Imagine the possibilities. That’s one of the key messages for members of the public interested in helping to guide the future of Prescott Park.
The city of Portsmouth held the first of several public forums seeking input on the park’s master plan on Sunday, June 12, at 12:30 p.m. A few dozen residents gathered under windy skies and the cover of a white tent behind the outdoor stage. They were there to learn more about the master planning process and options for the city’s 10-acre waterfront park.
Assistant city manager David Moore said the intent of the forums is to facilitate a community conversation around the opportunities and challenges for the park as a city-wide resource.
In January, in one of his first actions after taking office, Mayor Jack Blalock formed a Blue Ribbon Committee with a specific focus on developing a master plan for Prescott Park and bringing it forward for council review by the end of 2016. Several of the committee members were present at the forum, including Blalock, city councilors Nancy Pearson and Christine Dwyer (who chairs the committee), and Dana Levenson, trustee of trust funds for Prescott Park.
The Prescott Park Arts Festival (PPAF) has been the subject of much public debate over the last couple of years, with a handful of neighbors complaining about noise from events. Plans for a new permanent stage for the festival have been pushed back by at least two years due largely to one resident’s objections.
But the scope of the master plan reaches far beyond the summer festival. Sandwiched between Marcy Street and the Piscataqua River, the park is comprised of five distinct areas: the fountain and municipal docks; the central park where PPAF events take place; the formal gardens and the building that houses The Players’ Ring Theatre; the raised-bed “trial gardens” and open lawn toward the south end; and Four Tree Island, which is accessed from Peirce Island.
At the forum, Moore introduced planners from Weston & Sampson, the firm hired to work with the city on establishing the master plan. Gene Bolinger of Weston & Sampson called the park’s master plan process “the most important project of this generation.” He emphasized that the plan must continue the history of the park and provide access to the public as open space, as established by the Prescott sisters when they gifted the land to the city of Portsmouth.
The team is seeking input on all areas of the park, including infrastructure items, physical structures, and natural aspects. Also under consideration is programming and events.
Bolinger cited the importance of considering “breakthrough possibilities” for the park beyond what is there today. He showed photos of innovative ideas found at other public parks, like offering more open access to the water and creating water play areas.
Councilor Pearson said Weston & Sampson was chosen as a consultant for the master plan process because of their expertise in public input.”
“They are drawing out a sense of possibility from the public that perhaps they hadn’t thought about because of their familiarity with the park,” she said.
While larger parks like the Boston Common and adjacent Public Gardens in Boston provide distinct spaces for active recreation and ornamental and reflective green spaces, Prescott Park mixes both uses within a much smaller space.
Bolinger’s co-planner, Cheri Ruane, said 40 percent of the area within Prescott Park is paved. She asked participants to consider these kinds of details when examining the park’s amenities and areas for improvement, and to “apply a different lens” when looking toward the park’s future.
During a brief Q&A session, Bolinger and Ruane were asked whether the master plan process would consider the original intentions of the Prescott sisters’ trust. Ruane answered with an emphatic “Yes.”
One guest asked if the plan would include measures to “contain the junkyard” behind the Prescott Park stage. Another guest later challenged this perception and cited the value of the arts festival as a cultural treasure and a “vital organ” in improving property values and the general area around the park.
“We wanted people to be able to look with fresh eyes at the park and think boldly, and some of them certainly did.”
— Councilor Christine Dwyer
After the Q&A, participants roamed the park with clipboards and pens in hand, scribbling answers to questions like, “What do you like most about Prescott Park?,” “What does Prescott Park need more of?,” and “What does Prescott Park need less of?”
Pearson said she hopes these interactive forums will “encourage people to go beyond focusing on one or two of the stakeholders who operate within the park and think of improvements to the park, both physically and programmatically, in a holistic way.”
Ideas generated during the forum included child-friendly water features (in lieu of the pollen puddle that attracted one young park-goer), more public sculpture and art, better signage to designated entrances, and pathways to carry park-goers along more natural travel lines.
A second forum took place later the same afternoon. According to Councilor Dwyer, a total of about 140 people participated in the first day of forums. Dwyer said she was pleased with the turnout and the ideas that were generated.
“We wanted people to be able to look with fresh eyes at the park and think boldly, and some of them certainly did,” she said.
Dwyer said interactive public sessions result in more constructive, collaborative conversations, as opposed to social media and letters to the editor, which often emphasize points of difference rather than points of consensus.
“Being onsite in such a forum gives a very different feeling and level of engagement than a traditional approach to gathering input,” she said. “When people get to build on each other’s ideas, more creativity will emerge.”
Blalock said the first forums “went very well,” with “great participation and thoughtful comments on the process.”
The two remaining public forums on the master plan take place on Wednesday, June 22, at 6:30 p.m. at Portsmouth City Hall, and on Saturday, June 25, at 11 a.m. behind The Players’ Ring. People can also submit comments through an online form available here.
“Both in person participation and written comments will be weighed evenly” in determining the future of Prescott Park, Blalock said.