Hemming Plaza vs NYC's Bryant Park: A Tale of Two Parks

October 17, 2014 49 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

What Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza Can Learn from the Historic Restoration of New York’s Bryant Park by Metro Jacksonville contributor Ken Bowen.



Long-Term Design


A Reimagined Hemming Park

Any long-term plan for Hemming Plaza should begin and end with transforming the obsolete concrete maze back into a green urban park. An open lawn and clear sight lines will not only make Hemming a more social, safe, self-enforcing space, but will also highlight one of her biggest advantages – the view. Standing in the center of the plaza, a century of historic and modern architecture surrounds you. Hemming might offer the best view in the entire city, with sweeping profiles of the St. James Building, Snyder Memorial Church, 11E, the Roosevelt, Bank of America and Wells Fargo Tower, the Main Library, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Laura Street Trio, the JEA Building, the Federal Courthouse, and more, all with the still-futuristic Skyway quietly zipping by in the background. As it currently stands, the fountains, trees, and confederate statue are the only ones who get to enjoy the plaza’s best views.

Friends of Hemming Park share this desire to one day restore Hemming Plaza to Hemming Park, as evidenced by the deliberate choice of name for their organization. Executive Director Vince Cavin tells me, “There’s absolutely a plan and vision to make the plaza into a park – a place that invites commingling with our friends, family, and community. We are looking at ways, further down the road, to create the type of greenscapes that contribute to an archetypal park. Part of the reason for calling it a park instead of a plaza comes from the intentional effort that we plan to put into the transformation of this important city square. It mobilizes the vision that we can create a modern urban park, similar in fashion and scope to Bryant Park, but with elements that are uniquely Jacksonville, such as the art, amenities, and food flavors of the south.”

Though there are thousands of ways that Hemming Plaza can be reimagined, a simple approach is probably the best. With its prime location and beautiful outer square, the design needs to simply move out of the way and allow the city around it to shine.

In this simple example, well-defined, lit entrances combine with a slight, non-obstructing elevation and prominent branding to give Hemming Park a sense of place. Clear sightlines, an inviting perimeter, uniformed workers, and prominently displayed park rules lead to an intrinsically self-enforcing space. Visitors know what is allowed and what isn’t, and they know that they are likely to be seen and asked to leave if they break the rules. Open space breeds accountability.


Front Entrance, Laura Street
 

Right Entrance, Duval Street


Left Entrance, Monroe Street
 

Branding Gives a Sense of Place





Google Earth Aerials:









 


Flexibility



If Hemming Plaza is to truly re-emerge as Jacksonville’s prominent gathering spot, its design needs to be flexible enough to accommodate dozens, if not hundreds, of different use cases. Unfortunately, modern Hemming Plaza is the antithesis of flexibility. The square is a labyrinth of oddly-placed concrete, fountains, benches, utility boxes, and trees, all with a giant statue planted directly in the center. The poor layout hurts overall cohesiveness of the plaza and presents a significant handicap in regards to programming.

With city funding (Hemming literally lies on the front steps of City Hall after all), and through private fundraising, Friends of Hemming Park should make planning and lobbying for a flexible redesign their first long-term goal. By incorporating an open, central greenspace – as numerous urban parks in the United States have done with great success in the last two decades – FHP would set the park up for future stability and success, all for a lower cost than Mayor Brown’s proposed demolition of the old county courthouse.

Lightweight, movable seating should be included in a redesign. Though this type of park furniture was first popularized in the United States at Bryant Park, it has since been utilized in dozens of other locations across the country. The Portland Tribune, when describing the turnaround that the notoriously unsafe Halladay Park has enjoyed with such seating, says, “Those unchained chairs are a reflection of [Bryant Park President] Biederman’s parks philosophy. Just watch one of his parks for a few minutes, he says. Older people move their chairs closer so they can hear one another better. Families sit close for private conversations that can’t be overheard. People like turning their chairs around so the sun doesn’t hit their faces, and moving them away from spots in the park in which they feel unsafe. All those people are feeling a measure of control over their personal space by being able to move their chairs around.”

Movable chairs not only provide flexibility and control for park visitors, but would allow FHP and park volunteers to quickly convert the park into a makeshift auditorium for performances or other programing. After events, park visitors could help return the seats to a designated area within the park.

A stage – either fixed or temporary – and perhaps a video screen are the last necessary components to maximize the park’s flexibility. Though nearby business owners and city officials have expressed concern that the area behind a stage would provide cover for illicit activity, any long-term redesign of Hemming Plaza absolutely needs to be conducted with visitor experience in mind, not outsmarting hypothetical criminals.


Hemming Park Stage
 

Lightweight, Movable Seating


Amenities

Using lessons learned from Bryant Park, let’s look at several amenities that Hemming Park could incorporate.

