Earlier this year, the City engaged a process to rethink the City-County Building (CCB) Plaza, located south of the CCB. Once home to the county courthouse, the plaza, developed alongside the shiny new home for local government, never managed to provide a great space for the public. Instead, the harsh materials, hostile green space, barricaded fountains and inaccessible pathways to the entrance of the CCB have created a barren environment and maintenance headache. On even the nicest of days, this space goes largely unused. It may serve forever as a memorial to design that was largely form-based, with little concern of function.
Enter the City-County Building Plaza Design Competition. Earlier this year, the City engaged the design community to rethink this space, both in design and function. Requests for qualifications (RFQ) and proposals (RFP) were issued with a very clear message; give us a public space we don’t have, a public space that provides year round activity for people of all ages, demographics and backgrounds. The challenge was set. Designers had a two-acre property to re-imagine. Some guidelines were established, such as a general budget, preserving and repairing the structural systems for the underground garage and interacting with, but preserving the Cultural Trail.
Responding to the challenge, 23 firms representing local, national and international interests submitted ideas. These proposals ranged from slight material and landscape modifications to significant structures housing commercial space, welcome centers and performance pavilions. Most designs included water features and more than one design created an elevated walkway across the plaza. While all designs had unique elements, there appeared to be three common themes to describe the majority. Some honored the design style of the existing building and its function by creating civic plazas. These were very stately, ordered, often symmetrical spaces. Others found a more playful way to create a mix of active and passive recreation. These spaces generally provided flexibility, both in terms of physical form and programming. Perhaps some of the most visually intriguing designs were those that developed something very iconic, whether in structure, or idea. These designs explored the very edges of what might be created, but often fell short when imaging function for all users.
Design professionals, community stakeholders and local government officials formed a committee sought out to judge, critique and ultimately, to select the top three designs submitted based on different criteria related to cost, sustainability, design aesthetics, function and the ability to activate the space. Proposals were provided to all jury members with the material requested and submitted by the design teams. These items were regulated during the submittal process to ensure consistency throughout. Jury members were not provided information on the teams that submitted the designs, simply the concepts and renderings for each design. through open discussion, intense study and certainly a fair share of passionate debate, the jury worked to narrow down the focus. While all designs were considered, only three would be selected as finalists.
It became clear that each jury member had different ideas about their expectations for the plaza. These ideas were refined during the review process, often times, jury members would reconsider designs originally dismissed through initial rounds of review. As time passed, a common theme began to emerge. We need to develop the community’s back yard. We need an active space to engage residents and visitors throughout the year. The three finalists represent very different design ideas.
The third place design creates a modern twist to a civic plaza. TheÂ formal settingÂ provides a central focal point with an interesting light display during the night.Â While the renderings of the space at night were some of the most appealing, the jury felt the overall design lacked functionality and failed to provide a wide range of events, activities and programming.
The second place design was one of the most intriguing and visually stimulating designs of the competition. In an effort to change the landscape of the plaza, the east and west edges would be curved upwards, as if extruded from the ground. This design created something similar to a quarter pipe, for those familiar with skateboarding or stunt bicycling. Various spaces were created within this newly formed bowl intermixing water features, landscaping and passive recreation areas. The central spine would serve as a spray fountain and the main path to the CCB entrance. While this design was a great imagining of the possible, it also created very real functionality issues related to slope, programming, maintenance and cost. Additionally, the jury was concerned with the impact the raised edges would have on the adjacent Alabama and Delaware streetscapes.
So, that leaves us with the first place design. A design that the jury felt created the best combination of form and function. A design that best created a community backyard, while also honoring the civic duty it represents. Three distinct areas were created including a large open lawn space, a central water feature and a commercial structure component adjacent to a landscaped area, termed “The Grove”. The design incorporates active and passive spaces for all ages. Art, intermixed throughout several different spaces allows visitors the opportunity to explore the plaza. A large interactive fountain provides an engaging area for those young in age, and young at heart, converting to an ice rink during winter. The plaza pays tribute to the old courthouse, with a soft red outline of the building and symbolic steps near Washington Street. In the end, this design is what downtown deserves.
The designs as well as a 3-D model of Market East are being released today at 10:30 at The Hall for the public to view. I encourage anyone who can make it to check out the new exhibit.