The Greenville Guardian Actual journalism, virtually delivered

A Park for the People

Help shape improvements to the Town Common, Greenville’s hallmark public space, which will define our city for years to come. This “Central Park” belongs to the people–not private investors. Let’s keep it that way.

opinion square

Imagine: A large “Central Park” of our own, with inviting paths, environmentally distinctive areas – woods, grasslands, waterfront – and playgrounds. Imagine coffee on the veranda after a meal al fresco. Imagine ice cream, fireworks, and festivals. Imagine a jazz concert series, with formal table settings and a bottle of wine.

Actually, there’s no need to imagine such a park in Greenville; we already have one. The question is: Will it become an even-better sanctuary for picnics, recreation, and cultural events, or be converted to yet another commercial space?

Our Town Common covers 25 acres along the Tar River. It serves as the starting point for 5Ks, festivals, the “Sunday in the Park” summer concert series, “Greenville Grooves” music festival, and countless impromptu outings.

For families, the Common is a place to picnic.

For runners, the Common is a starting point, a resting point, and a finish line, a place to stop and laugh for a few minutes before starting the greenway that takes you behind River Drive and through the university neighborhood to Fifth Street and Green Springs Park.

For dog walkers, disc tossers, and footballers, it’s a large open space, unburdened by obstacles.

TownCommon

Which is the better backdrop: Trees–or buildings?

Last year alone, new programs in the park brought yoga, dance, and exercise. The Greene Street bridge, moved to the park in 2005, is now a distinctive landmark serving as the gateway to Greenville’s Greenway.

But private interests are lining up for a handout – er, “economic incentive” – hoping to get several acres of the park for private development.

Greenville’s waterfront area, once informally known as “downtown,” developed in a time when African Americans couldn’t shop at the same stores, live in the same neighborhoods, or even use the same buildings as other (read: white) residents. So they created a community on the waterfront, featuring markets and close-knit neighborhoods. The Rough-and-Ready firemen trained here, and Sycamore Hill Baptist Church occupied a prominent place at the corner of Greene and First Streets.

In the 1960s, for better or worse, “urban renewal” reached Greenville. It displaced these residents, leveled “downtown,” and created the park.
Indeed, one of the main concerns of those engaged in creating the park’s master plan in 2009 was that the original residents of “downtown” be acknowledged.

Private development would, quite simply, contradict that goal.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to create a modern public space on our Town Common. It won’t happen by itself: It takes a shared vision, and funding. That shared vision is called the Town Common Master Plan. It took shape over a full year, with intensive research and broad public participation. (Read it here.)

Though public bathrooms are widely recognized as a top priority, the master plan includes imaginative, invigorating elements that will bring even more life to this already-popular public space.

Gardens, vendor spaces, waterfront views and public art are called for in the plan, which was approved by the city in 2010. Landscaping will create a new image for the park, if only it can happen. While the master plan calls for the amphitheater to be moved, city council members agreed that keeping it in its current location is the best option. Plans include a tribute memorial to Sycamore Hill Baptist Church. (You can view an animation here.)

Given the $14 million Greenville’s city council has spent or designated for paving roads in the past few years, it’s sad that less than 10 percent of that amount – just $1-2 million – for the city’s central park wasn’t part of its planning. Our Town Common has instead languished for years, with its dilapidated pier, dingy-brown amphitheater, and bedraggled trash cans conveying serious neglect.

That all changed in 2014, when Council set aside minimal funding of $150,000. What a difference that modest amount has made! Plans are under way to install a pier and floating kayak and canoe dock. Plans are also in place to enhance the boat ramp.

Yet, just as the park is finally having its day, vultures are circling. A small group of private investors is clamoring to snap up this parkland – OUR parkland – for a song, if not for free.

They claim it would benefit the city for them to receive a gift of, say, 10 acres. That they would use this gift – er, “economic incentive” – to create condos and strip shopping. That their private project would benefit the people of Greenville.

Just how? Well, that’s unclear. This land grab – sorry, “economic incentive” – will give them the profit margin they need to build. Since when is it acceptable to give away public assets so a few people can profit?

Besides, the land rightly belongs to the people of Greenville–all of us. Not just the moneyed few who enjoy calling the shots. We are skeptical of these private interests who want to “serve the public good”–provided, of course, they’ve also made themselves rich.

