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04-13-22 | Feature

Historic Pocket Park

Trenda Carter Leavitt, Beechgrove Design Landscape Architecture
by Staff

Found 8' below the street level, the South Union Street Pocket Park in Danville, Virginia was designed by Beechgrove Design Landscape Architecture of Moneta, Virginia to incorporate the history of the site. The park is 50' by 100' in size and was completed in May 2021.
The park is accessed by a gate that gives way to a steel landing and opens up to both the stairs and a wheelchair lift. Custom iron fencing was constructed by local company, Reynolds & Easley Manufacturing. A repurposed beam above the gate provides continuity in streetscaping while adding visibility from the road.
Since the space is narrow, bringing materials onto the site was tight, and became more of a challenge as construction moved forward prior to the completion of the stairs and elevator. The fountain was lifted by a crane days before the ribbon cutting and was brought in to mitigate the sound of a transformer. The brick 'box' in the corner was constructed to hide and protect water service structures and has a steel top which can be opened for service, and functions as an informal seat.
Since the space is narrow, bringing materials onto the site was tight, and became more of a challenge as construction moved forward prior to the completion of the stairs and elevator. The fountain was lifted by a crane days before the ribbon cutting and was brought in to mitigate the sound of a transformer. The brick 'box' in the corner was constructed to hide and protect water service structures and has a steel top which can be opened for service, and functions as an informal seat.
Inspired by mounting blocks that were common in public spaces when horses were used for transportation, the new brick clad steps are situated on an axis with a water feature, brick band, and recessed window that is found in the original wall.
The fountain, designed by Randy Bolander of Modfountain, is made of Corten steel. Modern in style, the fountain was created to contrast the surrounding historic walls. Much like how the walls have weathered over 135 years, the Corten steel of the fountain will weather until the steel achieves a stable patina. The fountain and basin were built and installed in less than a week to meet the ribbon cutting deadline after the water feature was added late in the process.
The color palette was chosen to both coordinate and contrast with the surrounding exterior walls. Thomas Steele's Monona series furniture (Inset) are made of recycled materials in the USA. Several colors were chosen within the furniture selection to add another element of interactive design, and is moved around frequently by users, providing an ever-changing color combination. Pavers are Unilock Richcliff 3 Piece Concrete Paver in Smoke Shale.
Located adjacent to the main park on the east side is a 20' by 50' space that lends itself to the creation of rooms off the main portion of the park. This section was once the site of an alley that led from nearby Patton Street to the stables. The original 'I' beam was sandblasted and repainted, while the granite cobbles were salvaged from various historic Danville streets. Windows of The Bee Hotel face this portion of the park.
The pergola was a custom design by Trenda Leavitt of Beechgrove Design Landscape Architecture, based upon the exact number, lengths, and sizes of beams and joists reclaimed from the building. Several iterations of the pergola were developed before the team selected the style as built. All wood members of the pergola were repurposed from the demolished building. The steel beams are original to the basement and were re-set in their previous locations. The configuration of the pergola was derived from floor support design in the historic building.

Tucked away in the bustling River District of Danville Virginia, the four-story New & Miller building, built in 1886, was set to be demolished due to structural issues. Originally a harness and carriage store and stable, the building also held a rich history as it sat next to the site of the Danville Register and Bee. The city wanted to honor that history and use the space as a gathering place, so they selected Beechgrove Design Landscape Architecture to help develop a new Union Street Pocket Park. Completed in May 2021, the site sits 8' below the adjacent street level.

Historic Pocket Park
A major challenge the design team faced was the demolition of the four-story building that was surrounded by historic buildings, which were also undergoing renovation during the demolition. The team wanted to preserve elements of the building which were structurally sound, namely the exterior walls of the basement, to honor the former building's architecture and history. The contractors maneuvered cranes within the limited space and despite restricted construction conditions, the company was able to remove the building and carefully relocate original wood trusses and beams which were repurposed as design elements in the park, like a custom-built pergola and a beam along the sidewalk.

"I noticed the historic stone foundation wall the very first time we ventured down the broken steps into the basement. It is so satisfying that the city was willing to create the park at a lower elevation to appreciate the layers of history," explained Tim Clark, President of Blair Construction, who worked as the primary contractor on the project. "The original livery windows, the underground drainage system, the recycled building columns, and the roadway foundation wall would have all been lost at a higher elevation."

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Now a central aspect of the design, the existing brick and stone foundation walls provide character as well as a sense of history to project and frame the 50' by 100' perimeter. A History Panel on site illustrates maps, postcards, and photographs from the late 19th century to tell the story of this place.

Smaller spaces were designed to provide diverse rooms within the larger overall space. Surrounded by four-story buildings, structures like a pergola and tree grove were added to create comfortable proportions and sub-spaces. The tree grove features Thornless Honey Locust trees that sit within granite cobble and natural stone paving salvaged from historic streets in Danville. The pergola, custom-built on-site by Blair Construction and designed by the Landscape Architect, is constructed of historical wood beams and steel posts from the New & Miller Building.

The east wall, the former entrance to the stable from an alley, was preserved and stabilized with primitive window and door openings. The space behind this wall provides a more private, quiet, and shaded zone away from the main park area. The repurposed paving materials were used in the design to create three distinct spaces for dining, events, meetings, work, or rest. Original weathered brick columns, walls, and an 'I'-Beam were preserved and incorporated into the park.

Accessibility and Challenges
Universal access to the park with a Savaria wheel-chair lift. Early conceptual designs explored various ramp layouts, which occupied substantial floor space and blocked views of the historic walls. The landing was custom designed and fabricated to provide a transition between the sidewalk and stair/wheelchair lift entrances. Unobstructed views into the park from the sidewalk and landing draw people into the space.

A large transformer proved to be a design challenge as a buzzing sound from the machine became a distraction. To eliminate the noise, a proposed water wall which had been removed earlier in planning due to cost was revisited. This led to the idea of using a water feature to mask the sound. The X1 fountain from Modfountain proved to be an economical and aesthetically fitting option that was designed for maximum sound and minimum overspray.

"The rustic oxide patina of the X1 perfectly complements the architectural elements of the park's brick, stone, wood, and steel," Fountain Artist, Randy Boldander went on, "The sound of its cascading water, splashing into the open pond, dissipates the sounds of the street noise and the hum of a nearby transformer. Installation of the X1 was a logistical challenge. The solution arrived in the form of a crane truck and experienced crane operator who deftly picked the piece off the sidewalk and gently lowered it into position on its base."

Arrow Bamboo were planted as a design feature in three Form and Fiber rectangular planters in front of the transformer and in the east alley room's below grade planters for year-round greenery.

Uses and Management
"Danville has a wide range of traditional parks throughout the city; however, this space is the first of its kind and sets the stage for public spaces downtown going forward. Danville is in the process of developing 4.5 acres along the riverfront as a Riverfront Park, but intimate spaces such as the Union Street Park are equally important and needed," Director of Parks and Recreation, Bill Sgrinia explained. "The Park has been well received by the public. Many small groups have used the space as a public meeting space for office meetings or event planning."

The pocket park is managed by Danville Parks & Recreation and is available to rent for special events and will act as a way to remember the city's deep history.

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