Metropolis – “Railyard Park Signifies a Small-Town Renaissance”

Addie Broyles of Metropolis Magazine catalogs the recent completion of the Railyard Park in Rogers, Arkansas.

“Partially funded by the Walton Family Foundation’s Design Excellence Program, Ross Barney Architects’ five-acre project is part of a surprising public space boom in the region.

A couple of summers ago, three members of the Chicago-based firm Ross Barney Architects, including founder Carol Ross Barney, set up some chairs, a tent, and a table at the Rogers, Arkansas, farmers market. Tasked with designing a new downtown park along an old stretch of railroad, they were there to understand what people loved about their city and how they’d like to see it evolve.

‘We didn’t show them any designs,’ says Ross Barney, who has been using this face-to-face style of stakeholder engagement since overseeing the new design of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which opened in 2005. ‘We’d read about the site and knew that, like a lot of downtowns, it was bypassed, kind of a no-man’s-land.’

Every few hours that summer, a freight train would rattle by what was then Frisco Park, but that wasn’t a surprise to most shoppers. The rail line, after all, had been there longer than any of them. The Ross Barney team met longtime locals, retirees, and transplants from across the country, some of whom moved to the area to work at the nearby Walmart headquarters.

The population of Rogers, which was founded as a water stop along the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad in the late 1800s, has grown to approximately 68,000 in the past decade as a bedroom community for Walmart employees. With a third of the population now identifying as Hispanic, the design team also put out fliers in Spanish asking for input. ‘Over and over, we heard that people wanted a town center, somewhere to listen to live music or bring their kids,’ Ross Barney says…

Rogers exists because of the railroad, (John) McCurdy (City of Rogers Director of Community Development) continues, and each element of Railyard’s design harks back to something historical and significant about the region. The water stops that used to fill the tanks of the steam trains have been reimagined as a water feature for kids and a place to showcase new permanent artworks by three international artists. And Ross Barney included a brightly painted yellow Mi-Jack crane, a relic from the days when the plaza was a depot.

The design team also transformed an old store into a 1,000-person music venue. The Butterfield Stage, named after the stagecoach line that went through town ‘before Rogers was Rogers,’ says McCurdy, will host a summer concert series.

Picnic tables have been placed on rails so people can push them together to make larger tables, “an expression of community coming together in a ritual that people do every day,” (Karen) Minkel (Program Director at the Walton Family Foundation) says…

The city’s beloved car show and its longtime celebration Frisco Festival will return to Railyard this summer, and Santa will arrive on the train this winter, as he has since the early days of Rogers. Ross Barney says that these annual events, plus the new ones that Railyard will inspire, are an example of how a collaboration can honor a city’s heritage and character while giving it space to expand and evolve.

‘I think that’s what people mean when they say authentic,’ she says. ‘It’s paying homage to the past and not forgetting where you came from, not losing your roots.’

Ross Barney notes the irony of the Walton Family Foundation’s investment in these kinds of projects. ‘Walmart was an element of why how we live in cities has changed,’ she says. ‘The exodus from hardline stores was aided by big boxes.’ Now, Ross Barney says, the company is investing in revitalization projects that catalyze economic growth in these downtowns.

As construction wraps on Railyard, McCurdy says real estate along the main street through downtown has grown to about 70 percent occupancy, with more businesses coming in every month. Onyx Coffee Lab is already pulling espressos in a historic building on the north edge of Railyard, and ham supplier Smithfield just opened an office across from the park.”

Read more from Addie Broyles at metropolismag.com.