Proposed redesign of RI park prompts backlash

AP News
Posted: Nov 16, 2011 5:30 PM
Proposed redesign of RI park prompts backlash

A proposed public park redesign in Newport by the architect of the Vietnam memorial in Washington has prompted a backlash among some residents who say it doesn't fit with the city's historic character and has not been thoroughly debated.

The City Council is expected to vote next month on whether to allow the Newport Restoration Foundation to redo Queen Anne Square using a design by Maya Lin that introduces a fountain and several stone foundations meant to serve as outdoor "meeting rooms."

When the plans were first unveiled publicly in June, supporters called it a coup that Lin, who is best known for designing the somber, reflective Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, would lend her name and talents to the project in the seaside Rhode Island city. The seven-member council already had given an initial endorsement.

But the renovation _ which the foundation wants to "gift" to the city as a monument to the group's founder, the late preservationist Doris Duke _ has since become a flashpoint. One city councilor calls the design a "travesty" and says the stone foundations that would anchor the space resemble what might be left over after troops razed an enemy city during the Civil War.

"It looks like something left by Sherman's march to the sea," says Councilman Charles Duncan, referring to the destruction by William Tecumseh Sherman's army after the capture of Atlanta.

He intends to vote no when the council takes up the issue, probably at its Dec. 14 meeting.

People have criticized everything from the comfort of sitting on stone rather than, say, a bench _ though there's nowhere to sit in the park now except the grass _ as well as the size of the trees proposed for planting. Lin says she heard one rumor that the whole park, abutting historic Trinity Church, was going to be paved over.

A group calling itself Citizens for Queen Anne Square Park formed to "oppose the destruction" of the park _ meaning leave it the way it is. Some residents want a referendum. So far, the council has held one public workshop on the park redesign, with a second planned next month. It also heard public testimony at its last meeting _ much of it negative.

Laurence Cutler, an architect who co-founded the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport and who spoke out against Lin's design, considers it nothing less than a threat to the city's future. People come to Newport for authenticity, he says, not to see "fake" stone foundations.

Pieter Roos, executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation, describes opponents as a minority vocal beyond its size, and says the redesign will enhance a space that's been in decline for years. He has taken pictures of vodka bottles and trash that accumulated in some of its shrubbery.

Lin has been surprised by the controversy, which she attributes in part to misinformation. People think there will be less open space under the redesign; she says it calls for considerably more. People think there will be fewer trees; she says the number will nearly double. During one visit to the site, she ran into someone who thought he wouldn't be allowed to walk his dog there anymore.

Lin also points out that the "meeting room" foundations are based on real historic residences and each will include some acknowledgment, in text, of the period.

"I'm not trying to fake it, I'm trying to create a memory of what used to be there," she said. "Newport does have a very storied past, and I want to tap into that. Are we trying to recreate it? Absolutely not. That would be Disney World, and I don't do that. But I always do try to be extremely contextual in my work."

Duke, who was behind the preservation of dozens of Newport's historic buildings, came up with the vision for the park _ and then painstakingly oversaw its creation _ in the 1970s. At that time, foundation officials say, it was a largely commercial area containing buildings that were of little note or had been abandoned.

Mayor Stephen Waluk insists that the project is a gift, and won't cost the city a nickel. Some $3.5 million in funding is being raised through the Doris Duke Monument Foundation, an offshoot of the Newport Restoration Foundation, completely from private sources.

Waluk also bats away criticism that Lin's plan contains "inauthentic" elements, saying: "If someone wants to go back to ugly, crappy buildings, that is the history of that parcel."

Foundation officials think the public has had time to weigh in. Roos says he gave as many presentations on the plan as people wanted to hear _ between 55 and 60 in all _ and that the initial design was modified in response to public feedback. The number of stone foundations, for instance, was dropped from four to three, and their size was scaled back. Seating with backs was added.

If the council approves the plan, there's rumbling that residents could file a lawsuit, though it's not clear on what grounds. If the council nixes the project, Roos says that will be that.

"If the council decides, in its wisdom, that this is not a gift that's in the city's best interest, we shake hands and walk away," he said.