How could you not have noticed the park that has popped up several times at the intersection of Elm Street and South Avenue all summer?
I spoke with Tucker Murphy, Executive Director of the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce, about the idea for the park, the town’s reaction to it, and the park’s future.
Z: So how did you get the idea for New Canaan’s first pop-up park?
M: This whole idea came to be in a variety of ways, but my main influence is Times Square. New York is the crossroads to the world. It is so busy - Broadway, cars, the subway, and here we have these peoplesitting in tables and chairs in the middle of Broadway; I thought this was so great. I am always looking at things and thinking ‘how can something like this help New Canaan?’ One of my roles here in the Chamber is to reconnect people with the village. I like to call it the 'Village of New Canaan' instead of downtown. It has much better connotations by saying village other than downtown. You have downtown Chicago, you have downtown LA, you have downtown Stamford, but a village automatically just sounds more charming and inviting. New Canaan is a very special place.
So I started to figure out areas of where I could put this park. I had already years ago gotten approval from the town to close the intersection of Elm Street and South Avenue for a food court for the sidewalk sale, so I knew that the area worked for that kind of setting. Also, I looked at a lot of studies we’d done in town and I saw that people thought we don’t really have a town square. So I put a PowerPoint together and I started taking it around to all the town bodies, and asking for their approval to let me use the space, what I call a 'flex space' because it can be flexible. I thought about doing a synthetic ice rink, and then I
thought, well, why not just make it a little plaza? My whole point to the town
bodies was 'let me just try it'. Let's not build anything, let's not paint the
road, let's not change traffic, just please give me the approval to just to
close it and try it. They said okay.
We tried it out for the first time on July 8th; the fountain, and that was Jeff [Holland]'s idea. I told him, "Jeff, we cannot do a fountain," but he really thought that it would make a difference. So we did all of that, and we opened it up for the first weekend, and I thought okay, here we go. For the first day I put out comment sheets, and I asked everyone what they thought about this. People just wrote how much they love it. I mean, look at this, everyone was like, 'oh my God, I love this, this is wonderful, make it happen again.’
I was totally blown away. I mean, I have been hearing how much people love it, but I just could not believe it.
So I asked for approvals from the town to doit again and they said okay, and we set it up last weekend, and it was a huge success.We will set it up again this weekend for the fun of it, but this weekend also starts our restaurant week. So this will be a new one, because in the past we set them up Friday night at six, and until Sunday at six, but this weekend we are pushing it to open Thursday at six. And it will be interesting to see the weekday implications of that area being closed.
But I think the overarching message from everyone is that it worked, and
that it is so important. People were talking, I saw so many young people
sitting there over the weekend, and they weren't all sitting there on their
computers or on their phones, they were actually talking. One woman came up to
me over the weekend and she said to me, "I want to come to New Canaan more
and stay longer". The first weekend, an older man was sitting there and he
was reading the paper and I was going over and interviewing people and just
saying what do you think, and he was so funny, he said, "Thank you, my
wife wants to shop but I can't stand walking around to all of the stores. This
is so great that I can stay here while still being close to her." And we
have been having entertainment - we are having someone on Thursday night.
Z: Who are you going to have?
M: We are going to have this boy named EJ Coulicoundis, kind of like a Michael Bublé singer. He loves to play music in New Canaan. We just put some white lights around. It is so nice to be there at night with a breeze.
I have all sorts of ideas of what to do in that space, but I am taking it in baby steps. I love how people say that they did not know this was here, because I am implementing this very slowly. That is a whole other point of it, too, that this wasn't a huge campaign -- I wanted this to be a surprise when people come back to New Canaan from vacation.
Going forward, I would love to have a pumpkin carving festival down there. The first night I brought sidewalk chalk where kids could color all over the street, and some people that it was messy, but it was great. The ice rink idea is something that we are looking into, but something like that would mean that we would close it down for a month, where right now we are closing it down just on the weekends.
There are some people saying that this should be a permanent closure. Again, I would have never expected this to go the way it did, but it is going and very well. My challenge right now is to not make it a ton of work, because Jeff and I are literally opening it each morning and shutting it down each weekend as well as taking away altogether at the end of the weekend. am shutting it down and opening it up every weekend.
Z:So do you want this to be year-round?
M:I do, but I think that I am not recommending that this become permanent. At this point in time I am not necessarily recommending that. I want to spend a bit
more time looking at it so that we can make the best use of it as possible with
positive results for merchants, visitors and residents, What I am recommending
that we keep bringing different ideas and different events into town, like pumpkin and ice carving, or just nothing! I don't want to have a whole calendar of events of what is going on, but I want people to be comfortable to just come down. If someone just wants to play the guitar, or kids to play cards, or whatever. Just to make it an enjoyable space. It is very European, and that it what a lot of people said in these comments. So many people were just taking pictures of the fountain. So I see it totally progressing. In a perfect world, this might actually become something that the town takes over, like a park. The town has been amazing in helping from the NC Community Foundation for awarding me the grant from the Local First Fund to purchase the furniture, to Public Works for helping move some pretty heavy stuff! That is where we are right now, just pleasantly surprised.
Z: So do you want to make any changes for next year?
M:Yes, I would like to make more seating, maybe do movies on a white wall
building. Make longer durations, like a Thursday to a Sunday, and just the
awareness. The overall mission is to reconnect people with the village and it
has done that, and then some.