Architect Magazine – “The Waltons Embrace Design Excellence

Architect Magazine visits Northwest Arkansas and talks with the Ross Barney Architects Design team about Frisco (now Railyard) Park.

“Soon after I’d landed at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA), it became impossible to ignore the fact that I was in Walmart country. For starters, the airport owes its existence, in large part, to the efforts of Alice Walton, daughter of Sam and Helen Walton, who founded Walmart, the $500 billion mega-retailer, more than a half-century ago. On the 20-minute drive to the company’s home base of Bentonville, Ark., population 49,000 and booming, I traversed a landscape punctuated by a series of massive Walmart distribution centers in the chain’s familiar battleship gray. And then, in the picturesque downtown square, over a spread of granola and avocado toast at the Pressroom, a supremely hip café (which happens to be owned in part by Tom Walton, grandson of Sam and Helen), I spied the Walmart Museum, housed in one of the family’s original five-and-ten stores. It features a full-sized replica of ‘Mr. Sam’s’ office and tells the Walmart story in as much artifact-laden detail as anyone could possibly desire.

In short, I felt like I was deep in a symbiotic landscape, eating artisanal fare in a perfectly calibrated, pleasantly walkable downtown that, in a stroke of irony, largely owes its existence to a major producer of hideous, car-centric sprawl. Everything around me was willed into being by either Walmart or its founding family, now the wealthiest in America.

The most emblematic Design Excellence project—all public space, no unicorns—may well be one of the more modest ones. Bentonville’s neighbor, the city of Rogers (population 66,000), is less aggressively rehabilitated but boasts what Mayor Greg Hines proudly told me is one of the best bike parks in the nation—the Railyard, which, like much of the local bicycle infrastructure, is built specifically for mountain bikers. Now, the city’s director of community development, John McCurdy, is working closely with Ross Barney Architects to rehabilitate Frisco Park, a long, narrow space that runs alongside the railroad tracks that bisect the town. It’s currently home to a railroad-themed playground, plus a random set of railroad-related artifacts. Ross Barney led an open house where residents, as Ryan Gann, Assoc. AIA, framed it, “Used our little tool box.” Locals were asked to finish the sentence, ‘I want Frisco Park to be … ‘ Dots were placed on maps. Post-it notes were scribbled on.

The architects studied narrow parks across America, including the Railroad Park in Birmingham, Ala., and came up with ways to use Frisco’s odd dimensions as an advantage. One possible approach uses as its centerpiece a 300-foot-long, snaking picnic table that could seat 250 people. Another proposal features a series of water towers that would feed splash pads. “It’s striking how they’ve been able to capture the feel of a rail yard,” McCurdy observed. “It doesn’t become like a Disneyland Park.”

The Frisco Park project is part of a larger effort to make Rogers a more urbane place—better connected to transit, and better able to leverage the bicycle traffic that rolls into town via the greenway. Using its own funds, the town has even engaged walkability expert Jeff Speck to understand how its intact historic center can be more pedestrian oriented.”

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