CITY HALL — The ideals of historic preservation have been pitted against principles of design aesthetic by an appeal of a Landmarks Commission vote to alter the look of the future Town Hall Square Park in front of City Hall.
Landmarks Commissioners voted to approve the most recent layout by designer James Corner Field Operations at its Sept. 20 meeting, but placed four conditions on the project.
Commissioners required that the decorative brickwork lining the sidewalk and entryway be retained, the planter boxes in front of the entrance remain in place, that the designer reduce the amount of decorative grass and number of western sycamores that form a border around the lawn.
In its appeal, the City Manager’s Office — guided by the James Corner design team — moved to strike the first two as written, said Karen Ginsberg, assistant director of Community and Cultural Services Department.
“The design team felt strongly that two of the conditions that were required were ones that we thought we could address, but not in the direct way that the language required,” Ginsberg said.
Rather than retain all the brickwork, as originally requested by the commission, staff would have the flexibility to remove some or all of it if the condition was lifted.
The planter boxes, which commissioners stated gave depth to the front of the building, prevented the design team from lengthening ramps required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to the point that they would have a shallow enough grade to get rid of the existing hand rails.
“We’ve developed a scheme that keeps the planter in the front and achieves the ramp without the handrails,” Ginsberg said.
In all, the goal was to keep the changes in the spirit of the commission’s recommendations, if not the letter.
The two alterations comprised most of the conversation about the design at the meeting, which was already cut short because the meeting had to end by the Main Library’s 9 p.m. closing time.
Commissioner Roger Genser felt that the commission had compromised a great deal over the design, going so far as to eliminate the rose garden planted by the Gold Star Mothers in 1951 in memory of veterans.
Instead, the garden will be replaced with a water feature with 52 jets, one for every rose bush, that ties into the water theme in the yet-to-be-completed Palisades Garden Walk across the street.
“The rose garden is going, and that was controversial,” Genser said. “But the thing that ties it together, the old and the new, are the bricks.”
Other features, like the undulating hills that the James Corner team proposed for the front lawn, also didn’t win favor with commissioners, but they ran out of time to debate them.
“We were so rushed,” Genser said. “Those meetings in the library. We had to make a decision in 45 minutes.”
The appeal will be held at the Oct. 25 City Council meeting. Council members will be asked to hear the appeal “de novo,” or as though they’d never seen the project before.
This isn’t the first scuffle over the design of Town Hall Square Park.
The lawn has been the prize in a game of tug-of-war between City Hall and the Landmarks Commission, which played a trump card when it defined 16 qualities as “character defining features” of the site, forcing the design to go through an additional landmarks approval process.
While the City Hall building itself was landmarked in 1979, the landmark status didn’t point out specific features on the ground around the structure that ought to be preserved.
The move came six months after the process to design the park had begun and city officials had solicited opinions from community members over the course of three meetings, which had produced three different designs.