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Designers help shape the future of Montgomery, AL

Wed September 19, 2012 - Southeast Edition
BRAD HARPER - Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Above the urban farm that the city’s former lead planner Ken Groves helped establish in downtown Montgomery, Maxwell Boulevard bustles with activity. But much of it is out of sight.

Inside an office blocks away, city designers are preparing to put in place a network of parks along that street, each with its own personality, all connected by an extended riverwalk or trail system.

“You look at (Overlook Park), and you see a bunch of fencing and a torn-up parking lot, and it’s been like that,” Director of Development Chad Emerson said. “A good 75 percent of the work will go in on the front end, before the park starts construction. People might think it’s sitting up there and no one’s paying attention to it, when in fact we meet daily on that park.”

When Groves died two years ago, the city divided his work over two departments - planning and development. Designers in Emerson’s office now spend their days working to turn visions of the city’s future into reality. But most of that process happens behind closed doors over months or years.

“With some departments, it’s very obvious,” Emerson said. “You’ll see a police car driving around, or you’ll see your trash being picked up. Here, it’s not always as instant and specific.”

Few people know that better than designer Bill Wilson, who is overseeing the Overlook Park project.

“Development is a long process,” Wilson said. “It’s not something that typically happens quickly. It can be difficult to remind yourself that you’re putting all of this work in, but it’s going to pay off in the long run.”

Next to Wilson, design studio coordinator Tyler Caldwell is crafting the look of a terraced park that will be built around a boat ramp on the Alabama River not far from Overlook Park.

“Ultimately, it’ll be a string of parks along the Alabama River starting at Powder Magazine and ending all the way down at Cypress Park,” Emerson said.

“The boat ramp park, which is the unofficial name, is going to be a unique opportunity less than 500 yards from an incredibly busy interstate. You can hop right off the interstate, put in a canoe and enjoy some of the best views of the Alabama River from a terrace bluff system we’re going to create. People don’t realize - all they see is it being cleared.”

Meanwhile, Emerson spends much of his time working with developers as part of the department’s function as a “one-stop-shop” doorway to the city. That means clearing the path in a number of ways, from coordinating efforts between several departments to showing developers how their project would fit into the area’s master plan and the SmartCode zoning that was established by Groves.

“It’s our job to relay those concepts to a developer,” Caldwell said. “A hotel may come in. The hotel may not have been in the plans specifically, but how can we conform that to fit within the concepts of the plan.

“So there’s a lot of communication involved, both internal communication within the city and then communication with someone outside who may not be familiar with our city structure.”

Those situations happen more than with other cities, Emerson said, because Montgomery owns a lot of undeveloped property downtown. One piece of property, at the former site of the Frank Leu building on the corner of Bibb and Commerce streets, soon will become a $15 million, multistory development that will include restaurants and rental apartments.

“We spent a lot of time on that Frank Leu project, and we’ve got a few more in the hopper,” Emerson said.

While the department celebrates the significance of the city’s place in history, Emerson said it’s also important for the city to keep looking forward.

“It’s important to have the museums and the other functions, but it’s also important to create new identities,” Emerson said, pointing to the Montgomery area’s technology, medical and manufacturing industries. “We work hard to show young professionals and other young people that there are a lot of innovative opportunities here.”

“We have a big future that’s not just tied to the past.”

Caldwell already has seen some projects through from concept to ribbon cutting in his three years with the city, but he said he never stops to admire the changes.

“Ultimately, planning is never done,” Caldwell said. “You’re never finished planning or creating a space. It’s a small step in a future evolution.”

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