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Park, the Gathering
Tulsa's Gathering Place aims for reconciliation
Gathering Place park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the product of a dream of 77-year-old billionaire philanthropist George Kaiser and of several decades-long experiments by the landscape architecture team at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). What Kaiser originally intended to be a series of riverfront “gathering spots” to activate the city has become a singular, whimsical, and lush 66.5-acre landscape that has attracted over 2.8 million people since opening last year. AN spoke with Scott Streeb, Matt Urbanski, and Michael Voelkel at MVVA about designing the park and sourcing materials both locally and globally for “the most complex topography [they] have ever done.” Taking cues from fanciful and innovative European playgrounds, their goal was to turn several desolate plots of land into an inclusive, truly one-of-a-kind environment. By many accounts, they succeeded; this summer, TIME listed the park as one of the greatest places in the world.
Beyond its ambitious design agenda, Gathering Place has also aimed to unify the historically segregated city. Tulsa was formally settled in 1836 and by the 20th century had earned the nickname “the Oil Capital of the World.” Money from the energy business flowed into the city, bringing with it a serious construction boom during the Art Deco era. Despite growing prosperity, race relations were tense. In 1921, white crowds rioted for 16 hours in the affluent neighborhood of Greenwood, then known as Black Wall Street, killing local residents and destroying black-owned businesses and buildings. It was one of the worst attacks on African Americans in U.S. history, and Tulsa still hasn’t fully recovered.
Gathering Place is being marketed as a space where the region’s diverse communities can come together. A decade ago, in talks between MVVA and the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), key decisions were made to engage Tulsans in their vision for the future 100-acre landscape and to raise expectations of what 21st-century parks can do.
Over 80 philanthropic and corporate donors, including GKFF, funded the entirety of the $465 million park. Though built with private dollars, Gathering Place is a public park: GKFF donated it to the River Parks Authority, the city and county agency in charge of public riverfront parks, in 2014, through Title 60, a public trust law. River Parks now owns both the land and the park and oversaw the five-year construction effort.
Gathering Place takes up four disparate, flat parcels of land along Riverside Drive, the adjacent four-lane commuter highway, that were purchased in 2009 by GKFF for $50 million. At the northern end was once a 35-acre estate owned by oil entrepreneur B. B. Blair. The historic Blair Mansion, built in 1952, was torn down in 2014 after a failed attempt by its previous owner to relocate the building. Two large-scale apartment complexes south of the site, totaling 494 units on 14 acres, were also demolished and its residents displaced to make way for a construction staging area. GKFF offered to pay for those affected to receive mental health services. Phase 2 of the park’s design will be built out in this location, south of the skate park (shown below) and will include a $45 million children’s museum by local firm KKT Architects, as well as a $24 million pedestrian bridge by MVVA.
MVVA and German playground manufacturer Richter Spielgeräte designed the park’s custom swings, water-play and sensory equipment, elephant slide, and four fantastical wooden castles that stand 30 feet in height. Danish design company Monstrum shaped additional wooden playscapes to look like the great blue herons (pictured here) and paddlefish found along the Arkansas River. The 160 playground structures and their installation cost about $11.5 million.
In 2011, two years before construction began, MVVA began tagging around 600 existing trees on-site, some up to 200 years old, in an effort to monitor their health, and preserve and restore them. The firm then brought in 5,789 new trees sourced from over a dozen nurseries, two in Oklahoma and others in Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, and New York. The cohort includes over 90 species of evergreen and deciduous trees. Nearly 120 species of shrubs and over 200 species of perennials were selected as well and had to be stored in a greenhouse for up to three years before planting.
There are three buildings on-site by Atlanta-based Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects. The ONEOK Boathouse features a roof canopy made of 130 fiberglass-reinforced plastic panels in the shape of flying sails. The rest of the three-story building, which includes a steel and concrete frame, has floor-to-ceiling glass panels that Vitro Architectural Glass created using raw material and sand from Mill Creek, Oklahoma. Williams Lodge, the 25,000-square-foot structure that serves as an entrance to the park, blends into its surrounding landscape with native sandstone from Haskell County. These massive boulders integrated into the design range from 1,000 to 5,000 pounds.
There are over 20 different surface materials used at Gathering Place, including eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas sandstone in various hues. In total, the walkways used 4,500 cubic yards of fill excavated from just across the Arkansas River. The stones that flank the entrance paths are also from an in-state quarry, similar to those found in the Four Season Garden, a series of rock towers, pictured below.
MVVA took 450,000 cubic yards of silt from the Arkansas River to create the 40 feet of grade change in the park necessary to bridge over Riverside Drive. Ohio-based engineering company Contech fabricated a set of precast concrete arches off-site in Broken Arrowhead, Oklahoma, that support the two 300-foot-long land bridges that help the park seamlessly connect to the waterfront.
Riverside Drive was shut down in July 2015 and reopened in September 2018 after construction ended. The City of Tulsa spent $40 million to widen and reconfigure the busy highway and for other infrastructure improvements, such as stormwater drainage and replacing sanitary sewers and water lines surrounding the site.
