Charlotte’s Shame – Was Polk Park Legally Razed?

The first images of a dismembered and disemboweled Polk Park, designed by artist and landscape architect Angela Danadjieva, appeared on Twitter May 23, 2023, at 5:18PM ET (above, right), a mere six days after the City of Charlotte, N.C., and the Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP) announced that work had begun on the “revitalization of an uptown park.” But was this demolition legal? Two months earlier, on March 13 the City Council approved a measure, the Polk Park Partnership Framework, to replace the park with a new one named for retired Bank of America executive Hugh McColl. The terms of the measure specified “the park should be demolished as soon as public engagement is complete,” in a process to “be led by the Charlotte Center City Partners.” But there was no public engagement between the March 13 vote and the arrival of the demolition crew from D. H. Griffin Companies. When asked about this by a Charlotte Business Journal reporter for a May 22 article, city spokesperson Lawrence Corley responded, “the Mecklenburg Historical Association [MHA] and families of people memorialized in Polk Park were consulted.” Except, that’s not true. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) contacted MHA president Sarah Sue Hardinger who said there was “not a consultation of any kind.” On May 30 the Charlotte Business Journal’s Erik Spanberg reported the same: “neither the city nor Center City Partners consulted the historical association.”

Former Bank of America executive Hugh McColl. - Photo by Justin Ruckman, 2009

The controversial demolition of Polk Park has provoked questions from multiple media outlets and TCLF. Seemingly as a result, Hugh McColl, the former Bank of America CEO and new park namesake, whose name appears on several institutions in town, is now trying to distance himself from the project. According to a May 23, 2023, Charlotte Business Journal article, he stated: 

“I’m not involved at all,” McColl said in response to whether he has any stipulations or requirements on how the site is managed.

Referring to the naming of the park, he said, “I was asked if I would allow it to be done. I said yes.” As for having influence over the park’s design and construction, McColl said he does not want that.

In fact, Hugh McColl is directly involved. He knew and accepted the fact that Polk Park would have to be razed for the Hugh McColl Park to be built. On the eve of the park’s demolition, as articles appeared locally about the park’s and Danadjieva’s significance, McColl, a powerful, influential, and respected business leader, could have intervened, but there’s no evidence he did. 

So, what really happened? How did Polk Park, which opened in 1991, go from a path of rehabilitation to pulverization? It’s unclear and the public process has been opaque. Here’s what we know:

Polk Park landing page in "Landslide 2020: Women Take the Lead" - The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Polk Park landed in TCLF’s Landslide 2020: Women Take the Lead report and exhibition because the city had issued a request for proposals (RFP) in 2019 to redo the park in tandem with the 2020 Republican National Convention, slated to occur in Charlotte. The work would be done in collaboration with the CCCP, whose membership includes leading business officials. The city set aside one million dollars for planning and the firm selected for the effort, Boston-based Agency Landscape + Planning, proposed a rehabilitation. 

Amid the global upheaval brought on by the pandemic, Agency advanced a concept in May 2021 that would respect Danadjieva’s design intent (and the fountain) while addressing multiple concerns. For example, to achieve greater access Agency proposed “a flexible plaza for quiet activity, small scale events, mid-sized performances, and city-wide festivals.” However, in February 2022, Agency was notified that funding for the project had been put on hold. There was no news about the park’s future until the March 13, 2023, City Council meeting when a proposal from a group of businesspeople and philanthropists (the Hugh McColl Park Coalition) calling for the park’s demolition and replacement with a new “Hugh McColl Park” was briefly discussed and approved.

(left to right) City Manager Marcus Jones, Mayor Vi Lyles, and Councilmember Braxton Winston - Screen grab.
(left to right) Councilmember Marcus Jones, Mayor Vi Lyles, and Councilmember Braxton Winston. -

At that meeting Councilmember Braxton Winston cited a litany of the park’s ills – poor lighting, overgrown plant materials, the fountain's inoperability, and rodents, among others – somehow concluding that the city’s lack of maintenance was the park’s fault. As TCLF’s President and CEO, Charles A. Birnbaum, said in a March 27, 2023, press release: “The Council’s rationale makes no sense. It’s the equivalent of starving a patient of needed medical care, and then blaming the patient for getting sicker.”

