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Thursday, April 18, 2024

NC trend: Will park changes leave city’s history behind?

By Audrey Knaack and David Mildenberg

Hugh McColl Jr.

In a year or two, Charlotte’s famed Trade and Tryon street intersection is likely to sport a tribute to Charlotte banker Hugh McColl Jr., directly across from towers where he worked decades building what became the second-largest U.S. bank.

The park’s design is a work in progress, backed by $10 million from individuals and groups. It’s unclear if it will become a glitzy attraction or a tranquil site. It replaces Thomas Polk Park, which opened in 1991 and was demolished this summer at the City Council’s direction. It featured a large waterfall and a tribute to the Revolutionary War-era man most associated with Charlotte’s founding. 

A city press release cited the park as “obsolete, with limited gathering space, poor lighting, outdated landscaping, and a hard-to-maintain fountain.” To a degree, Polk Park’s decline mirrors the center city, which has more homeless people, an office vacancy rate topping 20% and increasing crime fears. 

McColl Park is a partial response and in line with how Charlotte prizes the new over the historic. This change is fine with Dan Morrill, the city’s best-known preservationist. “History is about today. I have no problem with them renaming the park,” he says.

The retired UNC Charlotte professor never liked Polk Park’s design, despite his esteem for Polk’s importance. The waterfall was too big for the small parcel, and it was bracketed by walls of two imposing towers, he says. “One of those buildings needed to have an opening so you could walk through the park. It just didn’t work.”

Other historians disagree, contending the park deserved better care and historic designation.  Charles Birnbaum, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, protested the change to city officials, with no apparent impact. “Polk Park was a rare and important public work in Charlotte by a woman artist. (Bulgarian-born landscape architect Angela Danadjieva). The city did a poor job of maintaining Polk Park,” he says. “Even worse was the absence of an honest public review process.”

There was no such process before the city spent $350,000 to eliminate the park, adds Sarah Hardinger, president of the Mecklenburg Historical Association. Local history buffs had no input before Polk Park was eliminated, and she blames the city for not maintaining the park and allowing homeless people to gather there frequently. 

Center City Partners, the downtown booster group that McColl, 88, helped organize decades ago, has been mulling how to honor the banker at the site since 2021. Michael Smith, who leads the partnership, is raising $10 million for the project. Fundraising “is going extremely well. I can’t say more than that,” says Moira Quinn, the group’s spokesperson.

In September, Smith organized a community meeting to introduce McColl Park’s design team and take initial input. Charlotte native Walter Hood, a landscape architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and civil engineers Bolton & Menk, which bought Charlotte’s ColeJenest & Stone firm in 2021, will oversee the project. Hood’s past projects include a garden at the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Peter Oliver Gallery Memorial in Winston-Salem.

“We believe that community input is crucial in creating an inspired public space that responds to the aspirations of our residents,” Smith said in a release. The city is losing “an architectural treasure,” Hardinger says. “In my 30 years in Charlotte, I don’t recall them tearing down a public site like this without any public input.”

The committee will make the design decisions on the city-owned site with input from Assistant City Manager Phil Reiger, Quinn says. Members include civic leaders and longtime McColl friends, including former Mayor Harvey Gantt, civic leader Cyndee Patterson and Michael Marsicano, the retired CEO of the Foundation For The Carolinas.

Morrill says it’s smart to honor McColl, who he deems as probably the second-most important figure in Charlotte history behind industrialist D.A. Tompkins, who pioneered the region’s textile industry in the late 19th century. While building the megabank, McColl also led many civic initiatives, including developing Charlotte’s robust center city.

Still, Morrill hopes the new park will include at least a minor tribute to Polk, whose detachment helped protect the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War.

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