Food - Hemming Plaza and its surrounding storefronts should be a primary lunchtime destination for downtown workers, library and museum patrons, FSCJ students, out-of-town visitors, and even the after-church crowd on Sunday. Instead, the city has been hesitant to maximize Hemming’s dining potential for fear of upsetting nearby businesses. At a 2012 ad-hoc City Council meeting called to address problems at Hemming, it was suggested that only non-competing food vendors be allowed to operate at Hemming Plaza. “Shaved iced carts” were the given example. With all due respect to those in attendance, downtown revitalization has never been accomplished with shaved ice.

Food truck activity should be encouraged throughout the week (not just on Thursday and Friday as it is currently), regardless of the type of cuisine served, and because Friends of Hemming Park will be providing the marketing and programming necessary to draw the lunch crowd to the park, food truck operators should eventually be required to provide a fair vendor fee to FHP as business increases.


 Food Trucks in Hemming Plaza (Jax Daily Record)


As food trucks are transitory by nature, permanent food kiosks should also be part of Hemming Park’s eventual redesign. Hemming should be a place that out-of-towners or locals can go to get a taste of Jacksonville, and the city’s best and brightest chefs should be actively recruited to operate these kiosks on a permanent or rotating basis. Local all-stars like Matthew Medure (Matthew’s, Restaurant Medure, M Shack) and Jonathan Insetta (Black Sheep, Restaurant Orsay, Chew) could be offered a low rent to get the ball rolling and then new tenets could perhaps be rotated in by season. M-Shack, Black Sheep, Taco Lu, Blue Bamboo, French Pantry, Sake House, Pattaya Thai, Fifth Element, Burrito Gallery, etc. Kiosks could even be designed to operate separately for breakfast and lunch, with morning tenets like the Donut Shoppe, Metro Diner, Secret Garden, or the Fox recruited to draw in the breakfast crowd. Food kiosks are relatively low risk due to the captive nature of downtown’s thousands of workers, and would likely prove a win-win for all involved. Office workers and downtown visitors get quality food choices in the heart of the city. Food vendors get the prestige of operating out of Hemming Park and are able to give patrons a simplified preview of what is offered in their full restaurants. And Friends of Hemming Park earn vendor fees that can be put toward park upgrades or operating expenses.





Nearby brick-and-mortar owners may be resistant at first, but in the long run (or even in the short run, as in Bryant Park’s case), their businesses will enjoy the massive advantages of bordering a popular, vibrant park.

Coffee & Newsstand – In the early 1900s, visionary park planner Frederick Law posited that an active, lively “outer park” is almost as important to a park’s success as the activity within. The Project for Public Spaces agrees, saying that “the streets and sidewalks around a square greatly affect its accessibility and use, as do the buildings that surround it. Imagine a square fronted on each side by 15-foot blank walls — that is the worst-case scenario for the outer square. Then imagine that same square situated next to a public library: the library doors open right onto the square; people sit outside and read on the steps; maybe the children’s reading room has an outdoor space right on the square, or even a bookstore and cafe. An active, welcoming outer square is essential to the well-being of the inner square.”

Hemming Plaza’s existing outer square is a mixed bag. Though the plaza is surrounded by some of the most desirable tenets imaginable for a public space – City Hall, the main library, museums, restaurants, and a mass transit station – many of these tenets are weekday only with only one main entrance. Even during the week, several dead zones border the park, particularly in front of City Hall.

To fill in these gaps and help activate the sidewalk, a coffee kiosk or a newsstand could be installed. Library patrons have been without an adjacent café since Shelby’s coffeehouse closed in 2011, and downtown workers and visitors will always be in need of coffee, hot chocolate, newspapers, snacks, drinks, batteries, gum and other quick staples. A small coffee or newsstand would bring extra life and utility to this section of Hemming’s perimeter and would provide added incentive for pedestrians to come to the area.


Sample News & Snack Stand



Reading Room - One of the most popular amenities of Bryant Park is the “outdoor reading room.” This sectioned off area of the park, operated by the New York Public Library, offers an eclectic selection of books, rotated weekly, that are free to be read without a library card or identification. Hemming Plaza is in the perfect location to offer this simple, low-cost amenity. FHP should partner with the main branch of the Jacksonville Public Library to create such a space, either in the park itself or on the wide sidewalks in front of the library. Children’s books could be featured on the weekends for families, for example, best sellers and seasonal favorite could be displayed year-round, and motivational self-improvement books could be hand-picked with the help of Hemming’s social services outreach worker for the park’s down-and-out.


