Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square could soon see a facelift

i Sep 17th 2017

By Bill Wellock, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — More than four decades after the redesign of Public Square, the same architecture firm that designed it is going back to the drawing board.

The square is ripe for an upgrade, said Larry Newman, executive director of Diamond City Partnership, a not-for-profit downtown management organization that focuses on revitalization.

And bit by bit, the city and Diamond City Partnership hope to give it one.

Exactly how and when that work will happen is still uncertain, although the city has earned a $200,000 grant for work and recently signed an agreement with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson for design work.

“We’re still planning because it’s going to be based upon what we can do,” said City Administrator Ted Wampole.

Nicholas Snyder, an architect with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and a member of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, is one of the people who’s been discussing how to improve the site. The firm, then called Bohlin and Powell Architects, redesigned the square in the ’70s after the city was flooded from Hurricane Agnes. Snyder, 39, was born just as the downtown improvements the firm designed were nearing completion.

At that time, founder Peter Bohlin was a young professional not far into his career. Now, he’s known as an architect who has won the American Institute of Architects’ highest award and who designed the Apple Store in New York City and Bill Gates’ home near Seattle.

“Peter has a clear memory of how wonderful it was to be in downtown Wilkes-Barre after the completion of the Public Square and how downtown declined in the 90s, so despite his deep connection to the original design he worked on early in his career, he is excited to see downtown beginning to grow again and to be able to re-visit the design 40 years later and help refresh it,” Snyder wrote in an email.

So far, the latest work has been mostly sketching, thinking about the square and talking to people who use it. The goal is to give the city something to use as it seeks more funding. People want to see something tangible, not just an open-ended plan, Snyder said.

Discussions so far have involved planning for the future and could address simpler issues, such as the design of the walkway around the perimeter. Alterations might involve managing the space differently, and seeing if the city can create any more events for the square, he said.

It won’t involve major changes or repairs now. Those might come later, after the city and Diamond City Partnership develop a plan for what should be fixed or altered and try to secure funding.

Snyder has been talking to farmer’s market vendors, Fine Arts Fiesta organizers and businesses around the square to research how the space works for them.

For example, Snyder said, the farmers who sell at the weekly market had a request — don’t change the planters that surround the park.

The planters were originally designed as stalls that a truck could fit inside, giving farmers their own space for their goods, and they’re still used that way today. They’re also useful for the Fine Arts Fiesta. The large planters help mark off what space belongs to what vendor in a way that an open field could not.

“We don’t want to needlessly change something and spend money that doesn’t need to be spent,” Snyder said.

He wants to speak to more people, including the organizers of a monthly car show, Wilkes University, King’s College and the public.

The square is a nice space now, Newman said, but it’s decades old. The goal now is to make it a better park.

“By every measure, it is the heart of the city and the valley. And it should be a point of pride for the community. And if we approach this the right way, over time, I am confident that it will be a true point of pride for the community, and a space where people want to go and take visitors from out of town,” he said.

Funding and features

Wilkes-Barre received a $200,000 grant for landscaping at the park from the state’s 2016 Local Share Account program, which receives gaming money generated by casinos, including Mohegan Sun Pocono.

The future beyond that depends on funding.

“You could spend a lot of money. And so knowing that, if we know that we have to spend that kind of money, let’s make sure that we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck, as we’re out there trying to figure out where the money’s coming from,” Newman said. “Let me put it this way: If the fountain were easy to fix and cheap to fix, it would have been done years ago.”

The fountain is the feature he hears about most often. It’s also one of the hardest elements to fix, because of underground plumbing needed to supply water. And it could prove costly to maintain if it were to be returned to the open fountain that children splashed around in. That would mean it would need to meet the same water testing standards as a public pool.

Other features are easier to improve.

On a recent weekday, Snyder stood in the center of the park, in view of some features organizers like and others they hope to change.

On one side of the square was a triangle of grass, bright green in the sun, and welcoming to a woman who sat and read in the park. Across the path was another section of grass, unused and patchy with dirt — the kind of thing organizers want to avoid.

The bare dirt shows Snyder that pedestrians might need more room during crowded events, or that the city should find another spot where food trucks can park when they visit on Thursdays for the farmer’s market.

One suggestion is to block off part of the street surrounding the square for the trucks, similar to the way the street is dedicated to them for the Fine Arts Fiesta. But that could take business from brick-and-mortar restaurants who occupy space — and pay taxes — all year long.

Another simple change would be to revisit the colorful banners that hung on the scaffolding that rises up in the middle of the park. The city currently uses that as advertising space for upcoming events. After the redesign, it held banners with large colorful designs. Bringing back some of those could be inexpensive.

“I think in many ways, the design of Public Square in the 70s was ahead of its time in that it anticipated a time when really a lot of people were not thinking about many of the features that designers try to incorporate into successful urban public spaces today,” Newman said. “And so a lot of those features are things we really want to try to retain and enhance as we go about rehabilitating Public Square during the next several years.”