The Commercial Appeal
By Jane Roberts
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With more than $640,000 in renovations to Court Square Park, its graceful gazebo again stands testament to a turn-of-20th-Century elegance. It's a stunning contrast to the cybernetters soaking up the sun and Internet in what is also the city's first smart park.
Tonight, beginning at 5, the Center City Commission will officially reopen the historic Downtown park that not only has hosted three U.S. presidents but lately has been a catalyst for at least $100 million in private development.
"We're returning Court Square to the simple grandeur of the turn of the last century," said Jeff Sanford, CCC president.
"No one could deny the park had a deteriorating gazebo, cluttered landscape, poor drainage and dim lighting. In a word, it had become rather inhospitable."
With $160,000 from the Memphis Rotary Foundation -- the largest single donation in the club's history -- the gazebo has a new metal roof with marquee lighting, ceiling, railings and brick patio.
"This is our way of endorsing Downtown," said Jim Jalenak, past president of a club that stayed Downtown "through thick and thin."
"It gives the Rotary a signature Downtown. We wanted something permanent."
Marriott Springhill Suites and Sleep Inn at Court Square donated $15,000 for lighting, including the period acorn globes on the streetlights. LAN ONE installed the park's wireless Internet access.
The remaining $465,000 came from the CCC, which regraded the park to correct drainage problems and paid for landscaping, including an irrigation system.
It also installed new sidewalks lined with brick pavers, wrought-iron benches and trash receptacles, paid for repairs to the 1876-era fountain and carpeted the park with hybrid zoysia grass to withstand shade and use.
"It's all open now," said Jan Pfaff, senior vice president of CCC operations. "We removed the seating walls along the edge of the park and fountain because they created an obstruction. We also removed most of the monuments and left only those related to Court Square."
Already, the park -- where commerce rattles by in both truck and trolley -- is attracting new attention, with a 16-week Wednesday night concert series kicking off May 16 and lunchtime crowds and the ensuing pigeons lingering over sandwiches and crumbs.
Court Square is the "single most important symbol" of the city's health, said Cy Paumier, the Washington consultant in charge of the redesign and a leading expert in revitalizing urban cores.
"I first observed it as a place with great trees and a great historic walk pattern, but the quality of the details seemed to be tired."
He suggested it be "simplified" and returned to "beautiful grass and trees."
"The community really needs to celebrate. It's not easy to raise the money to do that."
He suggests the payoffs will be lavish in terms of investment, pointing to Savannah, Ga., "where everyone perked up and began renovating buildings around the squares" after they were renovated in the mid-1970s.
William Chandler, a principal in a $40 million project to create 85 apartments and 32,000 square feet of retail in Court Square Annex, Lincoln American Tower and Lowenstein department store, would say it has already started.
"In any other city in the world, this park would be considered the most important location. We're thrilled the CCC is investing its energy in our park."
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