Parks aren’t called refuges for nothing. A great urban park can make you forget you’re in the city. It’s a place where anyone, no matter what their station in life, can take a free vacation from the cubicle, the counter, or the cash register, and emerge refreshed. With their towering trees, meandering paths and cozy seating nooks, Rittenhouse and Washington Squares are the gold standard, not just for Philadelphia, but for all American cities.
In recent years, however, our nation’s downtown parks have been required to perform a task that can often be at odds with the mission of providing respite. Driven by concerns about safety, parks are increasingly being turned into amped-up entertainment zones to ensure they attract a steady stream of visitors. “Activation” is the new mantra, and architects have responded by designing parks that are effectively multipurpose stages for never-ending fun and games.
Which helps explain how version 2.0 of JFK Plaza, commonly known as LOVE Park, ended up as a pancake-flat expanse of lawn and hardscape.
The park, part of a trio of ’60s-era plazas encircling City Hall, has just reopened after a complex, two-year reconstruction aimed at stopping leaks into the city’s underground concourse network. Because LOVE Park sits on top of an 800-car parking garage, its entire surface had to be ripped out so a new waterproof membrane could be installed. That project was seen as an opportunity to fix the flaws in LOVE Park’s original design. Even though it was famous (or infamous) as a skateboard mecca, the features that made it great for doing kickflips were not universally loved.
The multilevel topography has now been completely smoothed out to create a flexible surface, not unlike the one across the street at Dilworth Park. Gone are the tiers of steps that kept people with limited mobility from fully enjoying the space. Gone are the blind walls that made entering the park after dark feel like a calculated risk. Gone, too, is the massive fountain that, for much of the year, had the desultory look of an empty, slightly moldy, swimming pool.
While it’s hard to argue with the rationale for the changes, which cost $26 million, the result is a missed opportunity to create a welcoming and distinctive refuge in the heart of Philadelphia’s downtown. The new, 2.3-acre park is a featureless plateau, sloping diagonally from 15th Street and JFK Boulevard, down to the Parkway. Standing at that corner, you can take in the entire space with a single glance. Unfortunately, that openness means that you are completely exposed once you are inside the park.
Other than the north side, which is blocked by the ramp to the parking garage, LOVE Park has no edges; the space simply bleeds into the surrounding streets. There is no longer any place for any miscreants to hide. But there is also no place for people to escape the noise and bustle of the city. Although there are patches of grass and flower beds, the park is dominated in the center by a granite Sahara, which doubles as a fountain.
The new design, by New York’s Hargreaves Associates and Philadelphia’s KieranTimberlake, has already come in for intense criticism on websites and social media, mostly for the lack of shade and chairs. “What the hell happened to turn one of America’s most iconic city parks into a flat slab of uninspired concrete?!?,” the noted blogger Conrad Benner complained on Facebook.
The answer, ironically, is, that the architects gave people exactly what they asked for. Because the Nutter administration had come under criticism for leasing out Dilworth to the privately run Center City District, the city promised that the city-owned LOVE Park would remain the “People’s Park.” Rather than simply hiring a landscape architect to produce a new design, the parks department organized a series of public forums to seek citizen input.
Everything that those participants prioritized is in the new design: A diagonal walkway? Check. More grass and trees? Check? Flexible seating? Check. A fountain as grand as the old one? Check. A new cafe in the old Welcome Center? Check. LOVE Park was designed by committee and it shows.
Still, some of the recent criticism has been off the mark. Landscapes are not like buildings. They don’t emerge fully formed the day they open. It will take several years for LOVE Park’s gingkoes, katsuras, cedars, and red maples to reach a height where they can provide meaningful shade. If the park seems light on seating right now, that’s because the city is still installing benches and flexible cafe chairs. It is also worth remembering that Dilworth Park, located in front of City Hall, felt just as barren when it opened four years ago. But it has been softened up with umbrellas, cafe chairs and luxurious plantings. Heavily programmed (sometimes, too heavily, I would argue) Dilworth has become an undeniable people magnet.
I have no doubt that LOVE Park will pull in the crowds, too, despite its design flaws. Kathryn Ott Lovell, the head of Parks & Recreation, says her department is developing a rich program that includes line dancing, concerts, table games, food trucks, and “Wedding Wednesdays,” when marriage ceremonies will be performed al fresco. The parks department plans to hand out blankets to people who want to picnic on the grass.
Will those officially approved activities be enough to make LOVE Park a success? If you measure the results by the size of the crowds, the answer is probably yes. But if you believe the LOVE Park renovation was an opportunity to create a memorable space unique to Philadelphia, and its position at the head of the Parkway, the new design is a lost opportunity.
The designers at Hargreaves, Mary Margaret Jones and Brett Seamans, describe their composition as two interlocking squares, bisected by an ellipse. It’s no accident that the squares have been sized to accommodate event tents. Although Lovell says that private events in LOVE Park will be infrequent, the space will still have to generate some income to help offset the cost of its upkeep.
Walking through the park, I had the sense that I was navigating a diagram, and I kept thinking of Louis Kahn’s dictum that “the room is the beginning of architecture.” There is no shaping of three-dimensional space in the new LOVE Park. Ironically, that quality was something the clunky old version of LOVE Park had in spades. The new LOVE Park is a sanded-down version of the old LOVE Park, its rough edges removed and reduced to a generic, two-dimensional drawing.
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Because the new design is so flat, the most dominant architectural feature — apart from the existing Welcome Center — is the glass entrance to the parking garage. Outfitted with a bright green sign that proclaims “CarPark,” the pavilion acts as a giant billboard. Its prominence is a sad commentary on our priorities. (The Welcome Center cafe won’t be finished for several months.)
Like Dilworth, LOVE Park represents a new, program-driven approach to place-making. Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, calls it “splash pad urbanism,” after the flat, in-ground fountains that have become their defining feature — yet another form of activation. LOVE Park will have two fountains: a 25-foot-high jet that mimics the old torrent and a cascade of arched streams. (They are not in use yet because more drainage ports need to be installed, Lovell said.)
All that makes LOVE Park feel like a variation on Dilworth, and the other splash pad parks popping up around the country. How sad that something that was once so special could be reduced to something so ordinary.