Landslide Update: Thomas Polk Park

Opened in 1991, as Charlotte, N.C., was rapidly becoming a center of commerce, this 1/3-acre plaza designed by landscape architect Angela Danadjieva with a central waterfall and pool has remained a beloved icon of the Uptown neighborhood. However, the city has struggled to keep up with maintenance and code compliances, and simultaneously, the adjacent park has fallen into disrepair, damaging visual and spatial connections between the fountain and the surrounding streetscape. In 2019 the city engaged Agency Landscape + Planning, a nationally significant woman-owned business, and James Garland of Fluidity Design Consultants, a global leader in fountain design, to rehabilitate the park. In a shocking and disappointing turn, on March 13, 2023, during Women’s History Month, the City Council voted nine to one to demolish the city-owned park and replace it with a new park named for Bank of America executive Hugh McColl.

Located at the northwest corner of Trade and Tryon Streets in Uptown (the heart of Charlotte), the plaza, featured as an at-risk landscape in The Cultural Landscape Foundation's (TCLF) Landslide 2020: Women Take the Lead report, occupies a site that has served as an important intersection of people and ideas for more than 300 years. Originally the nexus of two trade routes, the site held at one time the estate of Thomas Polk (great uncle of President James K. Polk) and witnessed the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775. The site was established as Charlotte’s commercial center throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by the 1970s skyscrapers towered over the site.

Schematic design drawing for Thomas Polk Park
Schematic design for Thomas Polk Park by Danadjieva & Koenig Associates, 1990. -

Danadjieva’s cascading water feature, tucked within the northwest corner of the site, creates a cool, quiet oasis amidst the surrounding high-rise buildings. She had previously designed the Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, OR (1970), and the sculptural fountain installation at Freeway Park in Seattle, WA (1976) with Lawrence Halprin & Associates, and the design of Polk Park shows the influence of this earlier work.

After working for Halprin she established a practice with Thomas Koenig, whom she would subsequently marry. In an October 1986 Charlotte City Council resolution that recommended approving the engagement of Danadjieva and Koenig to design Polk Park, the firm was said to “bring extensive experience and credentials to the project. They have designed over 100 plaza and urban space projects in different parts of the country. Their projects have been innovative and many of them have set standards for others to follow. They design public spaces which are works of art in themselves, but which also function as ‘people places’” [emphasis added]. Koenig died in 1990, a year before the project’s completion; he was 54 years old.

A hardscape of Piedmont red granite paved in a diagonal pattern draws visitors from the street and towards the 30-foot-tall pyramidal waterfall, with three subordinate falls, that cascades into a reflecting pool. Upon opening, the plaza soon hosted parades, farmers markets, and pep rallies, in addition to daily visitors seeking workday respite.

Thomas Polk Park, Charlotte, NC - Photo courtesy AGENCY

Despite its prime location and rich history, the city’s deferred maintenance of the surrounding landscape in the last two decades created an accumulation of trees and street furniture that disrupted the site’s connectivity with the streetscape. The plaza’s entrance, intended to entice pedestrians towards the fountain, became blocked with barriers. Once inside the plaza, sparse seating offerings discouraged visitors from using the space. Polk Park also suffered from a lack of programming; once animated and vibrant, it is now overlooked and underutilized, a space that most people simply pass by.

In 2019 a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) was put forth by Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP), in partnership with the City of Charlotte (“the City”), inviting firms to submit proposals to reinvent the park. Per their RFQ, CCCP and the City believe that “… Polk Park can and should be the premier urban public space in Charlotte.” The project was a public-private partnership and would open in tandem with the 2020 Republican National Convention. The city allotted $1 million for the planning process. The novel corona virus pandemic derailed that. Nevertheless, Agency and Fluidity proceeded with a public engagement process and had completed 80% of the design development drawings.

Gina Ford, co-founder and principal at Agency Landscape + Planning, noted at the start of the project that there was no widely-shared body of knowledge about Polk Park, its significance, or how the current design came to be. She identified a “lack of vitality” around the space and its setting, while emphasizing the opportunity to reflect the vibrancy of Charlotte as the very heart of Uptown. Working with James Garland of Fluidity Design Consultants, Ford intended for the iconic water feature to be made resilient, and the spaces behind and around it and the facing plaza to be decluttered and “distilled.”

Thomas Polk Park, Charlotte, NC - Photo by Larry Syverson, 2017

The original timeline as put forth in the RFQ indicated that construction would begin in March 2020, with project completion projected for July of the same year. Unsurprisingly, major societal events of 2020—the novel coronavirus pandemic and protests concerning racial injustice—reshaped both the timeline and the focus of the project. Amidst these events, installations of murals and public art by Black artists began to animate the Uptown neighborhood. The opportunity to improve the site’s connections with the diverse surrounding community, becoming a revitalized space available for performances, rallies, and art displays, became an important planning priority.

In February 2022, the team were advised that the project’s fundraising was put on hold. A year later, on March, 13, 2023, the Charlotte City Council voted to raze the park, and authorized using the remaining $350,000 of the planning process fee to pay for the demolition. The City Council agenda stated: “There is no interest in keeping or repurposing any elements of the current park. Therefore, to address the immediate maintenance and public safety issues the park should be demolished as soon as public engagement is complete.” The Council’s vote approved “the Polk Park Partnership Framework to support a group of civic leaders who will partner with Charlotte Center City Partners to lead the fundraising, design, construction, and renaming of Polk Park.” The women-led design team originally hired to revive the site, spearheaded by Ford, would have had the exceptional chance to elevate the work of another woman designer while activating a critical outdoor space to serve the city’s urban community.  The City Council’s recent decision would erase a signature design by one of America’s leading practitioners. This would not be the first time. Another Charlotte landscape that opened in 1991, Topo, co-designed by Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was demolished in 2008.