Triangle Park to close for major makeover

Dying trees just the start of problems to be fixed by park foundation

bfortune@herald-leader.comNovember 19, 2010 

Much of Triangle Park in downtown Lexington will close to the public in coming weeks as the gathering spot at one of Lexington's most prominent intersections gets a complete makeover, including new trees.

The privately funded Triangle Park Foundation has agreed to pay for almost all of the refurbishment, although a final cost hasn't been tabulated.

The announcement was made Thursday by foundation president Steve Grossman at the monthly meeting of the Lexington Center Corp., which owns and operates the park.

"We are willing to commit whatever funds are necessary to get the park back to its original design," Grossman said. "We know $50,000 is not nearly enough."

Among other things, the park's Bradford pear trees will be replaced with willow oaks.

Work will begin fairly soon, though Grossman could not give an exact date.

"We are on a tight time schedule in that planting willow oaks has to occur in the spring, and there are several construction issues and drainage issues that need to be addressed," he said.

The park will be fenced off while work is taking place. A large Christmas tree at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway will remain up through the end of December.

Grossman told the Lexington Center board that Triangle Park was designed to be an oasis for people downtown, but over the years "it has turned into a common staging area for countless events, causing deleterious effects."

"To be frank, we did not realize the extent of the issues until the tree issue surfaced and we began to look at the park with a critical eye," he said.

What the foundation found was the park barely resembles the original landscape design. Only a third of the original trees remain; extensive English ivy and daffodils are gone; ground and sidewalk lights don't work; the irrigation system is only partially functional; and the electrical system needs work. In addition, pavers need to be replaced, concrete walls cleaned and tree wells repaired.

The idea for the park was conceived by Lexington businessman Alex Campbell after the city wanted to build a surface parking lot on the plot of ground bound by West Main Street, Vine Street and Broadway.

In the face of public uproar, Campbell formed the Triangle Park Foundation that raised money for the park's construction in 1982 and has consistently paid its maintenance expenses. The park was designed by internationally acclaimed landscape architect Robert L. Zion, with the firm Zion and Breen, who designed the Paley Plaza vest pocket park in New York city and the plaza around the Statue of Liberty.

Nearly 30 years after the park opened, a minor brouhaha erupted in October after Bill Owen, Lexington Center president and chief executive officer, informed his board members that the trees in Triangle Park needed to be replaced. Willow oaks had been selected as the replacement tree.

Owen said the Triangle Foundation had agreed to pay $50,000 to replace the Bradford pear trees, many of which are dying from fire blight, a rapidly growing bacterial disease. A few of the trees are original to when the park opened and are reaching the end of their life span of about 30 years.

When Owen asked for approval to go forward with the project, Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who sits on the board and was elected mayor earlier this month, protested, saying the panel needs "informed advice and counsel on this matter" before making any changes to the iconic park.

On a motion by Gray, the board then agreed to consult an "urban planner with landscape architectural skills" to review the current condition of the park and make recommendations for needed improvements, in consultation with the Triangle Park Foundation.

On Thursday, the Lexington Center board applauded Grossman's presentation and accepted the Triangle Foundation's proposal to renovate the park.

While the foundation will pay for most improvements, the Lexington Center will replace the irrigation system at a cost of $10,000.

Although there was some initial negative reaction in the community to planting willow oaks, Grossman said the tree was selected for Zion's monoculture design in consultation with M2D Design Group's Morgan McIllwain, a landscape architect, and input from other landscape architects. The willow oak grows well in a variety of soil types and adapts well to an urban environment, he said.

As a street tree, it is tolerant of heat, drought, air pollution and standing water. Its thin, elongated leaves provide filtered shade and do not significantly mat when they fall and become wet.

Lexington architect Reese Reinhold will manage the park's renovation, in consultation with McIllwain and Owen.

The city has agreed to cut down the Bradford pears and grind out the stumps for free, Grossman said.

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