 Bryant Park’s Outdoor Reading Room (BryantPark.org)
 


Hemming Plaza’s Southeast Corner – A Potential Location for Outdoor Reading Room


Restaurants/Bars – Hemming Plaza is in the heart of Jacksonville’s central business district, and a short Skyway ride away from downtown’s Southbank. Each afternoon, tens of thousands of workers flood out of nearby office towers dreading the evening commute back home. Hemming Plaza should give these workers a reason to stick around. Friends of Hemming Park have discussed offering beer and wine in a sectioned-off area of the park. This is a great idea. Eventually, the long-defunct Snynder Memorial Church that anchors Hemming Plaza’s northwest corner could be converted into a bar with the help of the city and Spark District. The space earned raved reviews for its use as a live music venue during the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, and there’s no reason that it couldn’t become a permanent downtown hotspot. Charleston’s Mad River Bar is a great example of a similar conversion. Outdoor seating could help activate this currently-dead portion of the outer square, and patrons could be permitted to take alcohol into a roped off section of Hemming Park during restricted hours.
 

Synder Memorial Church
 


Mad River Bar – Charleston, South Carolina




Public Art – Public Art should be prominently featured in Hemming Plaza, and should be rotated out often to encourage repeat visits. Sculptures can be borrowed from JMOCA, and local artists can be commissioned to create work for the park (similar to the new Sculpture Walk at the Main Street pocket park). Additionally, local artists should be encouraged to work in Hemming Park, demonstrating their techniques and providing lessons to park visitors.

Games – Board games could provide a fun, comfortable, social amenity for park visitors at minimal cost to Friends of Hemming Park. Permanent chess and checkerboards can be installed, with game pieces rented from a volunteer game master. Various board games could be purchased by FHP and rented for use at any of Hemming’s tables. Portable ping-pong tables, volleyball or badminton nets, or other sporting equipment could be brought in on weekends, funded by sponsors in exchange for having their name prominently displayed on or near the equipment.

Landscaping – The Bryant Park model, with a central great lawn overlooking the city and shade trees and seating surrounding the perimeter, is the perfect fit for an eventual restoration of Hemming Park. Planters maintained and sponsored by Jacksonville’s finest garden clubs could add color to the park. Plants grow, and careful consideration should be given that the types of vegetation chosen will not eventually obstruct Hemming Park’s clear sightlines and perimeter.

Technology – Dependable WiFi should be offered free of charge to all of Hemming’s guests. FHP could consider requiring guests to register an email address before logging in. This would allow the group to build a mailing list to be used for the purpose of direct marketing or soliciting feedback from Hemming’s users. Upon login, guests could be redirected to a splash page promoting upcoming events at Hemming and, if technically possible, a paid Wi-Fi option with boosted speeds could be offered.


Staff

Great care should be taken to hire a staff that genuinely projects the warm, safe, welcoming atmosphere desired for a new, vibrant Hemming Plaza. Security and maintenance workers should be clearly identified by name and should make an effort to get to know the faces and names of regular Hemming Park visitors. Park visitors who do not follow posted rules should be escorted out without causing the type of scene that would reinforce Hemming’s negative image.

All staff, regardless of position, should be willing to get their hands dirty in order to keep the park clean and safe. Workers running kiosks, food trucks, or stands should be friendly and sincere, thank guests for visiting Hemming Park, and on certain days ask patrons if they would like to round up their total to help support Hemming Plaza.



Programming



When it comes to specific programming, friends of Hemming Park have no shortage of options. The Jaguars, Suns, Sharks, and Giants could hold game-day rallies. Alhambra Dinner Theater, Players by the Sea, San Marco Little Theater, Stage Aurora, and other companies throughout the city can stage short, stripped down previews of upcoming shows in Hemming Park. The Jacksonville Symphony can perform for special events, and smaller quartets could be invited to play at lunch time. Local dance academies and high schools such as Douglas Anderson can be tapped for talent. Stand-up comedians, open mic events, poetry readings, and historical or academic lectures can be booked. Jacksonville’s best yoga and zumba instructors could hold free weekend classes in the park. Movie nights could be held throughout the year. The options are nearly endless in a city of our size.

And because of the free publicity and prestige associated with performing in a vibrant, central location like Hemming Park, before long Friends of Hemming Park – like the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation – might find themselves with a line of people out the door wanting to perform in the park.

During the week, a focus should be put on smaller lunch-time and early evening entertainment. Thousands of workers are already in the area and simply need a little nudge to wander over into the park. On weekends, more extravagant “destination” entertainment can be programmed in order to draw visitors into the downtown core.

Seasonal programming should also be an important staple of Hemming Park. Examples might include a New Year’s celebration in January, floral exhibits in spring, a farmers market in the summer, Jaguars-themed events leading up to the start of the football season, a pumpkin patch in October, etc. Seasonal movies can also be shown in the park (beach movies in the summer, scary movies in October, holiday movies in the winter).
 