Writing recently about Polk Park's signature 30-foot-tall fountain, James Garland, President, Founder, and Design Director at the Los Angeles, CA-based Fluidity Design Consultants, who was part of Agency's team, stated: "I studied it closely as I was prepared to build a new fountain, but I concluded that the advantages of its rehabilitation far outweighed the benefits of its demolition." Had added: "The fountain is culturally important."

In a statement to Charlotte Observer reporter Genna Contino, city spokesperson Corley said the cost of rehabilitating Polk Park was “too significant,” but neither he nor any other city official, member of the CCCP, or the Hugh McColl Park Coalition has said what the estimated cost was. How can the public assess the cost estimate without knowing what it is? The article also reported Corley's other reasons: “the park was dangerous, citing the park’s sharp edged design and fountain” and that “it’s not compatible with nearby properties” – claims that are neither explained nor substantiated.

Phil Reiger, City of Charlotte Director of General Services - Screen grab.

What led the city and CCCP to pivot from rehabilitating to demolishing the park? How and when did that happen, who was involved, and to what extent, if any, was the public informed, engaged, and/or consulted?  TCLF has reached out to Mayor Vi Lyles, all the City Councilmembers, the City Attorney, and city spokesperson Corley on several occasions. Only a City Attorney’s office representative responded and referred TCLF to Mr. Phil Reiger, Director of the Department of General Services (the department responsible for Polk Park’s maintenance; Charlotte does not have a parks department). In an email to TCLF on Friday, May 26, 2023, Reiger provided few responses to specific questions, however, he did say: “In 2021, a private coalition of philanthropists approached the City with a pledge to raise funds to redevelop and rename the park.” 

This raises many more questions: On what date in 2021 did the coalition approach the city? Was it before Agency advanced their rehabilitation concept in May 2021?  With whom in the city did they speak? If by “redevelop” they meant “demolish,” what was the city’s response? Presumably, this and subsequent meetings with city officials about a public park would have to have been memorialized in meeting minutes and/or some other ways – i.e., there must be a "paper trail." On May 26, 2023, TCLF asked Reiger to provide such documents, meeting minutes, correspondence, etc. To date no response has been received.

Polk Park demolition, May 25, 2023 - Screen grab from Twitter

The Hugh McColl Park Coalition, the CCCP, and various city officials and representatives have praised the proposal to create a privately funded Hugh McColl Park and have roundly criticized Polk Park. However, when asked who first decided in 2021 that Polk Park had to be demolished, no one has claimed credit or taken responsibility. And now the namesake for the new park is distancing himself from the project.

Polk Park was a rare and important work in Charlotte by a woman artist and landscape architect (another woman-designed project that also opened in 1991, Topo by Maya Lin, was demolished in 2007). The loss of the park is even more perplexing given Bank of America’s professed commitment to supporting women – not only is Hugh McColl the Bank’s retired CEO, Bank of America Charlotte President Kieth Cockrell is a member of the Hugh McColl Park Coalition. Moreover, Hugh McColl was instrumental in the creation of the McColl Center, an "artist residency and contemporary arts hub in Uptown Charlotte" that "is committed to putting artists first." 

Public private partnerships such as the one between the City of Charlotte and CCCP are increasingly being adopted by resource strapped cities and municipalities and they can be beneficial, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of public oversight and a transparent public process. When there are transgressions, there should be accountability, especially to prevent recidivism. Better yet, there should be a change in policies and procedures. TCLF’s Birnbaum told the Charlotte Observer that this could be Charlotte’s Penn Station moment, referring to the controversial demolition of New York City’s iconic train station that sparked the modern preservation movement. Charlotte should be so lucky.