Multi-phase GoggleWorks ‘Art Park’ project to transform and activate neglected city spaces

GoggleWorks Center for the Arts announced plans to develop its campus into an outdoor public “Art Park” in front of a crowd of residents, community leaders and elected officials Friday afternoon.

Sandy Solmon, GoggleWorks trustee and chair of the nonprofit’s Art Park committee, said the multi-year plan will eventually lead to over an acre of dynamic, green space featuring public art, an outdoor cafe and bar, and interactive designs. The site could also accommodate pop-ups, art demos, classes, farm markets, festivals, and performances.

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“It is true that when we strive to be great, it draws others to that energy, and the community flourishes,” said Solmon. She said the shared dream of a public Art Park has ignited the community, building momentum and raising the stakes to the art center’s ability to listen to and serve the community in new ways.

Tod Auman, GoggleWorks board chair, said the Art Park project, which will be community-planned and constructed in phases will transform, connect, and seasonally-program roughly 50,000 sq. ft. of neglected city spaces including blighted alley, a loading dock bay, a former portion of the Reading Railroad, and a shuttered gravel parking lot.

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The announcement, made prior to a roster of First Friday events at GoggleWorks drew a notable group of supportive dignitaries, including City Council President Johanny Cepeda, who helped initiate the center’s outdoor strategy, Mayor Eddie Moran, who has championed the project, and Berks County Commissioners Leinbach, Barnhardt, and Rivera, who recently awarded $500,000 of federal ARPA funds in support of the project.

Levi Landis, GoggleWorks executive director used the opportunity to emphasize the project’s impact and broad design concepts for the full master plan, but focused specifically on details surrounding the imminent construction plans for Phase 1 and a major partnership with DoubleTree by Hilton to take over and expand the art center’s food operations.

GoggleWorks Art Park, Phase 1

Locations: 1a. Main Courtyard: The former loading dock bay inside GoggleWorks’ main entrance. 1b. Thorn Alley: a shuttered, blighted alley on Thorn St., south of Washington. Timeline: Construction, Fall 2022; Opening, Spring 2023

Design Components:

  • Main Courtyard (pedestrian corridor): flex programming space, public art, large garden beds, outdoor elevator, pedestrian stairway, seating, designer light towers, signage, safety features.
  • Thorn Alley (outdoor market and cafe): performance stage, public art, full service restaurant and bar, tables and seating, indoor restaurant access, outdoor elevator, dynamic lighting, signage, safety features.

According to Landis, the design team prioritized access, activation, and connectivity. Phase 1 will unlock roughly 100,000 sq. ft. from north to south across Washington St., currently shuttered from pedestrian and bike travel. The project will connect residents, commuters, families, and seniors to a number of services and programs, including those by new next door neighbors across Washington, Centro Hispano and United Way.

The project will activate the spaces with its own programming, featuring artists and cultural partners, including many who are campus studio residents. The Courtyard will enhance the visitor experience, prioritizing pedestrian use and providing a welcome, safe space for recreation, repose, artmaking, and pop-up events. The Alley will showcase performances on a 250 sq. ft. stage and the outdoor cafe will be accessible by patrons to the art center’s indoor restaurant.

Dr. Rodney Ridley, GoggleWorks chair of strategic partnerships, announced a new partnership with DoubleTree by Hilton in Reading to take over and grow food operations, including catering and management of the on-site restaurant.

“It’s all about partnerships,” said Ridley, “and General Manager Craig Poole and his team are the perfect partners to expand our culinary programs. They have a proven, award-winning track record with hospitality and foodservice coupled with a passion for building community resilience through food.”

Ridley said the partnership would make DoubleTree the exclusive caterer for GoggleWorks’ many on-site events as well as an anchor partner in a culinary career development program being designed with food industry employers and educational partners. DoubleTree and GoggleWorks will release details on the restaurant concept and details on the grand opening at a later date.

Landis said that while the full scope of the project is ambitious, the nonprofit’s goal is to engage the community and prove the impact and sustainability of programs at each phase while continuing to foster a grander, shared dream for downtown Reading. “This first phase is the culmination of four years of planning. And during that time we have piloted and expanded placemaking programs throughout the community.”

“Our teachers, artists, staff, and volunteers have touched so many within our massive factory walls,” said Landis. “But walls, no matter how grand, cannot contain the transformational power of the arts. It’s time for our mission to spill out farther into our community.”

Project Background

The Art Park began in 2018, when Solmon approached Landis and other GoggleWorks leaders, including co-founder Marlin Miller and former Board chair Gust Zogas, with dreams of beautifying the areas surrounding the art center.

GoggleWorks operates from within a former goggle factory (hence the name), renovated by Miller with his late co-founders Albert Boscov and Irv Cohen. The roughly $12m initial renovation into an art center addressed the inside of five campus buildings, but the outdoor environment still carries much of the same features from its days as a manufacturing corridor.

Solmon tapped landscape architect Jeffrey Charlesworth of Charlesworth Fleishacker, conferred a Board committee to help with fundraising and planning, and engaged other design consultants including Lee Olsen, architect for the original GoggleWorks renovation.

Landis led a comprehensive community engagement effort that included a design charrette led by Charlesworth Fleishacker, partner and stakeholder interviews, partnership programming co-design, and workshops and presentations for elected representatives. The Wyomissing Foundation funded placemaking and mobile pilot programs throughout the city and in the GoggleWorks Gardens at Lauer’s Park, even inaugurating a “GoggleWorks U” Task force to help support neighborhood activation and development surrounding the art center.

The Berks County Community Foundation funded the hire of a bilingual organizer who, along with every employee, conducted lengthy interviews with residents and businesses within a 7-block radius of GoggleWorks. The GoggleWorks board designed a new strategic plan, with the Art Park and other outdoor programs as a major expansion to its current operations.

Leaders shared information about its direction and working designs for subsequent phases of the project, while being careful to point out they will not finalize designs until they further engage the community in co-design of physical components and programs presented in the spaces.

Future Phases

GoggleWorks Art Park, Phase 2: Location: A fenced gravel lot located along 3rd Street on the east side of the campus. Timeline: TBA

Potential Design Components:

Amphitheater, media center, heavy metalsmithing pavilion, sculpture garden mini-golf, interactive water feature, kinetic sculpture and interactive art, public gardens, rental facilities, festival grounds, outdoor film theater, designer light towers, seating, shade, safety features.

GoggleWorks Art Park, Phase 3: Locations: 3a. The Trestle: Former section of the Reading Railroad, located adjacent to the maingate. 3b. Washington St. Entrance: south of GoggleWorks’ main building along Washington St.

Potential Design Components:

  • The Trestle: train caboose art gallery, flex programming space, public art, gardens, pedestrian access, historical educational signage.
  • Washington St. Façade: traffic calming, short-term parking, “bump out” sidewalk foyer entrance, public art, lighting, garden boxes, awnings, seating, safety features
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