Chicago architecture and urban design studio Ross Barney Architects has unveiled updated plans for an in-progress new park for Rogers, a small city in Benton County, Arkansas. Often overshadowed by neighboring Bentonville, home to Moshe Safdie’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and, of course, the corporate headquarters of Walmart, Rogers is a city quickly coming into its own (and technically, Rogers, not Bentonville, is home to the very first Walmart store). The park project, and the involvement of Ross Barney Architects, was first announced in late 2018.
The five-acre park, which extends a tip of the hat to the city’s rich history as a railway water stop and cider production hub, aims to reenergize the sleepy historic downtown area by spurring economic development and establishing Rogers as a destination on par with its attention-grabbing—at least from a design, architecture, and public space standpoint—neighbors in fast-growing Northwest Arkansas, Bentonville and Fayetteville.
A project of the city of Rogers Department of Community Development, the railway-straddling park, previously known as Frisco Park but now appropriately dubbed as Railyard Park, is being funded by a grant by the Walton Family Foundation’s park-focused Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program. Per Carol Ross Barney, founder and design principal of Ross Barney Architects, the program is loosely based on the Cummings Foundation Program in Columbus, Indiana, and the GSA Design Excellence Program.
“They tried to blend the better pieces of those programs,” Ross Barney explained to AN. “But it’s much more community-oriented in the sense that is has a big eye on connecting things and improving downtowns.”
Ross Barney went onto explain that her firm was ultimately selected by city officials to head up the design of Railyard Park from an impressive stable of landscape architecture firms and architecture firms with in-house landscape architecture studios—all amassed and presented to the city by the Walton Family Foundation as potentials—largely because they “liked our devotion to public process.” Ross Barney mentioned the firm’s 606 linear bike trail and Chicago Riverwalk projects as specific undertakings that involved “massive” public engagement elements.
“We really wanted to hear what the people of Rogers thought their park should be,” said Ross Barney. “The first few months were devoted to that.”
“They wanted something different,” Ross Barney added of the community outreach process, which included a digital survey that provoked a large and enthusiastic response from the city’s roughly 66,000 residents. “They saw themselves as being more down-home and wanted something comfortable, a little less conventional, maybe a little more rugged” than other towns such as Bentonville and Fayetteville.
Rogers residents’ desire for a park that stands apart from the public spaces found in slightly more buttoned-up neighboring cities has resulted in a project that includes a quartet of distinct zones, in an area dominated by surface parking lots and an underutilized existing city park.
There will be a children’s play area, the Play Yard, which will include an authentic retired Mi-Jack crane serving as both “gateway and a piece of play equipment” according to Ross Barney; a splash pad dubbed the Water Stop, which like the Play Yard, references the site’s rail heritage through highly visible design elements, which, in this case, are modernized rail water station towers; Butterfield Stage, a sprawling pavilion for large gatherings and live events with an old industrial building at the site serving as a backstage and concession area, and Frisco Plaza, a versatile and low-key social space lined with trees and shading structures (an important element during’ the blazing hot Ozarkian summers) as well as wheeled picnic benches that can be moved around the site.
Frisco Plaza is located across the tracks from the rest of Railway Park, and foot traffic between the sections will be at-grade. As Ross Barney explained, train traffic through the area is relatively light as freighters along the short-lined Arkansas-Missouri railroad pass through downtown Rogers only a couple of times per day depending on demand. Safety was a top consideration but design interventions like a pedestrian bridge were ultimately not needed because of the low-volume of train traffic. And beside, the park’s intimacy with the tracks is all part of the charm. “We decided that was part of the ambiance and we weren’t going to hide it,” said Ross Barney.
Railyard Park is expected to be completed next year.