Downtown plaza spurs revitalization and a community-gathering place
By Cory Styron
The crowd counted down “5-4-3-2-1,” and the fountain erupted with a colorful light display to celebrate the grand opening of the Sharon Prete Plaza in Round Rock,Texas. The plaza is named for the retired director of the parks and recreation department for her 30 years of service to the community and for laying the foundation for the department.
Located on Main Streetin the heart of downtown and nestled among the historic Nelson Hardware building and the City Hall Business Center, the plaza provides an oasis of leisure to the community as well as a spark of redevelopment to the downtown area.
The site was originally home to city hall and then repurposed as the city’s first senior center. When the center moved to the new Allen R. Baca Senior and Community Center in 2006, community discussions began as to how to use the former property. A main concern of the area businesses was the lack of foot traffic on the weekends and a lack of parking during the week. These two topics framed the conversations for how this space should be used.
One initial concept was to use the space for additional parking, which would increase capacity by 10 spots. This was a popular option to visitors who made frequent trips to city hall because it provided front-row parking instead of the nearby parking garage. Although the garage is closer in distance to city hall, proximity varies for those parking on the second or third level. The cut-out parking concept was gaining momentum–until an interesting twist of events.
The old city hall/senior center building was empty and becoming a distraction to downtown businesses. It was too small to be used by other city services, and the interior design was not friendly to new shops or eateries. The major design factor was the bank vault-type safe in the middle of the building, straight out of the old Western banks. A big, bulky door and concrete steel walls was the building’s centerpiece. Results of a condition assessment of the building indicated a substantial investment would be needed for the building to meet existing codes and remove the vault. The decision was made to raze the building while the debate continued over any future use of the space.
A New Vision
The building was razed in November 2009, leaving a bare, open space, which was used to set up the performance stage for Christmas Family Night. This annual event draws more than 15,000 citizens for the celebration. The parks and recreation department decorates the three historic blocks ofMain Streetwith small houses, where cider, hot chocolate, popcorn, and other goodies are served. Carolers roam the streets, stories are told, gingerbread cookies are decorated, and Santa makes his appearance on a horse-drawn sleigh. Elected officials quickly realized the potential power of the space–the seating area, the potential for entertainment downtown, and the central location for the community to gather.
In the fall of 2010, the city’s parks development team conducted numerous open houses, design-charrettes and conceptual-design meetings to collect input from residents, downtown business owners, and elected officials. Several key amenities continued to be popular:
- Water features
- A performance area
- A multi-use gathering ground.
The design concept was for a 14,000-square-foot plaza with a 610-square-foot stage, built-in seating with decorative lighting, 4,000 square feet for grass seating and a lounge area, a custom shade structure, custom art panels, an interactive water fountain, and a state-of-the-art multifunctional lighting system. The total budget for the project was $525,000.
Since the grand opening, the space has hosted several downtown festivals, including the Chalk Walk, Christmas Family Night, Zumba-thon, weddings, art shows, story time by the library, and the inaugural Main Street Market Days. The plaza also has inspired other buildings to be renovated, including one structure that became a bistro. Existing businesses enjoy the new ambiance created at night with the plaza light show. The space now is the catalyst for economic development in the city, particularly in the downtown area.
Cory Styron, CPRP, is the Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Round Rock,Texas. Contact him at email@example.com.