Community planning for the future of Lawrenceville's 200-year-old Arsenal Park begins this month with Columbus, Ohio-based MKSK Landscape Architects leading the project through November.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the plan manager, helped select the winning proposal from among 10 firms in Pittsburgh and throughout the region, New York City and Toronto.
"There was a lot of wonderful work done, but MKSK impressed us with their excitement about Arsenal Park in the greater context of Lawrenceville," said Susan Rademacher, parks curator for the conservancy. "Everyone involved senses Arsenal Park is not living up to its potential. We want a plan that is practical and visionary at the same time."
The 9-acre park, between 39th and 40th streets behind Pittsburgh Arsenal preK-5 and 6-8, has two baseball fields, Dek Hockey, tennis and basketball courts and a playground. It sits within the historic footprint of the Allegheny Arsenal and incorporates the original magazine building and stone walls.
The site had fallen into neglect when residents formed Friends of Arsenal Park in 2012 and collected 1,000 signatures asking the city for better maintenance. At the time, the Planning Department was gathering public input on parks and green space for the city's first overarching master plan, and one recommendation was a plan for Arsenal Park.
The selection of MKSK "is the first step in this process," said Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United, a member of the selection panel that also included Friends of Arsenal Park, city planning and the Lawrenceville Corp.
Randall Sulkin of Friends of Arsenal Park, said the group encourages "everyone in the community to participate in the master planning process by using the variety of methods that will be available: community meetings, surveys, online feedback, stakeholder outreach and student feedback."
Before leaving office last year, city Councilman Patrick Dowd secured $70,000 in state aid for the first part of planning. Completion calls for another $80,000 for which funds are being raised.
Critics questioned the use of the money for a plan and some of the group's decisions.
"We spend too much money on studies, too little on maintenance," said Jim Wudarczyk, a researcher for the Lawrenceville Historical Society. He suggested $150,000 be used for repair of historical features in the park. "I'm not criticizing the Friends of Arsenal Park. Their hearts are in the right place. But lack of maintenance is the issue."
Cathy Lafferty, former recording secretary of the Friends group, said she asked the group to "step back" and consider whether a master plan was the best course. She also said the hiring of an outside firm was curious. "We have a community full of architects."
People signed the petition to get better maintenance, and the city responded, resurfacing the playground and tennis courts and repairing the roof of the magazine, she said, asking why money would be spent on a plan when the city was already doing what residents wanted.
But the wording of the petition also asks for capital funds "for improving the poor condition of the facilities to a manner fitting an historic landmark and recreational facility beloved by all residents of the City of Pittsburgh and surrounding metropolitan area."
In light of the city's tight budget, the money for capital projects "will have to come from philanthropists," said Matthew Galluzzo, executive director of the Lawrenceville Corp. "With all the commercial district development going on, this is a grand opportunity for us to improve the park's connectivity to other assets. The city needs a plan and to know there are partners at the table."
Ms. Rademacher said future investment in and uses of Arsenal Park depend on a well thought-out plan to guide both. Repair and maintenance will be part of a weightier redesign to elevate Arsenal Park to meet expectations of a neighborhood whose retail and housing properties have been skyrocketing.
The park lies on a slope and is not easily accessible to strollers and wheelchairs. Its redesign will consider storm water retention, better integration with Arsenal school and best uses for an amphitheater and an empty pond.
Christine Brill, a landscape architect who is secretary of Friends of Arsenal Park, said the neighborhood's demographics have changed since the park was used as a hang-out for drug dealers 15 years ago.
"The demographics are different and expectations for parks are different today," she said, adding that park use and perception are changing, with more picnickers, dog walkers and events, such as bike polo.
The planning group expects to meet today to devise a calendar for input sessions. And they won't all be meetings.
"We want to hold activities and involve children and seniors," Ms. Rademacher said. "We will have focus groups, workshops, walk-arounds and other activities to keep it interesting and get the widest range of views."
The conservancy has an agreement to help with care and maintenance of the city's large regional parks but no role at Arsenal other than to manage its plan. "But if there is an opportunity to help out on an ongoing basis [at Arsenal Park]," Ms. Rademacher said, "we are open to that."
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.