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American Society of Landscape Architects


April 2004 Issue

The Life and Death of a Masterpiece
What went wrong with a 1988 park by the late Dan Kiley, and what can we learn from its imminent demolition?
By George Hazelrigg

The Life and Death of a Masterpiece Photo by Eric Dusenberry

In 1988, architect Harry Wolf and landscape architect Dan Kiley gave Tampa, Florida, something very beautiful: a striking cylindrical office tower and seven-story cubic banking hall by Wolf and a park designed by Kiley and Wolf that, through geometry, tied the buildings to the ground and related them to the city.

North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) Plaza was a masterful downtown ensemble at the edge of the Hillsborough River: Like a sentinel, the limestone-clad tower presided over downtown arrivals, and the cubical banking hall repeated the rhythm of the street grid. Wolf proposed and Kiley agreed to extend the tower's fenestration pattern, which was based on rigorous application of the proportional system of Fibonacci numbers, onto the surrounding site. Allées of lofty native palm trees crossed the site, drawing the eye to the river. The geometry of the tower and banking hall guided walkway dimensions and inspired an intricate pattern of grass and paving stones, fountains, and runnels. Water features were everywhere: shallow pools along Ashley Drive, a water garden located near the convention center, and a north—south canal topping a 400-foot-long corridor extending out from the tower and banking hall. The canal served as a portal from the street to the elevated plaza, an armature tying everything together. As counterpoint to the site's geometry, Kiley and Wolf created an understory of hundreds of randomly placed crape myrtle trees.

Sixteen years later, the crape myrtles form a dense canopy that merges with the foliage of the palm trees, blocking sunlight from reaching the ground. Without sun, most of the grass between pavers has died out, leaving dark, bare earth. The canopy obscures views of the tower, disconnecting the building's strong design relationship to the park. The reflecting pools along Ashley Drive have been paved over. All that remains of the plexiglass-bottomed canal is a remnant inside the building complex; a concrete bleacher takes its place on the plaza. The ground-level fountains are dry, and the nine runnels crossing the site are abandoned. Pavers tilt here and there, and some are cracked or chipped. The water garden is empty, its trees bent and forlorn.

Last year, Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, a former associate of Kiley's who worked on the project for three years, returned to Tampa and advised The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a not-for-profit institution promoting awareness of and support for cultural landscapes, that the park now represented "a modern ruin, almost cemetery-like." In fact, most 16-year-old cemeteries look better. The city announced plans to demolish the Kiley—-Wolf park.

From modern masterpiece of landscape architecture to ruin, from a public/private civic asset to a blight on downtown Tampa, how did this place devolve? That there was a major failure of maintenance is not in doubt. But was inappropriate design also a factor? Were the park's hardscape features—pools, canal, runnels, fountains—overdesigned? Given the site conditions, were the plantings too dense or the wrong species? Did they require an unreasonable amount of maintenance? Was responsibility for maintenance vague, divided, or unspecified? Was the park too ambitious for downtown Tampa? Was it doomed from the outset because of constraints imposed by its location? Or by inevitable changes that would follow in a city in need of revitalization? And who is to blame for failure: the designers, their clients, the city, or all three?

In the mid-1980s, banking executive Hugh McColl selected Tampa as the regional headquarters of his Charlotte-based North Carolina National Bank and asked Harry Wolf to find a downtown site for a new building. The architect quickly settled on a city-owned parcel next to the river at the intersection of two thoroughfares, and the bank struck a deal with the city: Wolf's 33-story tower and banking hall would be erected in place of an existing city parking lot. Next to it and extending along the river to the nearby Tampa Museum of Art would go a 3.5-acre park, one of Kiley's most complex urban works, built and paid for by the building's owners and installed atop a new underground parking garage. In return, the city would assume responsibility for the park's maintenance.

When the NCNB Plaza opened in 1988, the city received a park in beautiful condition. The project won design awards, was sufficiently maintained during its first years, evidently pleased park visitors, and received favorable reviews in the media. An otherwise laudatory review published by Progressive Architecture in early 1989 noted, however, that the park required more meticulous maintenance than city crews normally provide.

Michael Cole, ASLA, who worked for Odell Associates in preparing the project's construction documents, says city personnel were brought in from the beginning to ensure their familiarity with all aspects of the construction, including the operation of pumps, filters, wiring, and other equipment. Schaudt says no one had raised the issue of maintenance during the park's installation—although it was known that the city would be responsible for that maintenance. Kiley may simply have assumed that the park would be properly maintained.

A few weeks after the park was completed, according to city officials, Tampa's mayor, Sandy Freedman, negotiated a new agreement by which the building owners would assume responsibility for park maintenance, with the city covering 50 percent of the costs. Thus, private contractors hired by consecutive building owners had responsibility for park maintenance; city crews occasionally cleaned up after special events or responded to electrical or other special problems. But the site remained a city park, and the city did monitor it and was involved in major decisions concerning maintenance, alterations, and safety. So maintenance failures must be considered public/private failures.

