If you squint a little, you can see it: A near-future where Little Rock is known throughout the country for its parks and outdoor recreation. We’ve got the pedestrian bridges. Only a tiny — if logistically and politically fraught — section of the river trail loop remains incomplete. The Southwest Trail, which will run 65 miles from the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site to Hot Springs, is scheduled to be finished in 2022; Little Rock officials anticipate connecting it to the River Trail.
Then there’s War Memorial Park, which occupies 200 acres in the center of the city, including 90 acres of green space newly available for reconsideration after the city decided in June to shut the park’s golf course to help deal with a budget shortfall. (There’s also 100 acres newly up for redevelopment at the former Hindman Park Golf Course, which was also closed in June, and another 130 acres nearby at the old Western Hills Golf Course, which the city bought years back.) Should the city find money somehow, either by putting forward a dedicated tax for parks or finding wealthy donors who believe in the importance of green spaces, War Memorial Park could be Little Rock’s defining public attraction, a central city park that serves all sorts of interests and people — in the most grandiose and aspirational terms, a Central Park for Little Rock.
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Amid daydreaming about that possibility in June, I decided it was time to visit Tulsa.
If you’re like me and sometimes get the itch to go somewhere to see/do/eat things you can’t see/do/eat in Central Arkansas, you can probably easily summon the list of destination cities within relatively easy driving distance: Memphis (2 hours), Dallas (5), St. Louis (5.5) Nashville (6), Houston (7), New Orleans (7), Austin (8). But Tulsa, just 4 hours from Little Rock, had not been in my geographic Rolodex. Maybe because, while it’s bigger — about double the size in population — it’s not teeming with the sort of cultural attractions you’d find at those other nearby big cities.
Or that was at least the case until last fall when Gathering Place opened. That’s the fairly-on-the-nose name for the city’s spectacular new 66-acre, $465 million public park that sits along the Arkansas River. It has everything: A 5-acre playground filled with some 160 whimsical play structures. A massive expanse of green, open space. Two areas in which to splash around, replete with fountains and water cannons and sand and other ingredients for cooling off and making a mess. A sculpted, sandstone-edged pond that can be toured with borrowed canoes, kayaks and paddleboats. A huge skatepark and BMX pump track, designed by industry leader California Skateparks, undulating within view of the river. Basketball and street-hockey courts. A high-end restaurant that overlooks the park. A cafe that serves ice cream and coffee with a massive lounge area upstairs. And that’s just what was completed in the first of a planned three-phase project.
The answer to why the country’s best new park is in Tulsa is the same as to why one of the world’s best art museums is in Bentonville: because a billionaire wanted it to be. The money man, in this case, is George Kaiser, 76, a lifelong Tulsan whose estimated $7.9 billion net worth comes from oil and banking. He’s also a progressive Democrat who signed “The Giving Pledge,” promoted by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, promising to donate at least half of his assets to charity. Through his George Kaiser Family Foundation, he’s tackling intergenerational poverty with huge investments in early childhood education, low-income housing and community health. The foundation has also spent big on projects that make Tulsa cooler: It purchased the archives of Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie in 2011 and, in 2013, opened the 12,000-square-foot Woody Guthrie Center. In 2012, it opened Guthrie Green, an urban park and performance space with a tagline borrowed from its namesake — “land made for you and me.” In 2016, it partnered with the University of Tulsa to acquire the Bob Dylan archives. (In the “downside to billionaires having so much power” column: The Kaiser Foundation has essentially taken over the University of Tulsa and gutted its liberal arts departments in favor of more STEM offerings, a TU professor has argued in The Nation.)
Gathering Place is the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s most ambitious and expensive project to date. Its goal, according to George Kaiser: to transform Tulsa by providing a community space that bridges divides of class and race, while also attracting visitors and helping retain young professionals. The George Kaiser Family Foundation spearheaded the project and contributed $200 million to it and convinced other donors to match that amount. (That combined $400 million donation eclipses the previous largest gift toward a park — hedge fund manager John Paulson’s $100 million donation to New York’s Central Park Conservancy.) The city of Tulsa provided $65 million, funded with a sales-tax extension, for infrastructure in and around the park. Acquisition of the riverfront property cost $50 million. Designing, engineering and constructing the park amounted to $250 million.
The foundation gifted the property to the River Parks Authority, a city and county parks agency, but GGP Parks, LLC, a foundation subsidiary, is responsible for operating the park for the next 99 years. It’s a massive undertaking: 200 people work at the park. A $100 million endowment supports that effort as well as programming and maintenance.
