The rose garden in front of City Hall is one of the elements being removed to make way for a new park. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

MAIN LIBRARY — The Landmarks Commission approved the design of a park in front of City Hall Tuesday, but only with a series of conditions that reduce the number of plants and trees and retain distinctive brickwork.

The decision came eight months after the commission declared 16 specific features of the lawn “historically essential” to the design, which required the designers to get past the commission before going on to the City Council.

Particularly important was keeping the design symmetrical and preventing any kind of obstruction of the view of City Hall, which was built in 1939 under the Works Projects Administration.

The brick surrounding the entrance to City Hall, as well as the concrete planter boxes immediately in front of the doors also merited special consideration, according to the commission.

Designer James Corner, of James Corner Field Operations, presented the newest layout — which represents at least the fifth iteration of the proposed park — as the solution to the “conundrum” that resulted from the designation.

“We were asked by the community and council to consider the area as a whole and bring something new,” Corner said. “This is to be the heart of the community, bringing the community together and breathe new life into Main Street.”

With that in mind, community members and the City Council asked that the lawn in front of City Hall be a softer, shady space, good for meetings and civic discourse.

It was meant to transition from the neighboring Palisades Garden Walk with a bolder design than the flat expanse of grass that exists there now.

In an attempt to incorporate that input into the guidelines imposed by the Landmarks Commission, Corner and his team pared back any kind of structure in the lawn area itself in order to leave the Moderne style of the City Hall building open to view.

Instead, the design included two rows of Western sycamores on either side to frame the facade of the building, as well as bring shade to the open lawn.

To connect the Town Hall Park with the Palisades Garden Walk across the street, mild hills rippled through the now-flat lawn, set with sitting walls to encourage members of the public to congregate.

In the middle of the space, where the Memorial Rose Garden now lies, a pool with 52 water jets was proposed, one jet for every rose bush now in the garden.

That feature would become the source of water that would travel through a system of shallow runnels into the adjoining park and feed the water features there.

Commissioners praised the design, saying that it represented a “significant accomplishment” compared to the original proposals that included modernistic elements that didn’t respect the space.

But there was still room for improvement in the eyes of commissioners.

Commissioner Margaret Bach spoke first and pointed out the two ideas that were reiterated throughout the discussion — the disruption of brickwork around the entryway to City Hall and the fate of two exterior planter boxes that currently hold greenery.

“The bricks really are part of the definition, color and materials,” Bach said. “There needs to be further exploration of how this feature can be retained.”

The brick is one of the few things left of the original concrete on the premises, said Commissioner Roger Genser.

Much of the rest of it is gone, lost to replacements and repairs, but the brick is “pretty much intact,” he said.

“It’s incredibly important to keep those. It ties together the historic front,” Genser said.

The nearby planter boxes would have to be sacrificed if, as the design suggested, a ramp without handrails was to be installed and still meet requirements for people with disabilities.

“The planters provide volume that give City Hall depth,” said Commissioner Nina Fresco.

Extending the ramps would also lead to the removal of juniper trees, which can’t be relocated without compromising their root systems.

The overall message would have made a Treesaver proud: Keep the junipers, keep the planters and, if necessary, keep the handrails.

At least until the next condition for approval.

An independent firm, PCR, analyzed the design of the Town Hall Park for the commission in advance of the meeting and recommended that James Corner take a look at the double rows of sycamores on either side of the building.

Commissioners agreed.

Fresco, armed with a Western sycamore leaf that would obscure most dinner plates, noted that no one was quite sure how high these trees would grow, or what impact they would have on the ability to see City Hall.

“There should be sky between each tree,” Fresco said.

Corner and his representatives walked away with explicit instructions to reduce the number of trees, keep the bricks, wherever they might be, minimize the tall, decorative grasses proposed for the lawn and keep the footprint of the planters in the front of the building.

Final conceptual drawings are due in December in order to keep the project on schedule.

The matter will go back before the City Council for ultimate approval.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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