Because Gathering Place is located just five minutes south of downtown Tulsa and immediately west of the wealthier Maplewood Historic District, accessibility is an issue for nonsuburban communities. This summer, the park began providing free shuttle transportation to underserved neighborhoods in North Tulsa, scheduled to operate every other weekend.
Because of the oppressive Tulsa heat, water plays a big role in the park, and its nearly-6-million-gallon central reservoir, Peggy’s Pond, serves as a source for irrigation. To create it, MVVA had to dig down to groundwater level, integrating 70 feet of grade change within the landscape. Wetland gardens at the northern end of the park work as a biofilter to clean the water that’s pumped out of the pond. Parking lot and highway runoff is also filtered through the gardens, and then through two large cisterns and below-grade, natural filtration basins. Wells throughout the site pull up clean water and redistribute it through the pond.
Half of the money raised went to capital investment and the other half created a $100 million endowment for the continued operations and maintenance of the landscape for the next 99 years. GGP Parks, LLC, is a subsidiary of the River Parks Authority that operates out of GKFF and coordinates the over 450 volunteers that help the park run every day. So far, both individuals and groups have completed 11,300 hours of volunteer work. There are also 200 full-time and part-time employees who specialize in horticulture, programming, community engagement, food service, and more. An underground maintenance warehouse spanning nearly 1 acre was built to house facilities management off-site.
Columbus, Kansas–based construction company Crossland took over the build-out efforts from Manhattan Construction in 2015 when initial preconstruction, utility, and dirt work was done. Since the park’s groundbreaking, any day sees upward of 150 to 500 people laboring across 27 work zones and 12 play areas. A total of $10.3 million was paid to both contractors, and 3.7 million man-hours were worked on-site.
Over the last year, Gathering Place partnered with a local charity group, John 3:16, and the Mental Health Association of Tulsa to help employees and security teams better understand how to engage with the city’s homeless community. The park is open to all and does not operate fully in the late evening or early morning, but does welcome the homeless throughout the day.
The Housing Network
Facebook pledges $1 billion to counteract California's housing crisis
To be a member of the middle class in San Francisco, California, it currently requires a minimal annual income of $192,000, more than double the national average of $78,442. While the rest of the country pays a mere average of $1,216 a month to rent a one-bedroom, the same space in San Francisco can easily set you back over $3,600. California has the highest poverty rate of any American state and the recent influx of tech companies in the Bay Area—along with the sudden increase in the cost of housing that followed—is cited among the biggest culprits. With accommodations for over 12,000 employees in Menlo Park, Facebook has become one of the largest companies headquartered in the area and critics have shown little restraint in pointing the cause of the local housing crisis squarely at the social media giant. In response to long-standing complaints, Facebook announced on October 22 that it will partner with the state of California and allocate $1 billion to address the housing crisis the company took part in producing.According to Facebook Newsroom, the $1 billion will divided five ways: $250 million will go toward developing mixed-use housing in a partnership with the state of California; $150 million will be given to the Bay’s Future Fund toward the construction of affordable housing in the Bay Area; $225 million will be used to create roughly 1,500 affordable housing units on land in Menlo Park previously purchased by the company; $350 million will aid in the construction of affordable housing in other cities with Facebook offices (including Atlanta, Boston and Ashburn, Virginia); and the remaining $25 million will be used to develop housing on county-owned land for teachers and other “essential workers.”
Altogether, the pledge will bring an estimated 20,000 additional housing units to the Bay Area, with an emphasis on helping teachers, nurses, and first responders “live closer to the communities in which they work.”
The news comes months after Google, another tech giant with headquarters in the area, also pledged $1 billion towards affordable housing in June. Just yesterday Apple shared it would one-up both Facebook and Google's offerings with a $2.5 billion commitment.
Build it Better
Designing Justice + Designing Spaces builds infrastructure to end mass incarceration
Design firm turns Hudson Yards towers into sex toys
Same building, New purpose
Atlanta City Detention Center could become mixed-use community development
Atlanta could be poised to convert its now-defunct Atlanta City Detention Center into a mixed-use development catering to the formerly incarcerated and the community at large. The Reimagining Atlanta City Detention Center Task Force, which was convened at City Hall by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for the first time last week, is in charge of determining how the 17-story jail facility will be used. With a whopping 471,000 square feet of available floor space, the building will likely serve numerous needs in the neighborhood.
Mayor Bottoms ordered the closure of the jail earlier this year, due primarily to rising costs and a lack of inmates. She emphasized the need for any revisioning or adaptive re-use project to be of benefit to locals, and especially to those who have already been involved in the city’s justice system. Several justice-oriented organizations, including the Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC) and the Oakland-based agency Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, have been tapped to guide the planning process. RJAC director Xochitl Bervera encouraged people to think big when contributing ideas. So far, informal proposals have included spaces for a daycare center, a food service training restaurant, a skate park, recording studios, and a legal clinic with an attached coffee shop. So long as the new development is not cost-prohibitive and is accessible to diverse swaths of the local populous, Bervera says it has serious potential to be successful.
