For 72 years, duffers and their betters have made their way around the city's par-65 War Memorial Golf Course. For 51 years, tennis players have served at and been served by the city courts at Walker Tennis Center in War Memorial Park.
Under certain scenarios to recreate War Memorial as a green oasis in the heart of the city, the golf course and tennis courts might have been done away with.
But it would take more political capital than most cities could muster to get rid of a golf course, with an ardent male constituency, that's been around forever. Tennis courts, used by children much of the time — not so much.
After several years of discussion and planning, work started in March to revivify War Memorial Park. First up: Alteration of the golf course to accommodate an expanded children's playground, leveling of Walker Courts to create greenspace, and a new entrance. The work, parks experts say, will create a peaceful landscape better suited to today's recreation needs, in a place central to the city that draws from neighborhoods of every economic level. It should be, ideally, a place for people to connect with nature and one another.
Current thinking on the best use of public parkland is that 80 to 85 percent of the land should be dedicated to passive recreation — walking, biking, etc. — rather than sports attractions, or active recreation. Parks personnel and city directors have pondered how to make War Memorial — 200 acres in midtown occupied by a 90-acre golf course, tennis courts, a fitness center, War Memorial Stadium, the Little Rock Zoo, a playground and an archery range — more resemble that new model of passive recreation.
Three years ago, consultants were hired. Forest Park in St. Louis was held up as an example. Public hearings were held. Pads were flipped, markers wielded, ideas proposed: Get rid of the golf course, or reduce it by half, and knock down the tennis courts. Tear down the stadium (an idea met with thundering silence). Close Fair Park Boulevard. Expand the Zoo into abandoned Ray Winder Field. Create extensive biking and hiking trails. Suggestions were gathered, plans were turned out, more meetings were held. A price tag of many millions was bandied about.
That was 2007. Since then, the Parks and Recreation Department reissued a bond that allowed it to commit $1.2 million to War Memorial. Change has begun, though not the transforming facelift some envisioned at the public hearings so long ago.
The Zoo, as it turns out, will not expand into the ballpark; the city is selling that portion of the park it owns to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The golf course will remain virtually untouched, keeping 18 holes. There will not be a network of hiking/biking trails, but rather a mile-long loop that will circumscribe the finger of green, along Coleman Creek, on the west side of Fair Park. A park that was once 3 percent passive recreation will now be 9 percent passive recreation.
By using its own staff, Parks Director Truman Tolefree said, the department is contributing about $3 million in labor to the War Memorial renovation. That would represent, along with total Ray Winder sale proceeds, a $5.2 million investment in the midtown park. Here's the schedule for War Memorial Park improvements over the next year (work will cease during football season starting in September and resume in January):
Landscaped entrances at Markham and Fair Park and Jonesboro and 12th Street. Semicircles of shrubbery will be planted and signage constructed at Markham and Van Buren, the most visible entrance to the park, sometime starting in May. An entry feature at Jonesboro and 12th Street will be built in 2011. Estimated cost: $130,000.
Changes to the golf course. To make room for a new playground in the middle of the park and new landscaping at the entrance to the park off Markham, hole No. 17 has been removed. A new No. 14 was built, with a green on a peninsula in the lake, and No. 16 has become 17. No. 13 was shortened. Par on the course, once 65, will be 64.
Minor changes, given that it was once suggested that the course be cut back to nine holes — and yet the golfers howled over them. Their protests weren't met with a lot of sympathy, especially by the tennis players.
Work on the course, including getting new sod established, should be complete in time for the July 4 tournament. The budget is included in the play-ground cost (below).
East open recreation space. Walker is scheduled to be torn down in mid-May to make room for a rectangle of green between Markham and War Memorial Stadium. A meadow will replace the courts, with landscaping on the east at the entrance and a trail circling the periphery. $145,000.
The tennis players did win a minor victory: Now included in the plans are two new courts to replace Walker's six, next to the Jim Daily Fitness Center. Those courts weren't initially included in the renovation plan and weren't budgeted from the bond issue. Instead, they'll be funded from the proceeds of the sale of Ray Winder Field. City Manager Bruce Moore has OK'd that expenditure, but the money is not in hand; the city and UAMS are negotiating the medical center's offer of $1.6 million ($1.1. after demolition of the stadium). Mayor Mark Stodola vowed to a reporter last week that the city would use all the money from the sale of the ballfield to benefit War Memorial Park, though Parks isn't counting that egg before it hatches.
