City councilors put forth differing views recently on whether citizens or landscape architects should drive the planning process for Charlottesville’s parks.

In one of its last actions of the year, the City Council directed staff to begin the master planning process for Tonsler Park , a 7.4-acre facility at the corner of Cherry Avenue and Fifth Street Extended.

Photo credit: Daily Progress

Brian Daly, director of city parks, said work would get under way in the spring by in-house staff rathethan hiring an outside consultant. The goal is to have a master plan for the City Council to review in January 2013.

“The city’s adopted park master planning process will be followed, ensuring multiple opportunities for public input and involvement,” Daly said.

However, Councilor Satyendra Huja said expertise from qualified designers should inform the initial stages of the planning process.

“I am not saying that we should not have citizens participating in planning of parks, but I am saying there is a value to having a professional designer do park plans because they can bring their expertise,” Huja said.

Departing Councilor David Brown agreed with Huja’s view, citing the city’s current master planning effort for the eastern side of McIntire Park. Several competing proposals are in the mix.

“I’m a little concerned about the process at McIntire Park becoming … driven by how many people in favor of a particular use bother to show up to the meeting as opposed to a broader way of looking at the way the space could be used,” Brown said.

Councilor Kristin Szakos feels citizen input should remain paramount.

“These are public parks and I think the more we can bring the public in to make those decisions rather than have a paid expert … I think does work,” Szakos said. “We can’t control what people would want but I think that’s the good part [because] we bring in voices that we don’t have.”

City Manager Maurice Jones noted that bringing in design professionals early in the process would be more expensive.

Huja said that would be a small price to pay.

“If you’re going to spend $3 million building a park, 3 percent of that for good design is not a bad idea,” Huja said.

Daly said he would work with Jones on a policy to make sure landscape architects would be involved with the public process.

The master plan at Tonsler Park is likely to be on a much smaller scale than the one for the eastern side of McIntire Park, but there are implications for redevelopment of the city’s Cherry Avenue corridor.

“Aesthetically, [the park] is a pretty nice area but then immediately [adjacent] the commercial properties are underdeveloped, and I think integrating those in planning process would be nice,” said Joey Conover, a member of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association.

Across Cherry Avenue is land currently zoned for the 100,000-square-foot William Taylor Plaza mixed-use center owned by Southern Development.

“Any investments the city can make in Tonsler Park and the Cherry Avenue streetscape will spark increased social and economic vitality in the mixed-use corridor,” said Charlie Armstrong, vice president at Southern Development. “If the city is focusing attention on the importance of that area, so will others.”

Armstrong also said the new master plan for Tonsler should make its amenities more visible from Cherry Avenue and offer more for Fifeville families.

Conover said she thought the plan would most likely be similar to the way it is now, but that there is room to improve the back side of the park.

“It is not landscaped, so if there were more paths and landscaping people would use it more,” Conover said. “I think it would be nice if the softball field was used more.”

“It is very important environmentally in a part of town already short of trees and high in pollutants,” said Antoinette Roades, who lives two blocks away from the park on Oak Street.

Roades said she hopes the planning process will be open to the public but not fully governed by citizen input.

“We members of the public are not professional planners and the process shouldn’t be turned into a patronizing game in which the pros ask for wish lists from amateurs, then try — or pretend to try — to incorporate them,” Roades said.

Roades also suggested Tonsler include a nature trail to provide fitness opportunities for people of all ages.

Parks staff are also doing preliminary work on a master plan for a new Meadow Creek Stream Valley Park, which will consolidate land acquisitions the city has made in the past few years.