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Japanese sand gardens inspire the concrete concentric circles that will surround a five-story, multi-colored, lighted glass tower at the downtown Lincoln Civic Plaza.

Plans have been released for the plaza, which is set to open next summer at 13th and P streets, and Parks Director Lynn Johnson said the dramatic spire structure could become an iconic image.

“It’s something you would see on a Lincoln postcard,” Johnson said of the 57-foot spire.

But at least one group, the Downtown Lincoln Association, would have preferred an area that could accommodate more people.

The $2.6-million urban park was designed by artist Jun Kaneko, a Japanese-born artist known internationally for large-scale ceramic pieces.

He’s worked on public spaces in the Phoenix airport, a Boston subway station and Honolulu's Waikiki Aquarium. Some of his work is on display at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, where he lives.

The glass tower will be made in Germany using colored, 6-inch-thick glass similar to Pyrex, Johnson said. The glass panels will be mounted on a steel structure with internal lighting so the piece glows at night.

Lincoln City Councilman Carl Eskridge, who lives in a building across the street, joked that the glow would probably keep him up at night.

It’s the first time the city has handed over a park project to an artist, Johnson said. Usually, landscape architects create the space and then art is added. Sometimes, he said, it doesn’t fit well.

“Usually the artist is the afterthought,” Johnson said. “When we started this process, we wanted to make sure we engaged an artist from the start to get a space that is cohesive.”

In addition to the tower, there will be a ceramic tile wall and a triangular pipe structure that will serve as a stage or focal point for performances. Material also could be stretched across the structure to make a movie screen.

Jun Kaneko

Kaneko, one of Mayor Chris Beutler’s favorite artists, was chosen in March from among 27 artists who applied. He has a $100,000 contract to devise the plan and create the art.

The 18,000-square-foot plaza, bordered by the new Parkhaus building and the building that houses Bison Witches and the Coffee House, originally was envisioned as a cozier gathering space with plenty of seating and trees.

After Kaneko took over, plans shifted dramatically, emphasizing the art and open spaces. The changes caused some spirited discussion at a recent Downtown Lincoln Association meeting.

Some said the space was good for events but underutilized in everyday settings since seating makes up a small fraction of the park.

"We ultimately decided to support the design ... but a lot of us wanted to see more seating and more shade," said DLA President Terry Uland. "It's a little less of what we wanted, but the art is not that bad, and it's a big deal to get a big piece from Jun.

"It's a happy medium."

A member of the Urban Design Committee also questioned its everyday functionality, calling the park a "void" and a fight between public art and usable park space. 

The space still will host farmers markets, yoga sessions, tailgate parties, concerts and movies.

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It will accommodate about 400 people for concert and nearly 800 for tailgates. The area will be curb-less so people can flow out into the street during big functions.

During non-event days, the plaza will be an informal gathering space with seating for 70 people. It will be equipped with wireless Internet.

A rendering of Lincoln Civic Plaza as seen from the air, courtesy of Sinclair Hille

And, a restaurant in the Parkhaus building will have outdoor seating in the plaza.

Construction is expected to begin in the spring and take a few months, Johnson said.

About $1.4 million of the cost of the park will be paid for with tax-increment financing, which will use the additional property tax generated for the next 15 years by the new retail-apartment-parking building next door.

The rest, and a $600,000 endowment for maintenance, will be paid for with public donations.

Johnson said he thinks the space will become iconic for Lincoln, despite some people’s reservations.

“My sense is that there’s going to be people who immediately fall in love with it, but others may come to grow to love it over time,” he said. “The function of the space may sell people on the plaza more than the art. Programming is going to be key.”

Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120, jpascale@journalstar.com or follow him @LJSPascale.

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County/City reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star

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