Cary, North Carolina, spent more than 20 years envisioning Downtown Cary Park, from its inception through designs to problem solving. Along the way, challenges included the pandemic, quarantine and resulting supply shortages, financing and then construction. The park is expected to open later this summer.
A name as simple as Downtown Cary Park doesn’t do the greenspace justice. But Joy Ennis, general manager of Downtown Cary Park, and Doug McRainey, director of special projects in Cary, explained what has materialized so clearly a person could see it with their eyes closed.
In a joint email, they wrote, “The park will total 7 acres in size and will be centrally located in downtown Cary. Surrounded by Walker, Academy, Park and Walnut streets, it will feature a ‘great lawn’ and a unique, tiered water feature. The lawn will be fronted by a pavilion, and interspersed around the lawn will be a series of unique spaces, or ‘rooms,’ linked by paved walking trails. This block was surrounded by single-family homes, which resulted in preserving the central core as green space.”
That’s just the beginning. Additional features include performance places, market spaces, public art incorporated into the landscape, food and beverage facilities, a play area, interactive water features, a dog play area and walkways for strolling and relaxing.
Visitors will be able to spend an entire day at the park and not see and do every single thing, which its developers hope will mean they’ll want to return again and again.
Ennis and McRainey echoed that thought.
“A key feature of the park is the amount of proposed programming, including art exhibitions, arts and crafts classes, performances and concerts, cardio and fitness classes, book clubs and story time programs, and movies. The goal is to generate activity in the park that will energize Downtown Cary.”
There is a Downtown Cary Facebook page, as well as a Cary government page that is regularly updated with steady progress posts and photos. For example, the government page posted in May about sunnier spring days meaning the park was really taking shape, “buzzing with energy and getting greener each day as final touches are added to some of the main structures and landscaping is planted.”
Within that landscape, 650 native and adaptive trees, all regionally selected and sourced, and more than 30 heritage trees, were preserved.
During development of the Town Center Area Plan in 2000, Cary staff began to envision a Downtown Park. Ennis and McRainey wrote that in 2001 the Cary Town Council approved the TCAP, which included a proposal for a Town Center Park to be the visual and cultural focal point for downtown, serving higher-density development and nearby neighborhoods and providing opportunities for special cultural and community events. The TCAP adoption marked the start of a 22-year effort to develop a plan and acquire the land necessary for Downtown Cary Park.
They also noted that between 2001 and 2013, the council approved several rounds of updated plans for Downtown Cary Park. In 2002, it first approved the Town Center Park Concept Plan, which recommended development of an urban park that would include an outdoor sculpture, a water feature and an amphitheater or performance area. Then, in 2006, a Civic and Cultural Arts Study was approved, which recommended a performing arts center within the park. The study also recommended a water feature within a town square, located next to Academy Street.
Ennis and McRainey continued: “In November 2012, 69% of voters approved the parks portion of the Community Bonds referendum. Council subsequently approved an updated Downtown Cary Park Master Plan in July 2013. This plan recommended a signature 7-acre park site and featured a town square space along Academy Street, which included a central fountain, outdoor performance space and open lawn, a pond that would function as a regional stormwater management feature, and walking paths. Ongoing discussions between the Council and Cary community over the 12-year period ultimately resulted in an updated Master Plan, which has begun to come to fruition following the groundbreaking in 2021.”
In June 2017, the completed Towne Square portion of Downtown Cary Park was dedicated. It was comprised of a central fountain, outdoor performance space, a small open lawn and garden, and gaming areas.
Ennis and McRainey further explained: “While the Towne Square phase of the park was under development, the town entered into negotiations with Wake County for the construction of a new Wake County Regional Library and a town parking deck to support it, located along the southern edge of the Downtown Park, in keeping with the approved 2013 plan. Throughout 2016 and 2017, staff from Wake County and Cary developed design and construction plans for the library, with restrooms and shell space.”
Shell space means an area constructed to meet future needs or an unfinished interior space enclosed at the time of construction. In this case, it allowed for town use on the lower level of the library and an approximate 600-space town parking deck.
The library and parking deck were sited in a way to allow room for private development. The town council approved an interlocal agreement for funding and construction of the Cary Regional Library Project in April 2018, which included the parking deck.
In early 2018, with the success of the first phase of Downtown Cary Park and the design of the library and plan for construction well underway, the design of the remaining 6 acres of the park moved forward. An interdepartmental team of approximately 25 staff members offered a broad perspective and provided input regarding how best to proceed with the master planning process.
Considering that Downtown Cary Park, once complete, would serve as a defining civic space for the municipality, the staff recognized the need for thoughtful planning, specifically taking future development of the surrounding area into consideration when finalizing the design. This, they hoped, would ensure the success of both the park and the Downtown Cary community as a whole.
“As a result, staff recommended hiring a nationally recognized firm to oversee updates to the Downtown Cary Park Master Plan. Four nationally known firms were presented to the town council, and it was proposed to give each a stipend to develop a concept for the park. Each firm presented these to a staff-led committee, and following careful review the committee made its choice. In May of 2018, the council approved hiring the office of James Burnett Landscape Architecture to develop a plan for an aspirational civic space in downtown Cary so all Cary citizens would identify with and embrace the community asset.”
The staff and consultants continued to meet virtually during the pandemic and the project has remained on schedule.
Cary officially began construction in June 2021. There was a multifaceted community input process in the design of the park, including meetings that invited stakeholders from all around the community to participate. There likely will be volunteer opportunities as well down the road, McRainey and Ennis said, once the park is open.
Financing for the project came from the General Fund balance and bond funding, which will provide upkeep as well.
McRainey and Ennis said they are looking forward to celebrating the park’s opening later this year. “Towne Square has been a beloved outdoor space since it opened in 2017, and it has contributed greatly to the success of downtown Cary. The first phase was so popular, there was overwhelming support to create an even more dynamic park with the design of the remaining 6 acres. The public is eagerly waiting for the park to open and has enjoyed keeping up with progress via our social media and our monthly newsletter. It will be an active urban space with 500 annual programs and events that everyone can enjoy.”