Saturday, March 07, 2009

Where Will All the Flowers Go?

Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, who recently announced his intention to seek re-election to the City Council, is pushing for a new initiative: a botanical garden costing as much as $50 million, to be located in McIntire Park near the soon-to-be-built Meadowcreek Parkway, which was first proposed more than 40 years ago and has been debated interminably since then.

The future of McIntire Park has also been the focus of a minor controversy that involves the building of a YMCA facility on the grounds of the park. That will result in the dislocation of some athletic fields and picnic areas, while the parkway will displace part of the public golf course now hosted by the park.

Reporting on a non-profit group, McIntire Botanical Garden, which is lobbying for the new project, Rachana Dixit wrote in Friday's Daily Progress:

The group held its first community meeting Thursday night on its proposal to create a 40 to 50 acre botanical garden inside the Charlottesville park, complete with trails, trees, flowers and possibly a conservatory within a few miles of downtown. With two of the nine holes in the park’s golf course falling to the Meadowcreek Parkway, advocates hope the garden could take its place.

“It’s just a gorgeous piece of property,” said Peter McIntosh, vice president of the nonprofit.

City leaders, including councilors, the parks and recreation advisory committee and city staff, have praised the idea.

“McIntire Park could be and should be the crown jewel of our parks system,” Mayor Dave Norris said at Thursday’s meeting.

While I won't comment on the merits of this embryonic proposal (except to say that that $50 million price tag should be paid for with privately-raised funds, not taxpayers' dollars), I will say this: Charlottesville (my new home town) should look to Milwaukee (my original home town) as a model. Once Charlottesville leaders see the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, they will either say "that is the goal we should pursue" or "we can never match that so let's try something else."

In his 2006 book of essays, Cream City Chronicles: Stories of Milwaukee's Past, local historian John Gurda wrote:
There are few places more welcoming in winter than the Mitchell Park Domes. Snow and ice may cover the world outside, but the show dome is filled with azaleas in full bloom, cactus plants are flowering in the desert next door, and the tropical dome is, as always, a jungle of sensory delights.

The jungle exhibit is my cold-weather favorite. You step from the bleakness of a Wisconsin winter directly into a pungent paradise of running water, birdsong, and exotic greenery. More than a thousand species crowd the meandering walkways: fragrant orchids, giant hibiscus flowers, date palms, coconut trees, and banyan, bamboo, and banana plants. The air is a musky blend of aromas ranging from pepper to chocolate, and the temperature is a constant eighty degrees even when blizzards rage on the other side of the glass.
After discoursing on Alexander Mitchell's original (private) botanical gardens of the 19th century, Gurda concluded by noting how the landmark geodesic domes in Mitchell Park came to be:
As the Mitchell conservatory faded into memory, Milwaukee’s Park Commission decided that the community deserved a public facility just as grand. In 1898, the Commission built an elegant glass palace overlooking the Menomonee Valley and filled it with horticultural specimens from around the world. It was Milwaukee’s very own zoo for plants, and the site was appropriate: a twenty-four-acre parcel purchased from the Mitchell family in 1890.

Mitchell Park has been the site of Milwaukee’s conservatory ever since, but the glass palace was replaced by the present Domes between 1964 and 1967. Strikingly modern when they were new, the conoidal beehives seem less exotic in the twenty-first century, but they continue to draw visitors from around the world.

Their appeal is obvious in every season, and Milwaukeeans can take special pride in the Domes. More than a century ago, our ancestors gazed in wondrous envy at the Mitchell greenhouses on Grand Avenue. Today those splendors are reincarnated in Mitchell Park, and this garden of rich man’s delights belongs to all of us.
Interestingly, the first proposal for botanical gardens at McIntire Park was in the middle of the 20th century, about 20 years before construction began on the Mitchell Park Domes. Dixit continues in her article:

A garden in McIntire Park has been floated before, and city parks and recreation advisory committee member Sallie Brown also noted that a bird and flower sanctuary was built in the park as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s.

“I think [the proposed garden] would be a very fitting tribute to the women and men who labored there 70 years ago,” she said.

A resident committee tasked with planning the east side of the park in 2004 recommended a conservatory or arboretum be built there, along with a recreational pond, which could also serve as a stormwater management system for the Meadowcreek Parkway. But in 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the pond idea.

(Mitchell Park in Milwaukee also has a large pond within it.)

Nearly two years ago, on a trip home for my high school reunion, I spent part of an afternoon inside the Mitchell Park Domes and took some video. Here it is:

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Corey said...

I knew that had to be Richard's voice in the car. ;)

Lonnie said...

The mention of the idea of a Botanical Garden at McIntire has generated a lot of talk about conservatories. I think though that a conservatory will really be quite some time away (unless a huge donor steps up) Initially, it will be more outdoor gardens, with perhaps a hoop house. Once those are started, and more fundraising can be done, then we'll examine the potential of a conservatory.

The main point of the Botanical garden will be on conservation, so while it will be incredibly attractive, a priority will be on educating the public on species that we are at risk of losing forever, both locally and globally. The $50 million dollar figure that is quoted was based on a Garden like Lewis Ginter, which is more focused on fountains, ornamental plants, statues and such. While someday we might have such things too, we might be able to get started as easily as the original WPA garden was begun.

As far as public funds go, I think some funds would be necessary for any redevelopment of the park from it's current use as a golf course, and to repair the damage from the parkway construction. Beyond that, I think private funds should be able complete the project. That said, there may be compelling reasons to keep the City directly involved in the management and maintenance, and those will have to be examined. (For example, maybe the garden would be involved in plant production for city landscaping projects, and thus the city would lend some staff towards those efforts)

I think Ivy Creek Natural Area may be a good model to look at in terms of a public private partnership.

Lonnie Murray
Charlottesville Botanical Garden