Transforming East Park

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 1:00am

The concepts of race and socio-economics and how they intersect with architectural design and function are about to converge on Nashville's east side.

In October, the Metro Parks Department will oversee the construction of a new East Park Community Center in the historic Edgefield neighborhood. Part of the department's 10-year $262 million master plan to update the city's parks, the center is the second of five to be built. It should open in late 2006 and will replace the existing building - a 1960s-era eyesore that welcomes citizens with the aplomb of a minimum-security prison. To carry a price tag of $5 million, the facility is expected to offer a variety of recreational goodies.

Indeed, the new center will be airy and spacious and is expected to attract a population segment the current building never could: middle-class whites.

In contrast, most of the users of the current facility are black children and teens living in nearby moderate- to low-income housing, much of it government subsidized.

Given their less-than-pleasant residential settings, the young blacks flock to the center - despite its design and function warts - viewing it as a place in which to socialize with friends while engaging in recreational activities. With few outsiders tempted by the building, many of the youngsters likely consider the East Park Community Center to be their wonderful and private domain.

Thus it is now the Parks Department's challenge to create a new center that both respects the facility's heritage yet appeals to all demographic segments of the ever-changing east side.

Braced for the challenge, Parks has enlisted Nashville-based Everton Oglesby Architects to design a structure that - unlike the one it is slated to replace - won't look outdated within five years of its completion. Support will come from Hawkins Partners Inc., a local planning and landscape architecture company.

EOA is known for its quality New Urbanism residential work, such as Row 8.9n, Ireland 28 and Scott Avenue Townhomes.

But the new East Park Community Center is no Row 8.9n.

And more than a community building, it should serve as a community-builder. In short, EPCC II must be a place where, for example, east siders William Wescott - a black teen likely to prefer shooting hoops - can share space with Carol Williams, a middle-aged white woman whose tastes would lean more toward an aerobics class.

Can EOA deliver?

Encouragingly, the architect spearheading the project for the company is Tracey Ford. A three-year Lockeland Springs resident with a passion for the east side, Ford understands the course that must be navigated with the community center. She will ensure that the building, expected to be two stories and contemporary, is eye-catching and functional - while not forgetting its need to be an enriching space for black youth.

"It will be gateway building - a gateway to the park and to East Nashville," Ford says.

The existing facility, known for its cold, menacing metal doors, screams suburbia with a one-story design and front-area surface parking pond. In contrast, Ford says the new center will be sited to handsomely anchor the corner of Fifth and Woodland streets.

And don't look for a building whose exterior will mimic Edgefield's stately Victorian homes. Instead, EPCC II will be sleek and bold, with, as Ford says, a "contemporary interpretation."

As to the facility's interior offerings, a recently held Parks Department-hosted community meeting revealed a residents' wish list. Top choices include a small, heated indoor pool (a re-invention of the current center's barbed-wire-enclosed algae-attracting outdoor swim pit is unlikely), a gymnasium (a must), a black box theater (a flexible space that allows for various musical and theatrical productions), a group exercise/dance room, and a fitness/weight room.

Outside - where Hawkins Partners will weave its magic - the softball fields should stay, with an updated playground.

Don't expect a skate park, sand volleyball court or water fountains (likely to lure homeless folk needing a bath).

With EOA and Hawkins combining muscle, Nashvillians can expect the new community center to transform East Park. But will the center be a significant draw initially for middle-class whites living in the area? Doubtful. Most will likely continue to use fitness facilities that are less youth-centric.

In time, however, that can change.

"The existing building is almost a bunker," says Hawkins Partners' Kim Hawkins. "This is an opportunity to integrate the building with the [greater] community."

William Williams writes about Nashville's man-made environment. He can be contacted at wwilliams@nashvillecitypaper.com.

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