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Renovated Perk Park in Cleveland gives the city a new oasis of urban bliss

If your mental image of downtown Cleveland is that of a city devoid of street life except when the Browns are playing at the lakefront, stop by therenovated Perk Park sometime this summer.
Located at Chester Avenue and East 12th Street, the park is a people-watching paradise, a patch of urban heaven, and a powerful demonstration of why it’s essential to make more places like it throughout the city’s heart.
Veteran New York landscape architect Thomas Balsley and the Cleveland landscape firm of McKnight & Associates, redesigned the 40-year-old park, which felt tired and unsafe before renovation, with a sleek, contemporary look.
Now in its first full season of use, the rectangular park, which measures about an acre in size, is beautiful in repose in early mornings and late afternoons, and always a delight to visit. It’s an outdoor reading room, a lunchtime dating scene and a delightful hangout for spacing out in the middle of the workday.
But it’s best on Wednesdays at noon when free outdoor concerts combine with a weekly convocation of food trucks on adjacent Walnut Avenue to attract crowds of 200-plus. That’s when the park becomes a living laboratory of peaceful, respectful, democratic enjoyment and coexistence.

The music and food attract black and white, brown and Asian, rich and poor, young and old, able-bodied and disabled. Bike messengers nap on low-slung, concrete chaises longue. Solitary women relax on seats made of tropical ipe hardwood and read novels while propping sandalled feet on concrete footrests.
Dog owners walk their pooches. Young couples come with babies in strollers. Couples chat on metal swivel chairs arranged in pairs under the translucent, red resin louvers of an airy metal pergola that sweeps along the east edge of the park. The canopy, a flash of complementary color against the rich greens of the park, is the pimento in the olive.
Under the high locusts that shade the north side of the park, picnickers recline on grassy hillocks like the protagonists in Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet or Auguste Renoir.
Nine-year-old Tyler Dominak, who drove in from Medina with his mother, siblings and other relatives for a recent Wednesday visit, loved it. He raced up and down a small hill that rises on the southwest corner of the lawn, where toddlers and children flock.
"It’s nice!" he said. "A lot of people come here!"
The joy in his words underscores the shame that it took a ridiculously long nine years to raise the $3 million needed for the park renovation. Some $2.5 million came from the city, while foundations, property owners and tenants of surrounding buildings kicked in the remaining $500,000.
Sadly, it took a killing in the park in 2009 to goad the city to action. In the wee hours on a Sunday morning in February that year, a gunman ambushed 28-year-old Jeremy Pechanec in the park, killing him and wounding his friend, 26-year-old Jory Aebly.

The renovation should have happened a decade ago — or even two.
Originally built in 1972, the park was first conceived in 1961 by architect I.M. Pei as part of the 200-acre Erieview Urban Renewal District he designed for the city.
The federal government subsidized the demolition of so-called zones of blight in scores of cities and offered incentives for developers to build modern office and apartment tower blocks. Many cities never recovered from the trauma.
The moonscape created by the Erieview project filled in slowly over the decades with second-rate towers by famous architecture firms from New York, Boston and Chicago. Pei didn’t return to Cleveland until the 1990s, when he designed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Perk Park, called Chester Commons before it was renamed in 1996 for Ralph Perk, the city’s mayor from 1971 to 1977, was originally designed by city workers with grassy berms that guarded its edges, and with a sunken area in the center that sprouted massive interlocking walls of molded concrete.

The image brought to mind a small-scale sewer plant, or perhaps a cluster of Nazi pillboxes at Normandy Beach.
In practical terms, the old design blocked sightlines of the park’s interior from surrounding sidewalks. It looked like a crime scene in the making, which is in fact what it became.
The Balsley-McKnight design took safety as its jumping off point. It divided the park into a pair of rectangles intended to evoke an archetypal meadow and forest. Apart from hilly mounds of grass, the ground plane is level, rather than sunken. You can peer across the entire space from the surrounding sidewalks, which creates a sense of security.
"You can’t relax in a space if you think from some direction, there’s some danger," Balsley said in a recent interview.
Instead of berms, the park is edged by long, low planting strips, with rows of neatly trimmed boxwoods and flower beds, which buffer the park from the bustle and glare of surrounding sidewalks.

In the center of the park, along a path that divides the "meadow" and "forest" areas, an egg-shaped area of paving is incised with a poem by Catherine Wing of Cleveland Heights. The spot serves as a stage for performers on Wednesdays.
Balsley said the egg-shaped paving area has been fitted with underground pipes that could turn it into a splash zone for children, if more money can be raised for fixtures and maintenance in the future.
The park’s style is crisply modernist, but it should age well, if maintained. Much of the furniture, including the park’s folded-steel benches, was designed by Balsely and is manufactured by Landscape Forms in Kalamazoo, Mich. Hurray for the industrial Midwest.
With the exception of 1100 Superior Avenue, a handsome black steel and glass box designed in 1972 by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Modernist buildings around the park are numbingly mediocre. But the park makes the architecture OK. It has turned the surrounding buildings into the outer walls of a very beautiful and very nicely furnished public living room.
Balsley placed trees and distinctive vertical light wands at the edges of the park at 25-foot intervals, which matches the structural bays of the Park Plaza Building on the west side of the park. This gives the spaces an underlying sense of order and structure, and creates a subtle harmony between the building and the park.
The park also provides what environmentalists call "ecological services." Shade from trees lowers the summertime temperature perceptibly, especially in contrast to the urban "heat islands" caused by surface parking lots to the east. All the greenery sops up rainfall and reduces stormwater runoff, and it also absorbs carbon dioxide, cleaning the air. 
The non-profit organization ParkWorks, now Land Studio, shepherded the project through its long dormancy. Today, the agency is programming public events at the park in collaboration with the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, the center city’s business improvement district. Concerts and other happenings are scheduled through September. The alliance and Land Studio, in turn, are working under an "Adopt-a-Park" agreement with the city to help maintain the park.
Some observers might say parks are a frill the city can’t afford. To the contrary, parks are a smart investment, not a luxury. They’re essential if Cleveland is to attract new residents and businesses.
It’s too soon to know whether the Perk Park is helping to fill vacancies among offices in Erieview, but it would be fascinating to gather such data. That’s a perfect project for a graduate student at the College of Urban Affairs at nearby Cleveland State University.
Harder to quantify — because it’s priceless — is the joy you sense at the park.
Even in its infancy, the renewed space has created a powerful argument for more well-designed public places like it across downtown, especially at the Mall, Public Square and the park envisioned for Canal Basin in the Flats.
Perk Park offers an uplifting glimpse of the city Cleveland can become if it repeats this success elsewhere – and soon. 

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