Jogging, walking, biking trails. In addition to the trail around the field created from Walker courts, a 15-foot-wide trail starting at the west side of the Markham Street entrance to the park (in back of the 18th tee) will run south between Fair Park and one of the two feeders of Coleman Creek Pond, down along meadow that will be created from the former archery range and back up across Coleman Creek to the new playground. Work on the northern portion is scheduled to start in May.
Estimated cost: $200,000.
Children's playground. Work on a new playground somewhat along the lines of Peabody Park — with climbing and play areas carved out of the landscape and a spray water feature — will begin next month. The park will be north of the pavilion, on former golf course space. Parking will be south of Coleman Creek; Club Road, which used to run from Fair Park to the golf course parking lot, will be closed. Estimated cost: $500,000.
Restoration of Coleman Creek and pond clean-up. The pond, now drained, does not have what Assistant Park Director Mark Webre called a “full ecology.” Since the pond was enlarged in 1998, it's gone from being 10 to 12 feet deep to 4 feet, filled in with leaves and other detritus carried from the Hillcrest neighborhood down Coleman Creek. Now, the pond will be enlarged and cleaned and the stream re-engineered for better flow. Parks has budgeted $200,000 to improve the pond and stream.
Two new tennis courts. Though included on the schedule as a project that will start in May, the $175,000 budgeted to build courts is to come from the sale of Ray Winder, still under negotiation. Tolefree said construction on the courts could begin before the money was in hand, however. The city has not yet put the project out to bid.
Bloch Foundation Cancer Survivors Park. This feature falls under the “This Space for Sale” category of War Memorial development. The brainchild of the City Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that solicits private support for the parks, the Cancer Survivors Park comes with sculpture identical to sculpture in its 24 other parks across the country and Canada and $1 million for landscaping. The CPC and the parks department maintain that the location of War Memorial Park between St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences make it a logical spot for an area for cancer survivors and the recently diagnosed to meditate. Had the memorial not come with $1 million, “we wouldn't have been able to do it,” Tolefree said, but he added, “It's not about the money.”
The Bloch Foundation has to approve the landscaping. The park's design should be submitted to the foundation in June; assistant director Webre said representatives of the hospital had weighed in on the design. The park, scheduled to go up in 2011, will be located on the southwest side of the intersection of Fair Park and Club Road.
South open recreation space. In 2011, work on the part of the park south of Club Road will begin with the demolition of parking area and the reconstruction of turf area east of Coleman Creek. A roundabout will be built at what is now the intersection of Club Road and Fair Park, though funds for that are slated to come out of proceeds from the sale of Ray Winder. (Included in the playground budget.)
Acquisition of new parkland. Tolefree would like to expand War Memorial south of Interstate 630, using $450,000 from the proceeds of the sale of Ray Winder. The project would be coordinated with the new children's library the Central Arkansas Library System is building between I-630 and West Tenth and between Madison and Jonesboro Street.
Also to be constructed: a roundabout entry to the playground and sculpture garden, where Club Road is now, new parking at the sculpture garden and improved playground parking.
The park fix-up will add more plants and shrubs to nurture, more grass to mow, a trail to watch after, a playground to keep up. So how much money has parks been able to set aside for the maintenance of War Memorial?
“I'm glad you asked that,” Tolefree said. The answer: None of the $7 million parks bond issue that is paying for the War Memorial upgrade, the purchase of the old Western Hills golf course, renovations at Rebsamen Tennis Center and refurbishing 17 smaller parks will be set ?aside for maintenance.
The problem is an old one for parks, Tolefree said. As the department has added parkland and made improvements, it's never been able to increase its budget or staff. Parks and Recreation's 2010 budget of $12.5 million was in fact cut by $600,000 this year because of the decline in city revenues.
A dedicated tax supported by City Director Brad Cazort and others could provide up to $10 million, Tolefree said, that would allow parks to create a maintenance endowment. Tall grass and withered landscaping at War Memorial Park, should that come to pass in Little Rock's new green heart, may make that point more clearly than any city director.