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Reviving Chinatown's Lost Public Green Space on Chicago's South Side
The Transformative Ping Tom Memorial Park

Landscape Architecture by site design group, ltd., Chicago


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Ernest Wong, FASLA, APA, of site design group designed Ping Tom Memorial Park. The park lies along the east bank of the Chicago River just south of downtown Chicago. The park's original design imaged walled plazas inspired by traditional Chinese gardens in Suzhou, China, but security and vandalism concerns scrapped that notion in lieu of pathways. Catalyzing from the success of Phase 1 of the park (completed in 1999), Ping Tom Memorial Park has also continued to grow and build upon the initial development. Subsequent phases encompassed the 18th Street underbridge (2009), the north shoreline (2011), boathouse (2013) and Leonard Louie Fieldhouse (2013). The fieldhouse is back right; the boathouse in the foreground right. Decorative "nautical" style pendant luminaires with HID lamps keep the park brightly lit. The St. Charles Air Line Bridge (left) was built in 1919, then relocated and shortened in 1930 when the Chicago River channel was straightened. The 108-story Willis Tower, still commonly called the Sears Tower, is in the background left.
Photo: Rose Yuen


Ping Tom Memorial Park in the Chinatown neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago is a shining example of the transformation of vacant open space into a vibrant community anchor. Part of the Chicago Park District, the park project encompassed five phases of work over a period of more than 10 years. The expanded 19-acre site now includes traditional Chinese gardens, a playground, pavilion, boathouse, fieldhouse, naturalized shoreline, community waterfront plaza and a boardwalk.

The history of this dynamic pubic space harkens back to the late 1960s when the Dan Ryan Expressway spur cut through Chinatown's only public green space. Designed by the Olmsted brothers, Hardin Square Park had amenities such as a fieldhouse, wading pools, ball fields, and playgrounds. All of it was erased and never replaced for the Chinatown community.

 

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Three-hundred linear feet of red railing line the boardwalk along the edge of the Chicago River. This five-acre expansion is home to one of the only naturalized shorelines along the south branch of the Chicago River.The plantings along the river's edge helps cleanse the water of the Chicago River and creates new habitat for native aquatic species. The park grass is a general turf/athletic field grass seed mix: "Appalachian" Kentucky Bluegrass 20%; "Elfkin" Perennial Ryegrass 20%; "Esquire" Perennial Ryegrass 20%; and "Fourtuna" Kentucky Bluegrass 20%.
Photo: Andrew Bruah



Now, after 40 years of waiting the bold plan pioneered by local business and civic leader Ping Tom (1935-1995) has fully emerged. Ping Tom Memorial Park is part of a 60-acre mixed-use development on former Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad yards along the edge of the South Branch of the Chicago River in the Armour Square Community near the 18th Street Bridge. The initial seven-acre historic railroad site was acquired in 1996, and subsequently transformed into cherished and much needed open space for the Chinese community.

The original site is bounded by the Chicago River to the west, active railroad tracks to the south and east, and the 18th Street Bridge to the north. The development of the park spurred development of the surrounding neighborhood, transforming the Chinatown community into the distinctive and energetic community it is today. More than 15 years after the completion of the first phase of the park, the space has continued to grow and is bustling with community members, visitors and explorers.

 

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The three-season Ping Tom Memorial Park Boathouse building is a one-story metal canopy with approximately 2,400 sq. ft. of kayak/canoe storage, restrooms, an office and a janitorial room. The site design for the boathouse, the first of three planned for the Chicago River, drew heavily from Chinese garden elements, but with a modern palette. To complement the architecture, different paving palettes of cobblestone, natural stone steps, pavers and concrete were used to create distinct 'pavilions' in front of the building. The sloping pathway is composite decking (Trex).



Visitors travel to Chinatown from Chicago's Loop via water taxis, which now stop at the recently completed Ping Tom Memorial Park boathouse. Seniors walk from the surrounding neighborhood to the park to practice their graceful tai chi forms every morning by the pavilion overlooking the Chicago River. Visible from the nearby elevated public transit line, kids are frequently seen running through the playground after school. Generations of Chinatown families walk from one end of the park to the other; some sit to have tea, which they carry in thermoses, eat char siu bao, a Cantonese barbecue-pork-filled bun, and visit with neighbors. The annual Dragon Boat Races event in early summer brings hoards of participants and spectators to the river edge. With all of that activity, the demographics of park users continue to grow.

