International landscape architect behind Y-block park explains vision

Before landscape architect Peter Wirtz could bring an “exotic” park to Springfield’s Y-block, he decided to bring himself.

The Belgium-based Wirtz visited Springfield Thursday to talk to Mayor Jim Langfelder about possible changes to the park and share his vision with the public.

Wirtz is a newcomer to the Y-block debate, which has been raging since the old YWCA building was vacated in 2007. On the last day of December, Langfelder chose North Mansion Y-Block’s proposal for a park with a café after Wirtz completely changed the group’s original design. The plan is backed by Gov. Bruce Rauner and the group is headed by local attorney Don Tracy.

Before Wirtz could even finish introducing himself, he spoke of his excitement to be working in the Midwest.

The Midwest “has something almost mysterious, with its vast expanses and solitary oak, the crevasses in the land cut out by erosion and the relationship with our little human figure with this vast sky,” Wirtz said. “The light here is so intense.”

Though his work is known internationally and is often featured in magazine spreads, Wirtz said he has been drawn to the Midwest since his childhood fascination with Native Americans and the prairie. For his honeymoon, he “dragged” his wife to Cincinnati to visit Indian burial mounds. The day after visiting Springfield, he headed up to Chicago for a meeting about a new innovative garden he has planned for the Glencoe campus of the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

“Any opportunity to work in the Midwest, I automatically say yes before I know what it is,” Wirtz said.

When Wirtz first came to Springfield last year, he said he found it lacked a restful, centralized location where he could go and hang out.

“Union (Square) Park is very open to the street, the trucks and the cars and noises of the city are in the square,” Wirtz said, of the park between Jefferson, Madison, Fifth and Sixth streets that had big aspirations.

Visiting the Y-block made Wirtz resistant to putting more buildings on the vacant land. The Executive Mansion, which is in the process of being renovated, made a “classy impression” that required an equal response, he said.

“More architecture would repeat the same sort of cut up urban tissue of what it is around the park,” Wirtz said. “The park now, however, with its strong boundaries will draw all forces to its center.”

The goal of the park for Wirtz became not only creating a tourist destination that connected Springfield attractions, but making an “oasis.”

The plan for the Y-block park has “elements” from parks he has designed around the world, Wirtz said.

He compared the “concrete” industrial park and its “somber” buildings in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, to the area that will surround the Y-block park. Both parks have a strong water element, centering on fountains (that can be turned into ice skating rinks) and trees sprouting from the water. The park in Springfield will have a 70-foot-wide fountain, with two 35-foot-wide fountains on either side.

Wirtz said the people of Warsaw have “conquered” new public space in the Warsaw Spire industrial park. Children overrun its fountains while their parents watch while sitting in beach chairs on the gravel. He showed a photo of park-goers watching a movie on a big screen.

“It just gives an enormous satisfaction – that’s why you became a professional, eh?” Wirtz posed to the architects next to him.

The park in Springfield will plant the same metasequoia trees as Jubilee Park on Canary Wharf in London, which he helped design in 2000. In the winter, the trees are bare but will still keep a form, he said.

“The way it filters the dappled light is very special,” Wirtz said. “It’s very smoky, it’s very light and enchanting.”

The “almost sensuous, velvet-like” mounds will be similar to those designed by Wirtz for the corporate campus of retailer Ernsting’s Family in Germany.

The sound of water against the backdrop of dappled, feathery light of the trees would be something completely new and unique to Springfield.

“You have to be a total cold fish not to be sensitive to that,” Wirtz said.

Wirtz’s projects have tourist power: His most famous work is with his father, Jacques Wirtz, on the Jardin du Carrousel (Carrousel Gardin) next to Louvre Museum in Paris. However, he said a little office garden he designed in Berlin ended up in Japanese and Chinese tour guides, as well.

Wirtz said the middle of the park could be a “blank canvas” in which the city could put on activities like water, light and music shows, outdoor cinema and ice skating. He imagined a gigantic screen being put up for folks to watch the Super Bowl.

For amenities, a café with the option of outdoor seating will be placed on Fourth Street. “Excellent” coffee for adults and ice cream with vanilla will be some of the items on the menu.

“Being a Belgian, I tell you, (waffles are) going to be in the specs,” Wirtz joked. “True chocolate and real waffles.”

The park will be fenced in and have five entrances. Lights will be placed throughout the park for security and bathrooms will be accessible and have diaper-changing rooms, according to Wirtz.

“Let’s do things correctly and put the bar high,” Wirtz said.

Two big design details remain: what the work of art should be at the entrance of the park and the park’s name.

“I’d rather wait and see and see what (the park) is and see if (the name) fits,” Langfelder said.

Long road ahead

A plan for a park with mature plants will take three years to finish, Langfelder said. A lot of steps still need to happen before a shovel hits the dirt.

In February, the city council will be presented with a sewer maintenance project for Jackson Street, which would be finished by July. The project would touch on the sewer issues at the corner of the park.

Langfelder said the city is still working out the details on a developer’s agreement on the project, which will include a 10-year maintenance plan.

Langfelder also wants to demolish the parking ramp at Fourth and Adams streets, which he wants to replace with housing. He said he has received interest from one group that would need $5 million in TIF funding.

By bringing together the proposal for the park and housing, Langfelder said he is hoping to appease aldermen who hoped to see apartments on the block.

Langfelder knows he has a long road ahead in getting public support for the project. At Thursday’s Downtown Springfield Inc. annual dinner, he played a 5-minute video about the park for attendees. Montage shots of the park plans are mixed in with Langfelder, Wirtz and Tracy talking up the project.

“Let’s try this, let’s go with this, let’s support it,” Tracy says on camera, to uplifting music.

Once the agreement with the developer is finalized, the North Mansion Y-Block group will resume pursuing pledges for private financing, according to Paul Wheeler, a local architect hired by the group. Of the about $7 million, the group has received $2.5 million in pledges, with Rauner pledging $1 million.

“What a day for Springfield when the fountains start up again,” Wheeler said. “It could be a symbol for the town.”

Contact Crystal Thomas: 788-1528,,




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