So, does a park that’s funded and staffed like an amusement park share the same chaotic, congested vibe? Perhaps as a credit to the park’s design — no. At least that was my experience on a Wednesday afternoon in June once I had half-convinced my wife that it was not reckless to take our two elementary-age sons to tour and play with the heat index inching toward 100.
Famed landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, who also designed New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and renovated Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., won a competition to design the park. His firm pulled off plenty of topographical wizardry: It used 450,000 cubic yards of river silt to create rolling hills, including the two land bridges that cross Riverside Drive, a major thoroughfare. It built fantastical, made-to-be-played-on sculptures out of what look like huge sections of driftwood. It used massive slabs of limestone and sandstone from quarries in Arkansas and Oklahoma to line ponds, provide natural seating and create a dramatic opening statement with towering walls of stacked rock that line a path at the southern entrance. But, aside from the grandeur of it all, the thing that stood out to us the most was how organically partitioned the park felt.
After four hours in the car, my boys entered Gathering Place ready to play. First, they scaled ropes to climb inside hanging pods that looked like something out of the Ewok village as designed by Buckminster Fuller. That got them quickly overheated. We could see — and hear shrieks of joy coming from — “Water Mountain,” but it took several wrong turns and under-the-breath cursing before we successfully weaved our way to it. We passed by toddlers opening and closing mini dams that let water flow through stone channels and found a relatively unoccupied splash pad with fountains controlled by metal, lever-action platforms designed to be jumped on.
Once we cooled down, it was easier to understand the layout. Before opening, Gathering Place projected it would have 1 million annual visitors, but it surpassed that estimate after five months. Even on a hot midweek afternoon, people were everywhere. But they were spread out or tucked away. Though the playground is packed with features, it’s subdivided by landscaping and fencing and connected by meandering paths that often lead to unexpected and delightful destinations. For a tired dad, that was a boulder shaded by tall sycamore and oak trees that made for an ideal spot to rest and catch a river breeze.
Here’s what my boys did: Attempted to hypnotize themselves by gazing at a spinning spiral optical illusion wheel. Scaled a ladder up four stories of a medieval castle turret for a view of the whole park. Bopped across rope bridges; descended down a slide that doubled as the trunk of a two-story elephant sculpture. Boarded a life-size — at least in kid scale — pirate ship. “Swam” through a giant river grass sculpture to climb inside a monster paddlefish and then inside a pair of 20-feet-tall blue herons, from which they escaped down slides. Waited patiently in line, over and over, to ride the sit-down zip-line. Explored a rope skywalk that traveled far out of their parents’ view and offered another opportunity to go down a fast slide.
Amid all that fun, we needed ice cream and air conditioning, so we headed to the Lodge, a two-story building that’s aptly named. Wildhorse Swirl stone, a unique Oklahoma variety of sandstone, lines most of the floors. There’s a two-story fireplace, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into the park and a cafe that specializes in sweet treats on the bottom floor. Goodies procured, we climbed the stairs to find a wide-open, sunlit hall, filled with mid-century modern furniture, mostly made of wood and often incorporating thick, live-edge slabs. Even though there were a lot of folks in the massive room, it had the revered, peaceful quality of a library, with everyone talking in hushed tones, playing card games or reading books. That proved restorative and helped us get in an extra hour of play.
But we definitely didn’t see the entire park or even come close. Don’t tell my kids, but we didn’t get to a slide that goes underground, or to “Swing Hill” and its views of downtown, or to the “beach” along the pond. It’s easy to imagine spending several days at Gathering Place on a future trip, especially as the park grows. Construction on Phase II, which includes a 50,000-square-foot children’s museum, is expected to begin this year. Phase III will replace a now-closed pedestrian bridge across the Arkansas River, adding more bike and multiuse trails to paths that already line the perimeter of the park and continue along the riverfront.
Though Arkansas has billionaires (including at least one in Little Rock), none has stepped forward to provide millions of dollars for a park. That’s OK. It wouldn’t take hundreds of millions to dramatically improve our parkland. At least for parents, the best park developments in Little Rock in recent years have been the cleverly designed splash pads and natural play areas built in Riverfront Park and War Memorial Park. The former cost $830,000 and the latter ran $500,000. A Tulsa takeaway: What better first step to transforming War Memorial than a giant sculpture, visible from Markham, that doubles as a play structure? Maybe a dragon. Or a bumblebee (state insect) or Arkansaurus (state dinosaur). Or even the humble catfish.