheater could include a terraced grass hill, making it easier to sit in lawn chairs, and some “hard seats” near the stage.

Morrill and Buschor also talked about permanent electrical connections, grease dumping stations and other utilities that could be buried along the part of Bullitt Avenue in the park that is used by food vendors, keeping their costs down.  Public spaces “evolve over time,” noted Morrill, who wants to see more people in the park, other than for concerts.

“We need to make the park part of our urban core,” added Buschor, who acts as a liaison between the city and the advisory board. Finding some way to integrate the adjacent Social Security office building in to the Elmwood Park landscape is another goal. Buschor also envisions adding another “signature park” near the Carilion medical complex on South Jefferson, and linking that to Elmwood Park, the Farmer’s Market and another planned park space at Wachovia Plaza behind the City Market building. “It could be one of the most interesting urban walks in the country,” noted Morrill.

As for Elmwood Park, Morrill wants to build “a better community amphitheater,” rather than the larger, more expensive one first envisioned. Elmwood should be an active, vibrant park first, Morrill cautioned, for downtown residents and visitors, “that also [just] happens to have an amphitheater.” Nevertheless, the concert area would probably be the first phase built, perhaps starting after this year’s slate of events, if a plan is approved by City Council.

Morrill feels an outside consultant is necessary (not all agree on that point), because “we probably can’t build one in-house.” He noted a tensile-roofed structure (stretched fabric similar to the Charlottesville Pavilion) that went up in Savannah but suffered from poor acoustics because of columns near the stage. An experienced consultant can help avoid those kinds of problems, he said.

Forsyth Park in Savannah, at any time of day, “is packed … an active space all the time,” said Morrill at the Parks and Recreation advisory board meeting. “I think that is what we want to go for.” Roanoke City personnel will oversee any renovations, said Morrill.

Before leaving, Morrill asked the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for guidance on Elmwood Park: “I’m really looking for your input on this.”  Not all of the board members are gung-ho about development there however: Duane Howard said he will recommend to other board members that nothing is done at this time, considering all of the other needs in Roanoke and the budget shortfalls.

“Given the failures of such major capital investments like the Taubman [Museum of Art] and Ivy Market [Ukrop’s] we should give the Market Building a chance to see how successful it’s going to be before we start another major investment like Elmwood,” said Howard, who expressed those feelings to Buschor and fellow board members. He would like the board to craft a letter expressing those sentiments for City Council, which meets again on April 28.

Roanoke’s City Manager indicated that he is ready to move ahead, and he is willing to make that case to neighborhood groups and others if invited. “In the last 20 years we’ve learned a lot about how people use public space,” said Morrill; “the potential [for Elmwood Park] is just incredible.”

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