In terms of the detention center’s physical makeover, concerns that entering the building could be triggering or unsettling to some former inmates have prompted planners to adopt a more transformative approach. The task force and RJAC have asked Designing Justice + Designing Spaces to reimagine the menacing structure with a more transparent and open form. With a glass curtain wall and a far greater number of windows than the jailhouse, initial renderings of the project offer a glimpse of how RJAC and the Atlanta city government will create the proposed Atlanta Center for Wellness and Freedom.
Overall, the effort is reminiscent of similar adaptive reuse projects executed in New York and other cities across the country. In 2016, two years after a film company announced plans to purchase Staten Island’s Arthur Kill Correctional Facility and convert it into the borough’s first movie studio, Deborah Berke Partners won a competition to turn Manhattan’s former Bayview Correctional Facility into The Women’s Building. Elsewhere in the country, detention facilities have been transformed into everything from luxury hotels to apartment buildings. But while the potential for an upscale development certainly exists at the Atlanta City Detention Center, there are concerns that such a proposal could exacerbate changes already seen in one of America’s fastest gentrifying cities.
In an effort to make the Gwinnett Place Mall truly feel like a time warp set specifically for the horror sci-fi series, the production team not only recreated the facades of iconic retail spaces with all period-appropriate signage and window displays, but in some cases, the entire stores themselves were redone. From Orange Julius to the Gap, Radio Shack, and JC Penny, the brief moments these places popped up on screen helped paint an authentic picture of 1980s consumerism. One of the most-filmed spots within Starcourt Mall was Scoops Ahoy, the made-up ice cream shop where Steven Harrington works. Trujillo called that project, which was built entirely from scratch, “our special little baby.” Spoilers ahead: In that ice cream shop is where Steve, Dustin, and newcomer Robin decode secrete Russian messages that lead them to discover there’s a world-ending operation taking place beneath their feet—the portal to the Upside Down is being reopened. That importance to the overarching plot helps explain why so much attention was paid to the layout of the mall. Apart from a scrapbook found on location with old images of the Gwinnett Place Mall from its heyday, the inspiration for the build-out came from the memories of staffers on the production and decoration teams. Most people on the team's leadership grew up in the 80s and 90s and made decisions for Starcourt based on what they remember it felt like to be in those spaces as a kid. “There is a homogeneity to the architecture of malls,” Trujillo told the L.A. Times. “They’re all calibrated to be similar spaces. We had to be somewhat specific about the regionality, but I definitely brought a lot of my childhood and teenage memories of hanging out and working in malls.” Though the set is closed to the public and is already being dismantled, according to one reporter who chronicled his visit for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), that hasn’t stopped fans from trying to take photos of the interior through fences. As a focal point of “Stranger Things 3,” Gwinnett Place Mall will forever live on in memories of fans forever, despite its soon-to-be demolition. The AJC reported in February that a sports stadium developer plans to build a mixed-use complex with a 20,000-seat cricket arena on the site.
This is amazing—Stranger Things 3's Starcourt Mall wasn't a sound stage. It was all built inside an actual dying mall in Georgia. And the set designers made more than simple storefronts—they made FULL INTERIORS, even for stores that were never seen on-screen… pic.twitter.com/v5RahFLPeR— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) July 11, 2019
Such sad news. Phil Freelon was a visionary genius who gave us so many artistic gifts. Prayers for @OfficialNnenna and his family. I remember this pic from the media walkthrru at @Nmaahc while still under construction. Just look at his pride. Rest in Power pic.twitter.com/i3fFj7VM8H— Michele Norris (@michele_norris) July 9, 2019
My father-in-law, Phil Freelon, made his transition today. ALS may have cut his time here short, but we are so grateful for everything he gave as a father, grandfather, architect and humanitarian. He lives on in his buildings and his legacy: https://t.co/4IJUXGl44n— Kate Sheppard (@kate_sheppard) July 9, 2019
Phil Freelon, the architect of the African-American History Museum (and many others as well), has died.I profiled him for @ourstatemag in 2017. "History is a funny thing. There can be poignant moments embedded in these objects.” https://t.co/ZDlUc0w8N4 — David A. Graham (@GrahamDavidA) July 9, 2019
Most recently, Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer, unveiled their renovation of the NorthStar Church of the Arts, a house of worship and space for creative activities in Durham. In a message on NorthStar's website, the Freelon family requested the bereaved donate to the church in lieu of buying flowers.
A brilliant mind. Incredible architect and esteemed designer. One of my biggest influences. I am grateful for the many opportunities I had to meet you and discuss your inspirational buildings and moving projects. Rest Well Mr. Phil Freelon. pic.twitter.com/siVUER57a4— Cheryl Dixon (@CherylDDesign) July 9, 2019