Conceptual designs for a lush LOVE Park

Say farewell to the dyed geyser, clanky granite blocks, and foreboding edges. This year is the last for LOVE Park as we know it. Next summer, if a redesign project continues to run on schedule, JFK Plaza / LOVE Park will be under construction. It will be almost entirely cleared to waterproof the leaky garage below most of the park, and a new public space will be built from scratch on top.

The new park’s design team, led by Hargreaves Associates, presented four design concepts Tuesday evening at a public meeting at the Free Library, showing their still evolving work after a couple of speedy months of design development.

Fans of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture can cease any handwringing: The sculpture might move a few feet but it will remain on the diagonal axis through the park, preserving the classic Philly vista down the Parkway to the Art Museum beyond. The future park will also have a fountain – but just what size, shape, and style remains to be seen. Meanwhile the fate of the Fairmount Park Welcome Center – the space-age pavilion that predates LOVE Park– has not yet been decided.

Through a PennPraxis-led civic engagement process, and resulting design principles, the public overwhelmingly said it wanted to see a lush LOVE Park, with safe and well-kept spaces that facilitate gathering and forge a strong link to the Parkway. The design team was also charged with making LOVE Park a flexible space capable of hosting festivals, food trucks, and free speech. Lastly, the design team has had to give the Welcome Center a thorough investigation, to ensure the city’s decision about its reuse or replacement was well informed.

The project team developed design concepts in response to these diverse demands, presenting ideas for LOVE Park that reflect how the space currently functions, but are substantially different, too.

All four of the design concepts were substantially greener than LOVE Park is currently, with an expansive central lawn, tree groves, and garden areas. Each showed different versions of a smaller fountain, on axis with the LOVE sculpture, oriented toward the park’s northwestern corner. Edges will be softer, creating a more permeable park on all sides. Each design concept creates spaces that will work for performances and festivals alike. Designers envision a new food truck zone along Arch Street, surrounded by a concentration of movable furniture. The garage below will be accessible via stairs as well as a new elevator headhouse, likely glass with a green roof.

“Square 1” and “Square 2” both give the LOVE sculpture plenty of room, placing it on axis with the fountain and the Parkway. Lawn areas are oriented toward the Welcome Center, and a few low steps are set in from the corner of 15th and Arch offsetting a slightly elevated tree grove and garden. Square 1 is strongly organized around the theme of squares within squares, while Square 2 is quirkier, with a boat-shaped fountain separated from a garden with a petite elevated plaza.

“Bow-Tie 1” and “Bow-Tie 2” are perhaps less efficient uses of park space, but each has strong design points. Bow-Tie 1’s plan may seem the most familiar to the Parkway: a circle in a square, but the circle is a lawn instead of a fountain. Neither gives the LOVE sculpture a whole lot of breathing room, but diagonal pathways through the park are just off-axis, enabling what is surely the desire line for most pedestrians traversing the park. In Bow-Tie 2 the lawn is a diamond in the square, and the fountain could be a multi-level procession of tall, arching jets. In both designs the corners feel a bit unresolved and underused. (Why bow tie? Think of the two triangular wedges left over when split by a strong diagonal.)

A straw poll at the end of Tuesday’s meeting found votes nearly evenly split among these four conceptual designs.

The designers sought to resolve the park’s eight-foot grade change by stripping away unnecessary walls and simply tilting the plane of the park just 1% from the park’s high point at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard to its low point at 16th and Arch streets. That gentle slope will enable greater accessibility and remove stairs.

But that’s not to say that the park will be flat.

Soil depth was so shallow in some areas that the designers have added slightly elevated zones in each park design which will enable trees to be planted in the ground, not planters. That’s because LOVE Park is really an elaborate green roof that just so happens to be at street level. The roof conditions for the garage and commuter tunnel below have governed several design choices.

“This is almost as much an archaeological project as a design project,” said Mary Margaret Jones, principal at Hargreaves Associates, at Tuesday’s public meeting.

All four design concepts shrink the fountain feature, giving over more room to usable park space. Hargreaves is investigating the possibility of even building a significant fountain without a basin, allowing a more flexible space when water is turned off, but Jones assured the crowd it wouldn’t look like a spray park splash pad.

The new fountain would have “as majestic of a jet as possible,” said First Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Recreation Mark Focht, acknowledging the important procession of water features down the parkway – from the Water Works to Dilworth.

Spinning Disc | Steve Ives, EOTS Flickr Group
(Steve Ives, EOTS Flickr Group)

All four design concepts showed the Welcome Center in the southwestern corner, in all of its awkward, fabulous round building glory. But it may as well be a placeholder. This corner is the only spot that can support the load of a permanent building, due to subterranean structural conditions. Focht reminded the crowd Tuesday that the commuter rail tunnel below was excavated beneath the saucer and reinforced to support the building. If the saucer’s reuse doesn’t make sense – from a programmatic and cost perspective – another building will replace it.

In either a new or refurbished building the hope is to include a fully accessible café, public restrooms, and spaces to accommodate park maintenance and security needs.

The design firm KieranTimberlake has been studying the Welcome Center to inform the city what reuse would entail. Stephen Kieran, a principal at KieranTimberlake, called the Welcome Center’s concrete structure “viable,” but said the windows and roof would need to be replaced and building systems upgraded.

Even though KieranTimeberlake’s investigations into the Welcome Center reveal a building with good bones, there is an old tension for the saucer. It was designed to be a transparent and luminous pavilion, but too many needs weigh it down and time has not been kind, Kieran said. Once KieranTimberlake’s research is complete, the decision to reuse or raze the saucer will ultimately rest with the city.

Another longtime-resident of the park has a more certain future. The beloved LOVE sculpture will be removed during construction for conservation offsite and be repainted to the original color specifications.

Additionally, the LOVE Park project triggers the city’s Percent for Art ordinance, requiring a new artwork be added to the public space. The city’s Public Art Director Margot Berg said that after 100 responses to a call for artists, the field has been narrowed to five finalists with a selection expected in late May, pending Art Commission approval.

Going forward, the project team will present a single conceptual design at a public meeting on April 30th, including a final decision about the saucer. The following month the project will go before the Art Commission for conceptual approval, with final approval sought in September. Once the scope of work is set, the city should also have a clear construction timeline.

Click on the PDF below to view the public presentation from Tuesday, March 24, 2015 

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