by Thomas P. Healy
What’s all that happy noise coming from 39th and Illinois streets? It’s the brand-new playground at Tarkington Park, already jumping with activity even in late winter. The splash plaza will debut this spring. The search for a café operator and a contractor to complete construction of the performance stage is also under way.
Meanwhile, supporters are putting together a plan to guide programming. Indy Parks Foundation president Lori Hazlett hopes the park will attract not only nearby community members but also people outside of the Maple Crossing neighborhood.
“We want Tarkington Park to be a destination,” she said recently, adding, “One way to bring in people and get them to spend more time there is adding a café in the park.” Describing Tarkington Park as “unlike any other in the city,” Hazlett added: “It is changing the model for what parks look like and what they do in our city.”
To help ensure the success of the new model, Hazlett said the foundation contracted with Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, a planning firm that programmed the wildly successful Bryant Park in New York City.
Hazlett said park advocates realized that resources are limited in Indy parks. “So we decided to bring in Biederman because of their work in parks around the country that are like Tarkington. They’ll guide the public outreach because we want to program the space for what people in the community want.”
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While Hazlett acknowledged that this is a new approach for Indianapolis to take in parks programming and management, Daniel A. Biederman, president and founder of the firm, said his company is taking this approach in parks all over the country. “We ask what would define what success would look like for a park’s users so they can use the park in the way they enjoy, and then we figure out what it’s going to cost to run a park like that,” he said. “There are several hundred park creation projects in the country right now and we’re involved in 10 of them. The rest of them do not use this approach.”
Biederman’s colleague Benjamin Donsky, who is heading up the Midtown effort, identified three main areas of focus:
- Programming. “We want to create a plan to activate Tarkington Park with a variety of amenities, activities, classes, and events,” Donsky said, mentioning small- and medium-scale events that could take place there daily. This will be done in partnership with businesses and nonprofits in the neighborhood and elsewhere, he added.
- Operations. “This will make sure it’s clean, safe, attractive, and well-kept over the long term,” Donsky said. This effort will include looking at how to best to utilize café and other revenue streams to support operations.
- Governance. “We’ll create a plan that looks at how the City can partner with groups like the Parks Foundation and Midtown Indianapolis, Inc., to create a better public space for the neighborhood,” Donsky said.
Biederman and Donsky said they’ve successfully applied their programming approach to urban parks in Pittsburgh, Greensboro, N.C., Newark, N.J., and New York City. While every park and every city is unique, Donsky said, “Local culture dictates a lot of what programs and events end up being in a park,” he said.
Biederman agrees. “If you go on Trip Advisor or Yelp and read comments about Bryant Park, they often praise our approach without realizing it.” He said Bryant Park is a great model. “While Tarkington Park is not Bryant Park, we can apply Bryant Park techniques to get people to come from a larger service area. Programming made it possible for the middle of New York City to have a park that’s successful.”
Both men are aware that the successful activation of Tarkington Park is a key component of an ongoing, comprehensive economic and community development strategy. “Tarkington is similar to Military Park in Newark,” Biederman said. “Over the course of the past two-and-a-half years, the park has catalyzed economic development in immediate surrounding blocks,” he said.
“You’ve got some great resources in Midtown,” he noted, “whether organizations with deep penetration into the community or places like the Melody Inn.” He also applauded the recent physical improvements on the park grounds.
While some critics characterize the park improvements as gentrification, the Biederman team’s experience suggests otherwise. “Parks are really the great social mixers in the city,” Donsky said. “The idea that a café or park can only serve rich or poor people is a false choice.” He compliments the Great Places partners for making sure that Maple Crossing remains a truly mixed-income neighborhood. “We need responsible community development to make sure residents are not pushed out.”
Indy Parks Foundation director Hazlett said public outreach will occur during Biederman’s seven-month contract. The first programming workshop was held Feb. 7 in Fellowship Hall of North United Methodist Church, 3808 N. Meridian. More than 120 people attended to learn about programming options and to discuss their preferences for the park. An online survey is available for additional public input. For details, click here.