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The park's plant palette is huge. The initial plantings were deciduous shade trees (maple, ash, gingko, white and pine oak, corktree, pear, willow and linden), and deciduous ornamental trees (serviceberry, birch, redbud, dogwood, magnolia, crabapple, plum and 'Rose Tree of China'); evergreen trees and shrubs; deciduous ornamental shrubs; perennials, groundcovers and bulbs; and bamboo ('Yellowgrove', 'Hardy Dwarf', and 'Chinese Running'. Phase two involved planting more trees and extensive plug and seed mix plantings (flowers; meadow mix; flower overseed mix; prairie grass plug mix ('Purple Prairie' clover; 'Pale Purple' coneflower; 'Prairie Smoke'; 'Rough Blazing Star'; 'Ewild Quinine'; 'Little Bluestem'; 'Prairie Dropseed'); wetland natural edge plug mix; and yellow flower plug mix. Wild Bergamot is in the foreground, with some yellow coneflower plugs beginning to sprout petals (top photo). The youthful tree left (bottom image) is a white oak.
Photo: Rose Yuen



Chinese Culture in an American Context
The design of Ping Tom Memorial Park reflects Chinese culture in the context of Midwest America. Arriving at the park through the "hidden" entrance at West 19th Street and South Wells Street, visitors are greeted by the Four Dragon Gateway - a representation of a traditional Chinese entrance courtyard that frames views of the Chicago River and the pavilion behind it. The "dragons" (four columns) of the gateway face north toward the energy of the city, i.e., downtown Chicago. Traditional Chinese gardens often include ponds, rocks, trees, flowers and an assortment of halls and pavilions connected by winding paths. The intent of these paths and pavilions is to create carefully composed scenes throughout the garden, unrolling like a scroll of landscape paintings. The pavilion and the adjacent landscaped terraces, gardens, and seating areas were designed around these concepts, eliciting imagery of a classical Chinese setting and serving as a community gathering destination throughout the year.

With views of steel bridges and the Chicago skyline in the distance, the park has become a green oasis among transportation and industrial facilities. The playground - said to be the first in the city of Chicago to incorporate resilient rubber surfacing -- is universally accessible and is surrounded by seasonal plantings.

 

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The circular playground space at Ping Tom Memorial Park is just a hop, skip and jump northeast of the pavilion. The playground includes equipment from Landscape Structures and poured-in-place safety surfacing from SofSurfaces. The surfacing was installed in 1999, and is said to have been the first rubberized playground safety surfacing in Chicago. Green Mountain sugar maples enclose the space.



Catalyzing from the success of Phase 1 of the park (completed in 1999), Ping Tom Memorial Park has also continued to grow and build upon the initial development to realize the visionary master plan and continue to serve the expanding Chinatown community. The subsequent phases encompassed the 18th Street underbridge (2009), the north shoreline (2011), boathouse (2013) and Fieldhouse (2013). From the first phase moving north, the visitor's view opens to a new vista.

The boathouse is the focal point as one enters the 'North Shoreline', with its bright red trellis and flurry of activity as visitors rent kayaks, canoes and board Chicago water taxis. The boathouse design is simple and linear, and reminiscent of the pavilion.

 

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Located on the east side of the railroad tracks and just north of 18th Street, the LEED Platinum Leonard Louie Fieldhouse, designed and constructed by Wight & Company, features a six-lane swimming pool, gymnasium and fitness center. The fieldhouse is named for civic leader Leonard Louie (1934-2013) and acknowledges his contributions to the creation of Ping Tom Memorial Park and the fieldhouse. The building, which opened only weeks after he passed away, also features a 3,200 sq. ft. terrace with 2' x 2' roof pavers on pedestals, and an accessible green roof with expansive views of the Chicago skyline. The green roof plants are Allium senescens ssp. montanum ('Mountain Garlic'), Sempervivum 'Ruby Heart' succulents and a host of low growing sedums: album 'Red Ice'; album spp. ('Creeping'); reflexum ('Blue Spruce'); spactabile 'Neon'; spurium 'Summer Glory'; and 'Vera Jameson'. LEED points were earned for the geothermal heating and cooling system; the rainwater harvesting system; the high-efficiency boilers and low-flow plumbing fixtures. The horizontal steel canopy that juts from the terrace is supported by two 50' steel columns. Photos: Rose Yuen



