No public discussion from Council members prior to approval
By Brandi Makuski
A new addition to Pfiffner Pioneer Park has earned a final nod of approval from city leaders- but it has also brought up questions about transparency in local government.
The new Cultural Commons- a planned homage to the city’s Nicaraguan Partnership and relationships with sister cities- will feature multiple natural accents, sculpture work and an outdoor classroom in the park’s south end.
The project was first made public on Oct. 5 during a joint City Plan Commission/Park Board meeting, though it had been discussed privately for more than a year. The project also calls for a pergola, a labyrinth and “space for personal reflection”. Plants and flora would reflect the culture and landscape of sister cities; informational kiosks, an interactive Smartphone app and improving pedestrian access on Crosby Ave. is also part of the long-term plans.
Aaron Kadoch, from the Division of Interior Architecture at UWSP, represents those behind the project- a group comprised of some from UWSP, the Stevens Point Rotary, the locally-based Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners of the Americas and groups supporting the sister city relationships with Gulcz, Poland and Rostov Veliky, Russia.
The “pocket park”, as Kadoch called it, was the perfect compliment to Pfiffner because that park specifically is a gateway to the Wisconsin River.
“It literally is the point of beginning for the City of Stevens Point from so many years ago- it is where this city began,” Kadoch said. “It’s also sort of this natural, circular zone that everyone uses to approach the river and approach the park.”
While the City Council unanimously approved the project’s concept and conditional use permit on Oct. 19, some complained the project had undergone planning for more than a year without public input or knowledge.
“Is this a way to plan and design a public park; to not leave it up to the appointed and elected, who are supposed to be doing this for the public, but rather leave it up to private entities to design and plan and install?” Asked Cathy Dugan, who is a member of the city’s Redevelopment Authority. “It’s happening more and more. I have more confidence, as a member of the public, in [the City Council]. If there is any development in our green parks, it’s up to you.”
Dugan said she also was concerned about the disruption to the view of the Wisconsin River and existing green space, but the lack of transparency worried her the most.
“The planning for this project was carried out for more than a year and behind the scenes,” she said. “The general public was not involved; not even aware this was going on. Instead, the planners were an exclusive group and by invitation only. The average Joe was excluded. There was no public engagement in this process- and this is way this has gone in local government for a long time.”
“I had hoped a public process would answer some questions,” said resident Bob Fisch, who argued the project was not reflective of the city’s own heritage and culture. “The ‘Cultural Commons’ theme- I fully support the sister cities and the partner city, but if we’re going to call something a ‘cultural commons’, do we really have the right project to call it that?”
Kadoch argued the project had already been vetted by some members of the public, saying it was a “community-wide project…with lots of strong interest and support and collaboration among many, many groups around town”.
“The groups that have been involved in the planning have been quite diverse,” He added, saying a feasibility survey also went out to “over 40 community members to get feedback, which we incorporated.”
Mayor Mike Wiza said “many, many” projects have come to fruition via a similar process, pointing out KASH playground, Community Stadium (Goerke Field) and the city’s dog park all began with private inquiries from community groups.
“And, I would submit these groups are the ‘average Joe’ of our community,” Wiza said. “None of them restrict membership; the citizenship has been involved.”
Wiza said the project’s concept also offered a tie-in between the park and Downtown Main Street.
Tom Schrader, director of the parks department, said his office requested very specific and detailed information before bringing the plan public.
“We need all of this information before we come to a meeting,” Schrader said. “We don’t want bits and pieces coming forward a little at a time.”
Schrader also cited KASH playground, where a similar process was used by city leaders when the park was first proposed by a private group.
The $500,000 project will break ground in the spring of 2016, with an official opening in summer of 2017. Construction and maintenance will be funded through private donations.