The best way to embrace this park, which rightly belongs to the people of Greenville, is to use the master plan for guidance, enhancing its use as an open space, greenway, and recreational area. The master plan calls for play areas, landscapes and gardens, and even a spray ground is possible. With the new accessible playground in progress, we’re already on the way to seeing this park come to life. Now is the time to get involved – and to welcome new ideas – without turning the park over to private investors and their concrete, pavement, apartments, and strip shopping.

We encourage you to be heard on this issue. Support the Town Common as Greenville’s park for the people, as the city seeks public input on its future.

Contact Lamarco Morrison, Greenville parks planner, at (252) 329-4242, or via email, lmorrison@greenvillenc.gov, for more information about public input sessions. Remember too, you can always be heard on this or any other issue during the public comment period of every city council meeting.

Responses (4)

  1. Brian Glover says:

    I must disagree here. Everybody in town knows that I have worked very publicly, and for some time, to promote parks, greenways, and other public spaces in Greenville. I am certainly very far from being a developer or businessperson — actually, I don’t even know any developers, and I can count the Greenville business owners I know on one hand. But in this case, I think the Guardian is short-sighted — about the past, present, and future.

    About the past: let’s keep in mind that what you now see as everybody’s public space is itself the result of a pretty ugly land grab in the late 1960s. To create the park, a busy neighborhood was taken from largely African American home- and business-owners and destroyed. Lots of those folks came out for the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church focus meeting yesterday at River Park North. It’s by no means “historic” to say that what’s now the Common should be entirely in public hands. That history should definitely be commemorated and interpreted — but the fact is that for most of its history this was a changing downtown neighborhood, not some kind of sacred preserve.

    That said, the present state of the park is not good. Except when there’s a concert at the amphitheater, you’ll hardly see anybody there. Why? Because there’s no reason for them to be nearby. Parks need lively neighborhoods, with housing, shopping, offices, restaurants, and other features that draw people. Without other uses nearby, parks like this one always feel desolate, unsafe, and unappealing (mind you, I’m not saying that the Town Common is unsafe — it’s perfectly safe — but as it stands, it doesn’t feel that way.). The huge size of the Town Common contributes to the impression that it’s semi-abandoned.

    So, I actually think it would be a great thing for the future if the City were to make a deal with developers to use part of that land for condos and shopping. When people are living, working, and playing there, the park will feel more lively and appealing, and ultimately be more successful. A slightly smaller space would in itself feel less desolate.

    You don’t have to look far for examples of public/private parks partnerships that have worked well, particularly in waterfront districts. Yards Park, along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., is a great example — developers built condos there, and also contributed to some absolutely top-notch designs that benefit not just the people who live there, but the whole city. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is another famous success story. It could not have happened without some give-and-take between developers and the City. The maintenance of the new(ish) Brooklyn Bridge Park is being funded by a condo development on the site.

    And that’s the big point: if this is done well, the City should be able to get out of this deal as much as it’s putting in. It should gain mixed-use development that raises much more tax revenue than sprawling residential development would, as well as funding for the park itself, on a level it would never be able to pay for on its own. Our goal should be to make the best possible deal for the development of the park — a deal that encourages developers to profit by actually bringing people back to Downtown Greenville.

    Yes, it’s a public shame that Downtown was bulldozed in the ’60s — but the reality is that it happened, and nobody can give people back what they lost. The best we can do is try to guide the City toward a plan that will make the park a success for all the people. You can’t say it’s a success right now.

    P.S.: “Footballers”? What country are you in, exactly?

  2. Carol Collins says:

    1. Mr. Glover’s displeasure with the park reflects the park AS IS, not as the master plan proposes.

    Hence, I find his essay a sales pitch for implementing the master plan. The plan cures what he finds offensive about the park, reducing the amount of open space while providing “park like” services (better boating support, picnic areas, restrooms, splash pad, playground, multipurpose civic center), and keeps lots of walking area and garden. It even offers access to the river all along the park, not just at the ramp. I love the current master plan; [it] supports what people expect of parks, and will indeed attract more users to the park. The only part of the plan I find questionable is a cafe–why not just have food carts and food trucks, and possibly retail–exactly what is that?

    I would think that Mr. Glover, a business person, would support food carts and trucks in that plan. Is that not business? What a way for a young ECU grad to get a start in owning and running his/her own business. And such business enterprises would attract more people to the park, as would the other parts of the master plan.

