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Virtual tour garners approval for Sycamore Hill project

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Lathan Turner looks up at a tower that is part of the design for the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza through virtual reality goggles on May 24, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)


By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A high-tech tour has given city officials and stakeholders a three-dimensional review of plans for a $2 million project they hope will serve as a gateway to the Town Common and the city’s history.

Members of the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza advisory board, Greenville City Manager Ann Wall and other officials explored the coming plaza using virtual reality equipment provided by the design firm Rhodeside & Harwell and their subcontracted firm Perkins + Will at City Hall on Thursday.

The designers held several group meetings to provide an overview of the nearly completed plans, allow officials to experience the scale and feel of the project via the virtual tour and provide feedback.

“It was amazing, it really was,” said Ann Huggins, a Pitt County commissioner who serves on the advisory board. “If that’s the way it’s going to look when the finished the project is here, I think the church members and people in the community will be proud of the product. I think it’s going to be an asset to the city; I think it’s going to be a point where visitors will want to come.”

The plaza will be located at the northwest corner of the 25-acre park, once the site of Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church. The church was among 250 buildings that occupied the land on which the park now stands. 

The Shore Drive Redevelopment project in the late 1960s razed or moved homes in the area and relocated about 1,000 of its African-American inhabitants. The church was the last building standing, and an arsonist burned it in 1969. It was razed on Jan. 8, 1970.

The project at First and Greene Streets is intended to serve as a place to preserve the area’s history and provide for a place of reflection. Members of the church, now located on Hooker Road, and former residents of the neighborhood like Huggins, have been advocating for a monument for many years.

The project will incorporate a commemorative tower, plaza and gardens, according to the plan. The church, its founders, and its role in the community will be highlighted within the “footprint” of the walled church space. Interpretive features incorporating images, quotes and short narratives will make connections to the larger regional and national stories of African-American communities, but most will emphasize the community that once lived at Town Common.

Greenville’s City Council approved funding for the project in September and it is among several improvements for the park included in the first phase of the Town Common Master Plan. Many of those improvements, including new bathroom facilities and an accessible kayak and boat landing, are underway at the park now along with maintenance work to the its accessible playground and refurbishment of the Town Creek Culvert.

Allen Pratt, Gateway project architect for Perkins + Will, said Thursday’s virtual viewing is a way to increasing stakeholders’ understanding and familiarity with the project and hopefully experience what the firm hopes to capture in their design. 

“I think the inherent abstraction of architectural drawings is something not everyone understands,” he said. “I think once someone is set in the space, they can understand the three-dimension quality of a space, and they can understand the light of the space. You can’t capture that in drawings, drawings are static, but moving through the space you understand the curation of the experience.” 

Elliot Rhodeside, director of Rhodeside and Harwell, said it is the first time the firm has used virtual reality as part of its design process. He said he believes it was successful and gave officials a true understanding of the project. He said everyone who took the tour approved.

Advisory board member Lathan E. Turner said the experience for him was crucial in fully understanding how much the project could mean once completed.

“We’ve had the discussions, we’ve talked through the designs but the VR experience was really transformative,” he said. “It’s an amazing display of the potential we’re looking at with this project.”

For William Barnhill Jr., another member of the advisory group, the presentation and virtual experience was important to bringing a sense of confidence that the architects understood what the group was hoping to achieve. 

“It brought more comfort; It was an ‘actually there’ moment for me,” he said.  “We could actually see that final view of that and it was amazing.” 

Construction of the project is likely to start late this year or in early 2019. The final plans will still have to be approved by the City Council. The construction process is expected to take between 8-10 months, according to designers. 

Contact Seth Gulledge at 329-9579 and Sgulledge@reflector.com. 


Click here for the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza plan

Click here for the Town Common Master Plan