Many designers would find an active railway an impediment to the creation of a new five-acre public park. For Carol Ross Barney, founder and design principal of Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects, the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad train tracks that run through downtown Rogers, Arkansas, were a local trademark worth venerating, not obscuring. The firm’s design for the new track-straddling Railyard Park embraces its industrial heritage while transforming it into a vibrant outdoor destination for the community.
Of course, designing an activated park space around a railway, which in this case involves freight trains passing through at a snail’s pace a couple of times per day, depending on demand, was not without initial vexations. “We were really challenged by the idea that, no matter what we did, we were still going to have a train running through the middle,” Ross Barney said. “But [the movement of the trains] actually makes the park somewhat kinetic. And in a way, the tracks really call attention to Rogers’s beginnings.”
Rogers, which is currently home to roughly 66,000 residents in the rapidly growing pocket of Northwest Arkansas, was once a prosperous railway water stop and cider production hub. The design of the newly opened Railyard Park references this history throughout. Along with play structures largely designed by Ross Barney Architects, the Play Yard, a children’s recreational area, is populated by old freight containers repurposed as public washrooms and a retired gantry crane that serves as both a “gateway and a piece of play equipment,” as Ross Barney explained. A trio of modernized water towers evoke a past time but also showcase contemporary art: murals by the Mexico City-born, Fayetteville-based Octavio Logo, French street artist Mantra, and London-based Lakwena wrap the exteriors of each reservoir. The Butterfield Stage—a spacious pavilion for gatherings and live events named after the 19th-century stagecoach line that once rolled through town—incorporates an old trackside industrial building. (Most recently home to a farmers’ market, the structure will serve as a backstage and concession area.)
Across the tracks on the western fringes of the park, the tree-lined Frisco Plaza features wheeled picnic tables and benches that can be moved around the site; soaring, sail-like shading structures provide respite during the sweltering Ozarkian summers. Frisco Plaza, previously the site of a parking lot and a smaller, underutilized park, fuses Railyard Park with the historic storefronts of 1st Street and now serves as the backdrop of a seasonal farmers’ market.
The connection between Railyard Park and downtown Rogers is an important one, as the park—a project of the City of Rogers Department of Community Development, funded through a grant by the Walton Family Foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program—is the fulcrum of a larger effort to draw people back to the historic downtown core of a city where “commerce is delegated to big boxes along the interstates on the edges of the town,” Ross Barney explained. “It’s an old town with a historic downtown that, until recently, has had virtually nothing in it anymore.”
Just steps from Frisco Plaza, another forthcoming downtown revitalization effort initiated by the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program—this one headed by WXY Architecture + Urban Design—plans to reactivate a series of drab, Dumpster-dominated alleyways into dynamic pedestrian zones. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how that turns out,” Ross Barney said.