A 300-linear foot iconic red railing lines the boardwalk along the river's edge. This five-acre expansion is home to one of the only naturalized shorelines along the south branch of the Chicago River, a priceless amenity for the city. The plantings along the river's edge helps cleanse the water of the Chicago River and creates new habitat for native aquatic species. At the end of the boardwalk, a community plaza is anchored with concrete terraces that cascade into the water, creating a picturesque vista toward the city and the Chicago skyline.

An oak savanna restoration borders the adjacent railroad, creating a buffer to the surrounding activities, while attracting urban wildlife, putting an emphasis on sustainability and the environmental subsistence of the community. Rolling hills are adorned with native landscape and navigated through a series of pedestrian trails that are popular with walkers, runners and bikers.

 

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Maiden grasses luxuriate near the water's edge. In the background is the Canal Street Railroad Bridge, originally called the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge 458. Built in 1915, the 195' towers on either side of the 272' span vertically lift the bridge to give as much as 130 feet of clearance if necessary. It is the only vertical-lift bridge across the Chicago River. Metra, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern trains still run across the bridge's two railroad tracks. The machinery house is located on top of the truss in the center of the span. A defunct 'bridgetender' building is located directly underneath the machinery house, but a brick structure on the ground near the bridge is the current bridgetender building.
Photo: Tom Rossiter



At the boathouse the site design drew heavily from elements of a Chinese garden, but with a modernized palette and unity with the rest of the park. To complement the architecture, different paving palettes of cobblestone, natural stone steps, pavers and concrete were used to create distinct 'pavilions' in front of the building.

Located on the east side of the railroad tracks and just north of 18th Street, the LEED Platinum Leonard Louie Fieldhouse features multiple indoor recreation opportunities throughout the year, including a pool, gymnasium, and fitness center, with an accessible green roof terrace for gathering and relaxing that boasts expansive skyline views. Completed in 2013, this amenity provides much needed active recreation opportunities for the community.

 

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The towering etched columns of the 'Four Dragon Gateway' at the 19th Street entrance to Ping Tom Memorial Park are lined up toward the "energy of the city." Passing through the gateway, visitors arrive at the China-style pavilion sitting above the east bank of the south branch of the Chicago River. Seniors walk from the surrounding neighborhood to the park to practice their graceful tai chi forms every morning by the pavilion and the adjacent landscaped terraces.
Photo: Ron Gordon



The recent phases of development at Ping Tom Memorial Park have built upon the success of the first phase with a new take on the design and programming. Where Phase 1 mimics Chinese aesthetics, the subsequent phases have begun to focus on sustainable design, environmental awareness, and support of local ecosystems. While implementing design practices that are representative of Chinese culture, the context and supporting features of the park are decidedly Chicago, and strongly rooted in sustainable design.

Through continued, multiphased development this expanding park continues to serve as a symbolic cultural destination for Chicagoans and tourists, providing green space for this growing community. Ping Tom Memorial Park has help shaped the development of Chinatown into an active and popular neighborhood.

 

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The pavilion is based on a structure that Ernest Wong, FASLA, admired in Suzhou, China. The pavilion's orange and red colors honor the Chinese national colors (a red flag with yellow stars). Ornamentation and red railings further complement the Chinese inspired structure. Design details include lotus motifs and carvings of dragons on the 20' tall columns. One visitor to the park in a Yelp review opined the view of the pavilion and grassy fields facing the Chicago River resembles Epcot Center's China attraction overlooking World Lagoon.
Photo: Tom Rossiter



Providing recreation, open space, and access to the Chicago River, this park is an essential part of the Chinatown community and its residents. Through cultural, sustainable, and interactive design measure, Ping Tom Memorial Park is a model for future riverfront and cultural parks throughout the city of Chicago.







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