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VOL. 131 | NO. 176 | Friday, September 2, 2016

Shelby Farms Park Formally Debuts $70 Million Improvements

By Bill Dries

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Opening a park that looks $70 million different isn’t a matter of lifting a curtain.

For two years, Shelby Farms Park has remained open to visitors with roads in the park changing dramatically as the landscape changed too. Tens of thousands of daily motorists traveling Walnut Grove Road on the park’s southern border have also seen the work in progress.

As the Heart of the Park improvements formally opened Thursday, Sept. 1, there were about 100 people looking back from the grassy lawn outside the new park visitors center overlooking the expanded lake.

And many in the group were looking back in time as well as looking south at the midmorning traffic on Walnut Grove.

Shelby Farms Park Conservancy director Jen Andrews recalled being the conservancy’s first employee a decade ago.

“I was the office manager and I didn’t have an office,” she said. “I think that’s an example of real vision.”

The expansion of Patriot Lake from 52 acres to 80 acres comes with a renaming that reflects the role private donors and philanthropy played in getting the ambitious plan past the recession.

It’s now called Hyde Lake in honor of philanthropists Barbara and Pitt Hyde, who played a major role in the scope of the project and its concept.

Barbara Hyde said the national economic downturn that settled in for a long stay just after the park developed a plan for what it wanted to do caused those involved to “recalibrate” for “the art of the possible,” solidifying a $70 million price tag for the plan.

The result by the judgment of all of the major players gathered Thursday was that the new park institutions are not a compromise but part of a landscape that will continue to change and evolve.

When his firm, Field Operations, got the job of designing the park’s new master plan in 2008, James Corner said it was important that the changes conserve the park’s sense of scale.

“That caused a lot of challenges to the budget,” Corner said of the recession. “The conservancy board and their fundraising efforts were scaled up. … We had to scale some things down. The lake, in 2008 (plans) was actually bigger than it is today. But I’m looking at it now and it looks pretty damn big.”

Corner’s plan includes more trees – 300 more as of Thursday’s opening.

“The trees look pretty good now. But in five to 10 years they will be amazing,” he said after the formal ceremony.

The trees mark the different activity areas or landscapes within the park.

“Standing here today, we have no complaints,” he said. “We’ve still been able to do something very special and grand in terms of its scale and what it offers people.”

Conservancy board chairman Tom Grimes said the idea wasn’t to remake the park but to “furnish it.”

Probably the first indication of the changes in June 2014 was the moving of the park’s bison out of an area that is now part of the expanded lake. The expanded lake also ended Farm Road’s days as a through road across the park.

Hyde Lake was created when the county dug out the area to create a cap for the county landfill on the other side of Walnut Grove. The manmade lake has a bio-based liner that should be the cure to the lake’s perennial leakage problems over several decades. And the area’s watershed is improved in the process.

Architect Marlon Blackwell designed the buildings that are part of the plan including an event center and a restaurant as well as the visitors center.

He confessed to at first looking at the buildings as icons in the plan.

“As we got into the project, it became more important for us to make iconic experiences and tie that into everything else that was happening,” Blackwell said. “Our project is not without a nostalgia. But it is a nostalgia of a different and more complicated sort – not for an architecture of authority or sentimentality.”

All of the buildings have a porch area that Blackwell said is a nod to southern culture but is also a reflection of reality.

“No shade, no people,” he said.

Toward the back of the crowd Thursday was Tommy Hill, the first superintendent of the park shortly after it was established in the 1970s but long before there was a conservancy.

Hill was superintendent of the park when there was still a very real possibility the parkland might become several subdivisions of single-family homes with some retail.

The parkland was still considered remote and the idea of programming in a park setting was unheard of.

“From my standpoint, it’s a dream come true,” Hill said. “I couldn’t dream this big.”

The Thursday ribbon cutting is the first of 30 free park events spanning September to mark the largest change in the park’s landscape since it went from being a prison farm to being public park land.

The events include Shakespeare excerpts by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, a botany discovery hike and a wetland walk as well as tai chi, yoga, Zumba and “fun with puppets.”

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