The city has been planning on turning a 6.6-acre property, purchased in 2013 for $4.1 million, into an urban greenspace. The riverfront land sits between Harnett and Cowan streets, just north of PPD headquarters.
The design, worked on by a team that included the city’s urban designer Allen Davis, incorporated elements found in other urban parks around the country such as Discovery Green in Houston and Riverfront Park in Nashville as well as input from locals gathered during a public engagement campaign in 2014.
“We heard a lot of concerns about safety. Some people wanted a dog park. Others wanted it to be a world-class facility. Most people wanted more greenspace,” said Davis of the comments collected during that time period. “I think people looked at our Riverfront Park, which is mostly cement and concrete, and wanted something different than that – a large green lawn space but still in an urban environment.”
The middle part of the park will feature two large grassy areas: one, closest to the river, labeled “Great Lawns” on the current design, and the second, currently called “The Wedge,” will be to the east of that and face a large stage.
“We had always wanted our park to be a performance space, something that could hold Azalea Festival performances and stuff like that,” Davis said. “It seemed like the Nashville Riverfront Park addressed a lot of those elements.”
The Music City urban park Davis and his team members visited and studied includes a large music venue called Ascend Amphitheater, which can seat 2,300 people and accommodate 4,500 on the lawn. The same idea will apply to the Wilmington park, which will focus on hosting concerts for 3,000 to 6,000 people.
The problem, according to Davis, is finding the balance between having the outdoor concert space area, which for most concerts you would have to buy tickets for, from the people who might try to watch the concert for free from other parts of the park.
“Their solution [in Nashville] was to add more landscaping to handle that, so we incorporated a lot of that into our design,” said Davis.
The Wilmington park concept shows an area of “shade and mounds,” which will be planted trees and small hills that will be built in the middle of the park.
“You’re using landscaping, but you can still see through it,” said Davis, noting that the mounds would also help those sitting or standing way in the back to see better.
The stage itself will be on the other side of a street that will be built, called Old Front Festival Street. It will connect from the roundabout currently at Cowan Street to Harnett Street. During concerts and other events, that part will be closed off so people can stand close to the stage (or as Davis put it, “the traditional mosh pit area.”)
Having a street between the stage and the green space is strategic for several reasons. One is connectivity between the park and other parts of the growing northern downtown area, which will eventually include retail spaces and apartment complexes. The street could also be used for one of the many parades that march through Wilmington during the year.
Another is to be able to accommodate the large vehicles that performers use to carry all their sets, instruments and personnel when they come into town.
“You don’t want to go to a park area and have a bunch of vans and trucks and buses in the middle of the park when you’re trying to have a picnic,” Davis said. “So we thought it was important to have that street there. We can connect the other two streets, so the orientation worked out perfectly.”
While lawn areas will make up the majority of the interior of the park, the edges will have different areas and features to give a variety of experiences to visitors.
Sidewalk cafes, beer gardens and retail space are all part of the plan, particularly on the south end of the park, which will connect to an extension of Nutt Street that will be built as well as an inland wooden boardwalk that will extend from the existing Riverwalk.
“You really want that ground level to be active. You don’t want any dead space,” Davis said, noting that integrating the site with surrounding buildings was one of the most challenging parts of the design process. “Those weren’t necessarily difficult, but they required a lot of coordination [with other developers and property owners] and will continue to require a lot of coordination moving forward.”
On the northern edge of the park will be an interesting feature with both a practical use and a nod to the Port City’s history and industry: a wall made of shipping containers.
“We needed something to separate the park from the pump station on the other side, which can be an eyesore,” Davis said, noting that shipping container conversions are currently popular in architecture and urban design due to their cost effectiveness as building materials. “They activate the park’s edge to make it interesting and vibrant while reflecting our identity as a port city. They really convey a sense of industry that our city has and show how much of an economic driver [the port] is for us.”
Gardens, a splash pad and children’s play area are also included in the areas around the lawns. What’s not in the design are designated athletic fields, which Davis said was a directive given to city staff.
“The city wanted something more passive than active. We have a lot of other parks that address that need,” said Davis, though he noted there was nothing stopping people from setting up a pick-up game of soccer or croquet. “You can do a lot of stuff on the grassy area that’s not necessarily restricted to a certain kind of venue. We wanted to make it flexible.”
The next steps of the process are getting feedback once again from the public through an online survey, which will be open until May 31, as well as securing funding for the project.
“We really want to know: Did we hear you correctly? What did we get right and wrong? Do you have any concerns?” Davis said.
In terms of money, a potential parks bond could be on the ballot next November, which would include $20 million for the development of the site. Other avenues are also being explored for funding. It is unclear how much the project will cost in total.
“It’s only going to be as good as we invest in it,” said Davis, who is not part of the funding process of the project. “[But] one of the big wins of this park is the connections it makes to other parts of downtown as opposed to being a barrier. Making the connections to the Riverwalk was essential and is essential. What this park seeks to do is tap into that and help that become more unique.”