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Square One

Citizens want Raleigh officials to start over on a redesign of Moore Square downtown


Raleigh's Moore Square dates back to 1792, when the General Assembly decided to create a capital city "within 10 miles of the plantation whereon Isaac Hunter now resides, in the county of Wake." The plan that followed established five town squares--a center square for the Capitol building, and four others on the corners of a street grid that emanated from it. One of the four was named for Alfred Moore, the state's first attorney general.

Today, two of the four corner squares are occupied by the Governor's Mansion and state offices. A third, Nash Square, in front of City Hall, is nice to look at but isn't often used. Only Moore Square, still relatively open and located immediately north of City Market, remains a place for regular public gatherings, including events like the annual Artsplosure festival.

So there's a lot of history there, and a feeling among park devotees that Moore Square merits careful handling. That's why many folks are angry about a new $779,000 improvement plan for the park developed by the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

At a stormy session hosted by the parks department last week, numerous parks advocates--including a past chair and several current members of the city's volunteer Parks and Recreation Advisory Board--questioned key elements of the plan, especially the idea of having an 18-foot center stage that would block the view from one side of the square to the other.

The focus of their anger, though, was reserved for the way the plan was developed: without them. To Jamie Ramsey, an advisory board member and executive director of the volunteer group, People for Parks, the process is one more example of a recurring problem in the city--one she thought would get better now that Russell Allen has replaced Dempsey Benton as city manager.

Benton, Ramsey says, was known for discouraging citizen participation. He preferred to have city agencies answer directly to him on key decisions. The parks department epitomized Benton's approach, making its own plans and sharing as little information as possible with the advisory board and other civic groups.

The simmering feud between citizens and the department came to a head last year, when parks advocates were able to force reconsideration of the department's plans for Pullen Park, near North Carolina State University, and convince the City Council to pay for an extended public process that resulted in a vastly different master plan for the Raleigh landmark.

The new plans for Moore Square started with Gordon Smith, the stockbroker- philanthropist who over two decades, brought Exploris Museum to life downtown. Exploris, which faces City Market across Moore Square, has been open for two years; its much-awaited IMAX theater will open next week.

As Smith surveyed the scene from the museum's front door, he saw a need to improve the square, and especially its crosswalks, which, he says, were "so crumbly that mothers with children in strollers would go bumpety-bump-bump-bump" as they headed toward Exploris.

Smith went to the city, and Benton duly put some money in the budget for "incremental improvements," as Allen now describes the effort. The parks department hired a landscape architect, Sam Reynolds, and he drew up a plan. Department officials got input from the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a business group, and "some people were interviewed ... there has been public participation," Smith says.

One City Council member not interviewed, however, was Benson Kirkman, a former parks board chair and an arborist by profession. Kirkman "spotted a chunk of money" in the parks budget, asked what it was for, and only then learned that the department was asking for approval of a Moore Square master plan he'd never heard of. Kirkman got the council to send the plan back to the parks department with instructions to get the public involved.

By that, Kirkman says, he meant for the public to help make the plan, not just comment on one already drafted. Parks advocates thought the same thing. But the department apparently thought differently. This month, it put Reynolds' plan forward, asking for comments at a single public forum without providing space for discussion of alternative designs.

Duncan did not attend the forum, and did not return calls for this story. If he'd been there, he'd have heard Robert Harper, a former parks advisory board chair, denounce "Jack Duncan totalitarianism" and predict that the department would respond to the plan's critics "like we're a bunch of potted plants."

Marcia Presnell-Jenrette, a current advisory board member, described the Moore Square plan as "a great opportunity that was missed" to involve the public. "If we want to have a viable, vibrant downtown," Presnell-Jenrette said, "then we have to involve people in as many ways as possible so they'll have ownership of it."

The process of developing Reynolds' plan for Moore Square isn't the only thing that's drawn criticism. Concerns have also been raised about the proposed center stage, which some say will make the park less safe by cutting visibility.

Reynolds' design separates the stage into four quadrants, with stone planters and huge vine-covered dividers in between. The main-stage quadrant would face north toward Exploris; the other quadrants would be smaller and at lower elevations. Groves of redbud trees would be planted around the stage to the east, west and south, with picnic tables beneath their canopy. The effect would be to create a backdrop for performances as viewed from the Exploris side of the square and a sitting area with limited visibility on the City Market side.

Crosswalks that radiate diagonally to the corners of the square would be widened and set off with low walls. An additional walkway would be installed connecting the center of the square with Blount Street to the west. The absence of an additional connection to Person Street on the east is seen by some as an implicit message to the lower-income neighbors on the east side of downtown to stay away from the new and improved square.

At the recent public forum, Ed Salem, an architect and doctoral student at N.C. State University's School of Design, said the Reynolds plan "caters to the hip and the high upper-class," while pushing out poor folks, many of whom use Moore Square during the day.

Reynolds, the designer--who was present at the forum--disavowed any intention of pushing poor people out. "We've tried to make something that's inviting, that's active, and that will be responding to everything that's happening around it," he said.

When asked about Moore Square, City Manager Allen says criticisms of the parks department's handling of the situation are unfair. The department made "a full attempt" to gather public opinion, he says, and it continues to do so. "The process isn't finished yet," Allen adds.

But City Councilman Kirkman thinks the department made a fundamental mistake by not getting broad public agreement on the goals for Moore Square before launching a redesign. Kirkman says he'll suggest that the council refer Reynolds' plan to the comprehensive planning committee with a directive that it go back to square one on goals and then "tweak" the plan accordingly.

The issue of public involvement--not just in parks but in major land-use and zoning cases--was a centerpiece of the 2001 city elections, which were held yesterday. The future relationship between the parks department, its advisory board, and other interested citizens, may depend in large part on how the mayoral and council races came out.

Regardless of that, Robin Moore, who teaches landscape architecture at N.C. State, is one of those who hopes the city will recognize that Moore Square's significance is far greater than its small size, and that the public has a right to be heard about its future.

"I just don't think there has been enough recognition of the importance of this particular space to the city," he says. EndBlock

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