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Designers show off plans for former U-Haul site in downtown Johnson City

Nathan Baker • Updated Aug 26, 2015 at 9:49 AM

Even the smallest trickle can swell to a mighty flood with the help of skill and will.

So is the case for Johnson City’s decades old floodwater mitigation plan, which surged forward Monday evening at the Johnson City Public Library.

There, landscape architects with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon, Inc., unveiled design concepts(PDF) for a park proposed where, just last year, the long-litigated U-Haul building stood downtown.

“I want everybody to say good things tonight,” City Public Works Department Director Phil Pindzola said to the residents gathered for the public hearing. “I spent nine hours on the witness stand to get this property, and I don’t want it to go away.”

The property, the transfer of which did land the city in court before a settlement was finally approved with the moving truck rental company for the land, is a keystone for a phase of the overarching floodwater mitigation plan, which ultimately aims to solve the century-old problem of flooding downtown.

Like Founders Park, which the city completed last year, the floodwater mitigation project along King Creek will be more than a utilitarian detention pond, the architects said.

Called Downtown Plaza by city officials, the park will feature walking trails, shade trees and green lawns. Under the three concepts presented Monday, the park will have a theme — either the environment, pollinators or children’s books — to tie together a handful of stations along the trail.

The three designs were mostly similar in function, all would do the same job of floodwater detention and included 34 parking spaces along Commerce Street, but the concept that seemed to be the night’s favorite was environmental. That design included displays about water, energy and stewardship, though some suggested the addition of a children’s splash pad.

Jenny Lockmiller, an owner of the Atlantic Ale House, which sits adjacent to the proposed park, said she chose the environment theme because she believed it best represented the floodwater project’s intentions.

“I really love them all; they’re amazing,” Lockmiller said. “I’d be happy to see any of them put in. They would be a big improvement from what was there before.”

Part of the project, the grading of McClure Street to carry water past the Ale House’s front door and into the waterway, did worry Lockmiller a bit, but Pindzola assured her the flooding problem would be much better than before with the improvements.

Andy Marquart, executive director of Hands On! Regional Museum, said the drawings, which included a plot across King Street from the park with a proposed footprint for a new museum, were welcome.

“We’re in the planning process right now for the new building,” he said. “For years, we’ve been in repurposed, 100-year-old buildings that were never meant to be our permanent home.”

Once the new museum is designed, Marquart said fundraising will begin for the project. In 2009, the city pledged the land and $1 million to aid in construction.

Johnson City Vice Mayor Clayton Stout, in attendance at the meeting, expressed concerns that the concepts may be “too busy,” a phrase that he equated to expensive.

“I think people are really excited about this, but I have to be mindful about other things, especially in a budget cycle,” Stout said.

With the preliminary designs drawn, no cost has yet been assigned to the project, though the combined phases of the floodwater mitigation project was estimated at $30 million.

Comments from Monday’s meeting will be returned to the City Commission, and the commissioners will put out bids for the needed contract work in the coming months. The work likely won’t begin until the spring, Pindzola said.

Email Nathan Baker at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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