Wolf sees the park's maintenance requirements as straightforward. For instance, proper pruning of the trees should not have been difficult, he says. Regarding the grass/pavement relationship, he says the grass was intended to grow over the pavers, thus blurring distinctions between walkway and grass. In the areas where people walked, the grass would wear away; the areas pedestrians skirted would stay greener, and visitors would feel unconstrained by walks channeling their movements. He and Kiley wanted to reveal the interface between man and nature, Wolf says, avoiding the sterility of a clipped park and encouraging the park's use. The concept of path use establishing the grass/pavement relationship is intriguing, but was the expected result realistic? Until a grass/pavement pattern became established, the public might perceive the park as seedy.

As for the crape myrtles, Schaudt and Cole concur that perhaps too many were planted. They believe, however, that the project would have worked if it had received proper maintenance. Wolf recalls that he and Kiley wanted the park to have a lush, tropical character. This, of course, was not the first time a Kiley project was criticized—rightly or wrongly—for having too many trees planted too closely; some other Kiley landscapes have been considerably modified or have had trees removed. Whether drastic measures were always justified, few observers would dispute the need in such instances for careful pruning. The Tampa park was no exception.

Another issue was the soil constraints resulting from planting allées of palm trees and hundreds of crape myrtles atop a parking garage. Because of structural-load restrictions and garage elevations dictated by the river's high-water table, the designers were limited to a soil depth of only about four feet. The light soil mix that was used inevitably settled under the weight of stone and precast pavers and park accessories made from stone. (As Schaudt and Cole observe, planting-soil technologies have advanced considerably since the mid-1980s.) Weight on the supporting concrete cell structure, composed of inverted precast Ts, increased as the trees matured, and load restrictions today preclude even light service vehicles from entering the park, city officials say. They also attribute leaks in the garage to drainage design. The repairs will require extensive, if temporary, alteration of the park. If nothing else, these problems provided another argument for the park's removal.

To endure and thrive, the Kiley—Wolf park would have required a continuing stewardship commitment. But from the start, responsibility for maintenance was divided between the public and private sectors. As the sectors' agendas changed and diverged, no one stepped up or sought control. McColl had wanted an outstanding regional headquarters, and that's what he got. But the bank eventually moved out, and today the building is simply called 400 North Ashley Plaza. Garage revenue and gains in off-street parking were probably city officials' prime motivations for cutting the deal with McColl's bank, although they had to recognize the dramatic architectural statement being made on the riverfront. A public constituency for the park never developed, and there's no indication the city ever sought one.

The building's new owner in 2001—still the owner today—planned repairs to the park, according to newspaper reports at the time. Contradicting that implied advocacy, the press quoted Mayor Dick Greco as saying the owner did not want the park. Greco then confirmed plans to demolish "the abandoned Kiley garden," and the owner apparently scrapped plans to make the repairs. Instead, in a bid to attract tenants to a building in a downtown rife with surplus office space, the city and owner paved over the street-side reflecting pools to create a turnaround area for cars. So far, it hasn't worked—at least for the banking hall, which remains vacant.

Other factors, some beyond the designers' control, undoubtedly affected the park's fate. For one, because it sits atop the garage, the park is eight feet higher than the adjacent sidewalk. As studies by William H. "Holly" Whyte have demonstrated, changes of elevation like this discourage visitors. The water canal served to mark the grade transition and sought to invite entry to the park beyond, and several ramps designed with the same intent provided restricted views into the park from the street. Nevertheless, the grade change was always a problem and was not improved by the canal's removal.

Without residential areas nearby, this was never a neighborhood park, nor was it meant to be. There were hopes, Wolf says, that the Tampa Museum of Art, located at the park's northern boundary, would see in the park an opportunity to expand, a de facto front yard. "The park was designed with that in mind," he says. But the museum didn't expand, and patrons showed little interest in entering the park. The city's convention center, also located just to the north, closed soon after the park opened and was demolished several years later. Wolf says that plans for the center's demise were known when the park was designed, but what might replace it was not. If the park were to stay alive without nearby residences or an active retail or entertainment presence, it would have had to rely on use by the occupants of nearby office buildings. The city sponsored lunchtime concerts there for a while but discontinued them, in part because of insufficient space for public gatherings. A small amphitheater on the river, designed primarily as contemplative space, offers only limited seating and in any case faces west into the setting sun.

As the park declined in appearance, it also waned in use, making it a magnet for Tampa's homeless population. Homeless people are forced to leave at closing, but they return the following day. Of the office employees who take smoking breaks in the tower building's doorways, few venture far into the park. Ashley Drive pedestrians—there aren't many of them—walk past the park as though it were invisible. For all practical purposes, it is.

