Saturday, June 6, 2009

Union Plaza

Published in L Magazine, April 2008
copyright 2008 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version

When completed in 2010, Lincoln’s new Union Plaza will unite the entire city. Patterned after other urban parks, such as Millennium Park in Chicago and Discovery Park in Houston, the six-acre high amenity park is designed to appeal to all segments of the community and generate investment in the area.

“This park is about three things: discovery, gathering and celebration,” said Lynn Johnson, Lincoln Parks and Recreation Director. “The intent is to give the community a place where it can come together and celebrate in a park setting.”

Union Plaza, the centerpiece of the Antelope Valley Project, will extend from O to R streets between 21st and 22nd streets, connecting to the existing Trago Park. While the two will be seen as essentially one linear park, Trago Park’s focus is the immediate neighborhood, while Union Plaza will be designed for the entire community and region.

The area between O and P streets will include a fountain at channel level, a cascading fountain and a water wall fountain. The next block will feature an amphitheater and pedestrian plaza designed for outdoor festivals. Families will especially enjoy the area between Q and R Street, with its pond and huge slides built into a sloped area. The adjoining Trago Park, which already has a children’s playground, will add a motion-activated sprayground, where all ages can go to cool off on hot summer afternoons.

Plans for Union Plaza also include an art piece celebrating unity and a raised overlook area with ornamental plantings of native and introduced species. At the activity center park visitors will be able to grab a sandwich, rent in-line skates, fix a bike tire, learn about upcoming park activities, or attend a club in the indoor meeting room.

Walking trails will wind in and out of shady areas following the newly channeled Antelope Creek. The area also will serve as a hub for five city bike trails, including the new 1.4 mile Antelope Creek Valley Trail.

“Communities are recognizing the economic, health and social benefits of providing some green space in these densely populated areas,” said Susan Larson Rodenburg, the park’s fundraising campaign organizer.

Patty Pansing Brooks, campaign co-chair, is excited about the opportunity for discovery in the new park. Lincoln Parks and Recreation is collaborating with Arbor Day and the Groundwater Foundation to develop educational components in Union Plaza, such as landscaping that celebrates urban trees, a working model of a water pump and various opportunities to interact with water.

“We’ve got water running through the middle of the park, and this is a good way for people to start learning about one of our greatest assets in Nebraska, which is groundwater,” she said.

Union Plaza will likely be named one of the first Groundwater Guardian Green Sites by the Groundwater Foundation, a national program recognizing highly-managed green spaces that implement groundwater-friendly design principles and landscape management practices. Planners are looking at solar cells and wind turbines to help generate electricity, demonstrating sustainable management.

The park is unique in Lincoln, said Brooks, because it is designed as a downtown gathering place for city-wide entertainment, education and festivals. “Whereas we have a lot of things going on downtown, a lot of it’s held on the streets. This is going to be an exciting, awesome way to gather people in a beautiful spot. It allows us all to come together and connect with one another. I think that it also promotes a lot of collaboration and community connections among various groups, individuals and organizations within our community.”

T. J. McDowell, Executive Director of the Clyde Malone Community Center, who also co-chairs the campaign committee, grew up close to the park location, in one of the most diverse neighborhoods of the city, with a rich history and heritage. The green space will become a beacon to the families of the area as well as the university students nearby and will be used for programs sponsored by the nearby Malone Center and Hispanic Center.

McDowell envisions a wide variety of ethnic festivals in the new park, such as Juneteenth, an African-American celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which the Malone Center has hosted for the past 28 years. “I think this is truly going to be a jewel of the city,” he said.

When key Lincoln business and civic leaders met in 2006, the group--now known as the 2015 Vision Group--identified 10 Pillars to Lincoln’s Future, one of which was a new urban park. Union Plaza will mark the first completed 2015 Pillar and will remain one that all residents will have access to.

The new park will also serve as a catalyst for economic redevelopment, said Johnson. Antelope Valley is about more than eliminating potential floods and relieving traffic congestion, he explained. “It’s really about community revitalization. This is the piece that’s going to help foster and encourage that revitalization.”

Roger Larson, the third co-chair for the fundraising campaign, served on the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission for many years. He sees Union Plaza as a keystone project for improving the quality of life in Lincoln, thus attracting businesses and individuals to the city. Along with good schools and opportunities for arts and entertainment, those seeking to relocate look for a good park system and lots of green space.

“This park is the opportunity to take advantage of something that was already in place with this Antelope Valley Project,” he said. “We were going to have a big ditch there, really, so why not make it something beautiful. Since it starts on O Street, it will be visible to everybody, practically, so it’s going to be sort of our front door and lead us to the proposed innovation park.”

The City of Lincoln is providing the initial $3.3 million to shape the land for the park, in conjunction with the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ work on the Antelope Valley Project. The Lincoln Parks Foundation, in partnership with the 2015 Vision Group, has begun fundraising for the remaining $4.6 million, which includes funding for the many park features and an endowment for continued care of the park. The Lincoln Parks Foundation, a 501C3 organization established in 1992, was a significant part of the recent renovation of Sunken Gardens and the current renovation of the rose gardens in Antelope Park. The Foundation is committed to developing Union Plaza and providing for its continued care, said current president, Christie Dionisopoulus.

“We are very committed to the endowment of this park, and we are also creating an endowment to take care of all of Lincoln’s parks, to continue that momentum after this campaign is completed,” she said.

A generous gift of $1.5 million has already been given by Union Bank and Trust Company. “Lincoln is the headquarters for Union Bank & Trust Company, and the vast majority of our associates live here. On behalf of the ownership and associates of Union Bank, we are very excited to present this gift for Union Plaza,” stated Angie Muhleisen, President & CEO of Union Bank & Trust Company.

“We have a strong desire to give back to the city that has allowed our bank to be so successful. Union Plaza is a unique opportunity to beautify our city and will be a gift to our city that all individuals and families will enjoy for generations to come,“ Muhleisen said.

The name, Union Plaza, not only honors the donor, but also addresses the purpose of the park, said Johnson. “This is a place of unity, a gathering place where the community comes together,” he explained.

The Lincoln Parks Foundation is offering Lincoln residents an opportunity to become involved in making this park a reality by joining the Friends of Lincoln’s Parks. Members of the Friends of Lincoln’s Parks donate their time and talents by doing volunteer work or their treasures by giving financially.

“This is going to be sort of a citizens’ park,” said Larson. “It’s something the citizens are doing themselves, and so it’s going to be quite unique. I hope that there develops a sense of ownership among all the people that this is going to be their park.”

For more information about Union Plaza and how you can become involved, see

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