Monday, December 5, 2011
When one looks around the cityscape of downtown, it isn't hard to spot the dinosaurs, the looming, massive remnants of urban policy of downtown's past. While no one can say that the city hasn't tried to re-invent and re-develop itself, it is fairly easy to declare that most of these reincarnations never lived up to the hype. Whenever I visit a new city, I like to walk around and consider the original intents of the buildings, public spaces, and developments. It is interesting to see how different eras and design models have aged, how their uses have been preserved, or how they modified with the times. In some cases, these developments have been simply left alone, no longer functioning as anything but a snapshot of the past, like dinosaur bones.
Flint certainly has all three. Some major buildings still function as they were first planned. Several spaces have been re-worked, such as the various commercial buildings converted into trendy housing, and so many have been left alone, with varying degrees of maintenance. With the weather turning decidedly wintery, and downtown decked out with holiday lights, one specific monolith from the past has captured my attention.
The University Pavilion Ice Rink (or as it is officially known... the University Pavilion Annex) is very visible example of that third brand of dinosaur. It sits on East side of Saginaw street, at the southern crossing of the bridge over the Flint river, sunk about ten feet below street level with a series of steps and platforms grading down from the sidewalk. Above, metal trusses with quarter century old speakers hanging from them support what looks like a massive tent. Below, the oval shaped rink is empty, save for what seems like an ever present puddle of water in the center. The story of the rink is the same as most of the other renewal projects of its generation. It was constructed as part of the Water Street Pavilion development in the 1980's, an urban mall which in addition to the luxury hotel across the street, and the shopping and entertainment facilities constructed North of the river, was intended to draw the wealth back into the city that had been steadily flowing out for two decades. Like its contemporaries, the rink (as well as the pavilion complex that it was a part of) did not prove to be a profitable as hoped. While the pavilion never officially closed its doors, the ice rink was eventually decommissioned. Upon purchasing the pavilion facility, rink and all, the University of Michigan - Flint declared the rink to be too much of a liability, sold the Zamboni and has kept it ice free ever since.
The Ice Rink was constructed in between the glitzy shops of the pavilion, and the cutting edge Halprin designed riverbank park, and was designed to incorporate elements of both. Alongside its Eastern end, a building matching the pavilion was constructed to sell concessions, rent ice skates and house a Zamboni. In between the main pavilion and the rink was promenade of sorts, leading on one side to a shiny new parking deck, and on the other across Saginaw Street to the front door of the Hyatt Regency. On this path today, we find another odd relic from the past; what appears to be a small, mostly enclosed concrete foundation. Some research uncovered that an information booth had been housed here, as well as what was described as a "video tower"
On the other side of the rink, facing the street and the park, the aforementioned stepped adjustment from street level to rink level is a clear conceptual ode to Riverbank Park. Today it could be unclear whether these were intended to act as flower planters, fountains, seating, or all of the above. With the former Hyatt building being re purposed as student housing, and soon as UMF's school of management, the university has put some effort into sprucing up the place, repainting guardrails, and hoisting flags around the canopy proclaiming "GO BLUE!" .....But what is in store for this relic?
Over the past several years, a handful of plans have been drawn up which include ways to address the pavilion. It seems that for many planning firms, the best thing that could be done with the space is to simply demolish it. Several plans, specifically those from the Sasaki firm, have suggested to their clients (more specifically the University of Michigan - Flint, and the City of Flint ) that the site would be better utilized as a "green space" than any type of build facility.
I would like to challenge that notion
First and foremost, let me get this off of my chest. I find it disturbing how loosely some planners throw around the term "green space" when making suggestions for urban spaces. I am an absolute advocate for quality open parkland within the city, however I feel that open "green space" needs to be thoughtfully and specifically placed within the urban context, and not just used a buzz-word to make demolition more palatable.
This suggestion seems lazy to me though. Open green space for the sake of open green space is often no more useful than those giant lawn and drainage ponds in front of Wal-Marts. They require constant maintenance, are difficult to program, and are boring to look at. Beyond all of that, any pedestrian at the site of the rink could walk a block or two in any direction and find something along the lines of open space. (Of course, the Sasaki plans also call for the addition of more "green space" throughout this area, so one could potentially encounter several lawns.)
Secondly, downtown Flint, and the block upon which the pavilion and rink are situated has already suffered from a drastic loss of building density. Did the planners who suggested the removal for more grass take into consideration the aesthetic effects yet another demolition would have on what was intended to be the densest strip in the region? While the rink does not provide the visual weight that the mid rise commercial structures it replaced provided to the street scape, it does fill the space.
Thirdly, the rink provides the rare opportunity for outdoor, cold weather programming. While the summer months are jammed with festivals and activities, (one of which is a noon time concert series which actually takes place in the rink) once the snow hits, most of Flint's festivities move indoors. Having a facility that could provide any level of street life to the city from December through March would greatly enhance the downtown experience.
Lastly, and probably the lease arguable, is the notion of nostalgia. Now, I never had the opportunity to skate in the pavilion rink, but it is not hard to conjure romantic thoughts about snowy evenings with friends, skating in circles, or watching hockey games on weekday afternoons. For although most of my generation of Flintoids never had the chance to try it out, this specific dinosaur has never been too difficult to decipher. It looms as a major landmark in our city, and although empty, it is not hard for us to imagine it full.
Perhaps the facility is destined to be put down for good. Perhaps there is no chance of it being sustainable, or perhaps the land will be deemed perfect for some other built investment. All I know is I would be hard pressed to find anyone who would wax nostalgic over an empty lawn.