Tampa's current mayor, Pam Iorio, who took office last April, supports removal of the park. For one thing, she says, many people feel unsafe visiting the park in its current condition. Then there are the water leaks, which must soon be addressed. In addition, the city allocates scarce resources to parks and other public facilities according to use and neighborhood demands. The mayor contends that Tampa needs a public space that people will use—not in isolation but as part of a larger context. "We have tried 'an art approach,'" she says in obvious reference to the existing park. She advocates widening a vista across the river to Tampa University, where minarets atop a restored nineteenth-century building offer one of Tampa's best views.

Iorio and other civic leaders want to revitalize the area around the park with new housing and retail space. When that will happen is unclear, but private investors have shown interest in substantial downtown redevelopment during the past year. Meanwhile, the museum has commissioned Rafael Viñoly to design a new home for its collections. Viñoly's 125,000-square-foot building will front on Ashley Drive, just north of Wolf's building, its dimensions determined by the width and height of the cubic banking hall. The new museum is intended to mediate between the street and elevated park level to its west through a series of open public spaces, providing views through the museum and beyond. Viñoly likens the new museum to a permeable sponge that will attract people to and through the structure.

A new, enlarged riverfront park—combining what would remain of the Kiley-Wolf park location, the existing museum's forecourt, and another park just to the north—will provide a unified green space. The new museum and Wolf's buildings will anchor one end of what Tampa leaders hope will become an extensive cultural arts district along the river. The price tag for the new museum is $62 million, with about half of the funds coming from private sources. That estimate does not include the cost of the new park.

The city envisions the new park as a destination to draw visitors day and night and a platform for arts festivals, theatrical productions, and concerts—the cultural arts district's geographic center. A more pedestrian-friendly Ashley Drive bordering the district is also planned, a step in ultimately connecting the district to Tampa's urban core. In late February the city selected Thomas Balsley Associates as the finalist to prepare a conceptual master plan for the downtown waterfront park, and HDR Engineering, Inc., and EDAW were chosen to do the master planning for the Ashley Drive enhancements.

What lessons might we take from the Tampa experience?

Peter Walker, FASLA, visited Tampa in the mid-1990s and found the park already in decline. "It was a tough project requiring maintenance above and beyond [normal levels for a public park]," he says in a phone interview. "What was needed was a strongly committed institutional client, given that need for high maintenance." At the 1995 Wave Hill-National Park Service Conference on Preserving Modern Landscape Architecture, Walker contrasted Kiley's iconic mid-1950s garden for the house of J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana, with its "continuously engaged patron of taste," to the "much more complex and layered garden with exquisitely detailed water elements" designed by Kiley and Wolf in Tampa. Walker underscored that public gardens, parks, and plazas must grow and be maintained for life at a time when continuity of stewardship is doubtful and in an age of fluctuating budgets, popular taste, and functional needs.

Niall Kirkwood, ASLA, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, takes a different approach toward maintenance. He argues that considerations of weathering—from climatic to human in origin—and durability should be integral to the design process and not relegated to routine, post-completion maintenance. Designers, according to Kirkwood, are responsible for "making the correct design choices with regard to the efficacy and economy of materials, elements, and site assemblies and processes." Noting how easy it is to blame clients and budgetary issues for neglected maintenance, Kirkwood says it is fundamental to view the process of design over the eventual duration and evolution of the project.

Walker believes that Tampa also raises another issue, the frequent lack of a clear vision of the nature and utility of public space. Americans, devoted to the suburban house and the automobile, put a high premium on privacy. There is no widely held conception of the public realm. Indeed, some have argued that the individual front lawn is probably the most common American expression of the public realm. Walker reflects that the people of Tampa received a beautiful design, but they never picked up on it or weren't led to appreciate it.

If American cities are to reach their full potential, they require a diversity of landscapes—just as they need diverse building stocks. Holly Whyte and Jane Jacobs taught us to respond to local needs and desires with user-driven designs and to identify features that cause public spaces to succeed or fail. Receiving their wisdom is one way to enhance the public realm. But the cities that pursue Frank Gehry and Rafael Moneo should also value masters like Kiley and Lawrence Halprin. Can one advocate for the kinds of public spaces Whyte promoted while also championing landscapes that win design awards? Not if we listen to one Tampa official, who suggests that although Wolf and Kiley designed a beautiful space, considerations of how people would use the space were subservient to "art." Yet examples such as New York's Bryant Park show that a design doesn't always have to be either/or.

We know what went wrong in Tampa. Kirkwood reminds us that the rate at which we're losing our landscape works lends urgency to the remaining question: Where do we go from here?

George Hazelrigg is a senior project associate in the Virginia Tech landscape architecture program in Alexandria, Virginia.

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