Jaguars Logo Painted Mid-Lawn at Hemming Park

In the winter, Jacksonville is one of the only major Florida cities that doesn’t offer outdoor ice skating. Even our much smaller neighbor, St. Augustine, hosts ice skating at its amphitheater. An outdoor ice skating rink, perhaps sponsored by a major local business (like the Jaguars), would give Hemming Park an attraction unique to the city, and would instantly make the park a must-visit annual destination for local families.
 


Outdoor Ice Skating at St. Augustine Ampitheater


Ice Skating at Hemming Park:





 
Equally important to programming Hemming Park is creating an awareness of that programming. Regardless of how great the performances or events that FHP book for the park are, without proper marketing and promotion, no one will ever know that they are taking place. In addition to the previously noted suggestions and general targeted and mass marketing campaigns, an inexpensive outdoor LED Ticker could be installed at Hemming Park, perhaps below the front face of the Skyway Station. The display could advertise upcoming events, relay important local news, or promote other upcoming events in the greater downtown area.

FHP should seek to build relationships and synergy with downtown’s other major businesses and destinations. For example, FHP could run co-promotions with the Jacksonville Suns. Pre-game events could be held at Hemming Park, with those in attendance receiving exclusive coupons or offers good at the Baseball Grounds that evening. Suns ticket holders could, in turn, receive vouchers good for a free board game rental or a discounted drink at Hemming Park. Mutually beneficial relationships and promotions could be built with the Jaguars, the Giants, the Sharks, the MOSH, the Times-Union Performing Arts Center, the Landing, the Florida Theater, the bars along the Elbow, JMOCA, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, and countless others. Hemming is in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, and there’s no reason that it couldn’t and shouldn’t be the place to go before or after major downtown events.


Diverse Sources of Revenue

Friends of Hemming Park were given an 18-month contract, with no guarantee of additional funding beyond that. With no time to waste, FHP should immediately begin seeking out and exploiting every possible source of revenue possible. Turning around the existing park isn’t going to be easy, and the quicker the group begins to build revenue streams, the more rapidly Hemming can be improved upon and transformed.

Just a few ways that Friends of Hemming Park might consider monetizing the park now and in the future include:

• Offer paid sponsorship of Hemming’s temporary or permanent amenities. For example, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation allows businesses and visitors to sponsor the park’s movable furniture. For $150, you can have your name placed on a placard attached to one of the park’s lightweight chairs.

• Give park visitors the opportunity to round up any purchases made within Hemming to the next dollar, with proceeds going toward the maintenance and improvement of Hemming Park. Card readers can also be configured to ask buyers if they would like to add $1, $3, or $5 onto their purchase price to benefit Hemming.

• Charge site fees to host public events, such as trade shows, expos, job fairs, etc.

• Host private events, such as weddings and corporate events, to the fullest extent possible without significantly affecting public enjoyment of the park or violating city code.

• Hold seasonal fundraisers or special member events for the specific purpose of raising money for Hemming Park.

• Collect vendor fees from food kiosks, food trucks, stands, and other commercial entities doing business within the park.

• Solicit voluntary, fair contributions from nearby businesses and building owners who directly benefit from the restoration of Hemming Park and the security and maintenance provided by FHP. Otherwise, solicit the city of Jacksonville to create a Business Improvement District in the vicinity of Hemming Plaza.
 

In Closing

Though there are a thousand ways that Hemming Park can be tweaked or redesigned, by doing the little things properly and focusing on the core principals discussed – smart safe social design, flexibility, amenities, staff, programming, and diverse revenue sources – Hemming, like Bryant Park before it, has its best opportunity to finally reclaim its rightful position as Jacksonville’s premier urban space

The Landing might get more attention, but it is this guest writer’s humble opinion that Hemming is the key to downtown’s revitalization. 150 years of history point to the fact that how goes Hemming Park, so goes downtown Jacksonville. A vibrant, safe Hemming could not only radically transform public opinion of our city’s core, but could also catalyze nearby redevelopment. Skyway ridership will increase, surrounding property values and occupancy rates will rise, and even the library will see heavier use.

It won’t be easy for Friends of Hemming Park to reverse the decades of damage done to Hemming’s image, but if they succeed in creating the safe, self-sustaining central space that Jacksonville deserves, the rewards will be immeasurable.



Article by Ken Bowen. Contact Ken at KenBowen242@gmail.com

Ken Bowen works in civil engineering and is the author of Big League City! 100 Years of Football in Jacksonville (http://amzn.to/1sylELp). Ken will be speaking in Hemming Plaza this fall about Jacksonville’s football history.


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