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Opinion: Community should circle around the square

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In the middle of Park Central Square is a small brass disc about the size of a silver dollar. Every address in Springfield is measured from that very spot.

The square is more than the geographic center of the community, however. It is an architectural manifestation of the crossroads where we can all come together as a community. It’s where students come to learn and seniors to reminisce. It’s where the affluent come for fine dining and those in need receive help. It’s where artisans create and accountants calculate.

The square also has been a reflection of the ever-evolving Springfield community. Since the construction of a two-story red brick courthouse in the center of the square in 1836, its seven designs were all shaped by the dominant forces of their respective times – the Civil War, Reconstruction, electric trolleys, the post-World War II proliferation of the automobile and downtown pedestrian malls.

The latest chapter of Park Central Square will begin this month when the fences come down after a yearlong renovation. On the surface, it will look very similar to Lawrence Halprin’s original 1971 design, a requirement for the use of federal funds. But the enhancements are meaningful and can be classified in the areas of accessibility, authenticity and activity.

Accessibility
By definition, the square should be a melting pot and microcosm of the Springfield community – a place where anyone engaged in any lawful pursuit should feel welcome and comfortable.

Of the five access points into the square, only two were accessible with curb cuts and ramps. Other patrons were intimidated by the lack of lighting and shadows unintentionally created by decades of landscape growth.

The 2011 renovation features eight crosswalks that lead to a sidewalk encircling the inner square. There are now twice as many entry points, and all modes of transport, including vehicular but especially pedestrian, are accommodated. Lighting has been dramatically increased, and all low shrubs were removed to allow patrons to see across the square from any angle.

Authenticity
Park Central Square should celebrate Springfield’s history. The Butterfield Stage rumbled through these streets. Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt were immortalized in the Wild West’s first shootout. The Battle of Springfield was fought on the march to Wilson’s Creek. The lynching of three African Americans altered race relations for generations. Route 66 was named a few blocks away and ran right through it.  

All these important stories were told far too modestly in the former design. Small plaques scattered here and there shared fragments of what has transpired during the past 175 years. A new Wild Bill kiosk in front of the Park Central Branch Library paints a more vivid picture than the tiny markers buried in the center of the street. Once the Springfield-Greene County History Museum relocates to the former Barth’s Building fronting the square’s north end, the educational opportunities will be even greater.

Downtown will never be as clean and crisp as the latest lifestyle center or multimillion-dollar entertainment development. But, thankfully, those areas cannot manufacture the character of hundred-year-old historic buildings and the vibrancy of a monthly First Friday Art Walk.

Activity
In an area with 40 restaurants, 20 pubs and clubs, 20 art galleries, 16 movie screens and five live theater venues, Park Central Square has been an underutilized asset. It had been minimally maintained by Public Works and the Downtown Springfield Community Improvement District and only hosted a handful of holiday parades, free concerts and the occasional political rally. That inactivity, combined with the aforementioned design issues and dark perimeter storefronts after 5 p.m., created an area that was intimidating or unattractive.

The new design’s modern sound system and enhanced lighting will support the emerging entertainment district, change the space from passive to active and enhance the expanding residential options.

The Urban Districts Alliance plans to work with the city and institutional neighbors such as the library, Missouri State University and the Ozarks Regional YMCA to host weekly activities. Also, the square can serve as a shared backyard for urban residents, similar to Keener Plaza in St. Louis.

While all addresses are measured from that tiny brass disc in the center of Park Central Square, the success of this renovation will be determined by the community’s attraction back to its heart.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Urban Districts Alliance, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.[[In-content Ad]]

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