Can parks multi-task? You bet they can

Tue, 02/21/2023 - 8:30pm

In light of past and present rumors and statements that the Thomaston Select Board is considering building a new fire station on the Green, as well as green-lighting the Knox County Health Clinic's new facility, residents might want to think again about the benefits of preserving green space — or, at the very least, looking hard at all options and alternatives. 

Since neither the fire station nor the health clinic provide tax revenues, the arguments for building on the Thomaston Green evaporate in a cloud of unnecessary, polluting construction dust and debris, to say nothing of questions around the underlying costs to taxpayers. 

Both facilities can and should be built where they do not deny public access to publicly owned and currently utilized open space. Again, the Select Board's definition of "mixed use" does not acknowledge that parks and open space are always places of mixed use for public benefit including simply knowing that green space will continue to exist for future generations in perpetuity. 

Privatizing the Green, even in part, is a betrayal of public trust, a kind of theft in plain sight.  Private development for the Town's most important publicly owned open space--the Green--is also out of sync with progressive town planning efforts nationwide--as the above online link affirms.  

The Development Committee tail that is currently wagging Thomaston's decision-making apparatus — in person meetings in the dead of winter as COVID continues to be a very real concern for many — is alarming to many residents. 
Before investing at least $600,000 in public funding resources for Watts Block renovations, a much less costly and more beneficial Town-wide investment would be to commission an affordable, creative, and forward-looking Master Plan for parks and recreation that should include Watts Hall, the Library and all town-owned facilities including unused portions of Lura Libby.*   
Many residents believe plans to upgrade the Watts Block, a building that long ago aged out of public usefulness, is foolish; this building should have sold long ago to a private developer where it could be creatively revitalized by enlightened entrepreneurial hands, where it might enliven a moribund commercial business district.
It may have existed on Main Street for 109 years but that neither makes it historically significant (compared to Thomaston' abundant inventory of one of a kind vernacular 19th century architecture) nor functional as a 21st century art center. 
And if we are talking about preserving history, then that would be the Green--a likely site where Europeans first encountered Maine's and New England's original people--and kidnapped them! 
If history is a criterion for caring, then the Green's long history as site of the State Prison should be more fully honored, protected, remembered, in some sense redeemed as a place of respite and reflection for all of Maine's peoples including Native Americans. 
As Herman Melville once remarked, "It's not on any map; true places never are."  That is to say, important parks are places of personal discovery.
But if Thomaston wants a fully functional, 21st century art center it would do well to take a longer, harder, more creative look at all options.  Or, at least go all in.   
With modest retrofitting the ground floor spaces of Watts Hall could become attractive non-profit galleries for local visual artists, including local school children, perhaps "owning" the space as an artists' coop with a modest lease to pay heat, water, and electric. 
From a purely operational perspective, a more audience-friendly auditorium at Lura Libby has ground level accessibility and ample parking to say nothing of better acoustics and less traffic noise from Route 1. 
Proximity to Lura Libby should be looked at again for both the Fire Station and the health clinic; indeed, the fire station and EMS were initially promoted as part of the overall government services package sold to Town voters as among the leading arguments for purchasing the former school in the first place.  Sadly, tragically, in today's world of armed madmen assaulting our schools nearly every day, heath care and protection services should be located next to all schools. 
*The parks report developed by Regina Leonard in 2022 was fatally flawed because she and the citizen's task group were not allowed to consider or incorporate possibilities for the entire Thomaston Green.  Her preliminary report was a promising start, but it was nowhere near a comprehensive "Master Plan" that Thomaston needs for its parks, trails and recreation opportunities, including arts programming. 
New York City's Central Park might never have happened if mixed private/public use were the principal driving considerations behind its literally ground-breaking success as the iconicmodel for successful urban planning.  There are also numerous real estate studies for New York and throughout the U.S. telling town planners that properties near or adjacent to parks are valued exponentially higher than real estate next to commercial property.  And the more substantial and larger and popular the park, the higher those values will necessarily be. Check Fifth Avenue real estate prices for commercial properties between 59th and 110th streets? 
Along with a green goldmine, Frederick Law Olmsted gave the city its natural, life-enhancing heart, lungs and soul.  
Chris Crosman lives in Thomaston