    I live 3-4 miles away, and I go to the Town Common, especially when the dogs were alive. But I agree, it needs improving, and the master plan does just that. And there are restaurants nearby (3-4 blocks is not far for a person to walk if they are at a park). And there are neighborhoods and apartments and condos nearby. Moreover, the park is easily accessible by GREAT bus.

    So an enhanced park is just what all these people need according to Mr. Glover’s essay, and the master plan provides all this without substituting park-like services that require high ground with commercial structures that also require the same high ground.

    From what Mr. Glover said, the master plan is just what he believes should happen. Thus, I gather there may be some other issues. Below I discuss those.

    2. If business interests, like Mr. Glover, believe that business development on First St. is VITAL to Greenville and downtown, then these interests should put their money where their convictions are and buy up the SOUTH side of First St. and build their businesses. (So business people can do as hunters did in the Great Depression and formed Ducks Unlimited. These folks perceived a VITAL need for wetland preservation and used their own money to find win-win solutions for farmers, game birds, hunters, habitat in general, and yes commerce, based on better and more hunting areas.)

    I do understand that business would prefer to be given public land (who does not like freebies), but I do not think they need such public welfare. Again, if they see their business on First St. as VITAL to Greenville, let them put their money and effort into that.

    With all the schemes for downtown “redevelopment” that have failed (e.g., repeated paving and un-paving Evans), let’s try something (the master plan) that will without question yield a benefit and that benefit will accrue immediately to all citizens who ever want or make use of a park. (Who would not take their kids for a day in such an improved park with boats, playgrounds, splash area, picnic with food carts, and if we get our wish, a walk to River Park North? Even the GREAT system serves this park!)

    And I agree it would be lovely to have all those businesses near the Town Common, but with business on the south side AND the large new and improved park on the north, all would benefit.

    That is, with business on the south side of First St. we avoid downsides, like obstruction of river view for all but businesses and their customers, relegation to the public of only the flood-prone areas, and thus less space for and hence fewer “park” amenities like those listed in master plan, and less room for big gatherings that are now-well attended, like fireworks, Sunday in the Park, Canine Crawl, marathons. Moreover with a really feature-packed park as the Plan calls for and with plenty of open space attracting more people, the businesses on First St. will have MORE customers than with a diminished park. As I said, a win-win situation.

    3. If we have food carts and trucks able to be there regularly, people will have convenient food AND we get to support small business people running the carts–sort of an incubator area.

    4. We do not need the park as a source of land for economic development. We have LOTS of land/structures that are suitable for permanent business development in and near the downtown area, and many investors have already taken advantage of these opportunities, like the Dickinson Avenue Public House. As stated above, we do not have to sacrifice business development for the park as envisioned by the master plan; we can and should have both.

    5. What about using other parks in place of the Common and let the Common (non-flood area) be commercially developed? I see no park that has the unique advantages of the Town Common as our Central Park. The Town Common area is unique in river view, size, and central location to all citizens. It is set to become the premier park in Greenville that can conveniently serve all of Greenville, including ECU students, and also attract customers for our businesses from our neighboring towns. (A couple of weeks ago, I met a person who regularly drives to Greenville from Winterville to use the Greenway!) As stated above it is ideally situated for big gatherings for numerous functions. With the added civic center, which must be built on high ground near First St., we have even more such opportunities.

    6. Other cities know the economic value of large parks with enhanced park-like amenities but free of permanent commercial structures (see the master plan, but I would delete the cafe). For example, look at the huge percentage of valuable real estate Central Park occupies in NYC, and that is an OLD park, built when real estate values were not so relatively high as they are now.

    Just look at city tourism and business websites for towns large and small whose aim is to attract people to the city as visitors, business owners, or residential dwellers. Whether large or small cities, their webpages feature parks among the top enticements. These cities know that what is VITAL to the growth of a city INCLUDES appealing parks.

    I have not seen any city commerce/tourism page say “We have made improvements to one of our main centrally located parks by paving over and building commercial structures on the high ground. In this way, we have decreased the (unnecessary) open space and pared back park-like services (no splash pad, no picnic area, no food truck, no restroom, no civic center). Moreover, we blocked views of our river from passersby. Come see a scene that is like the rest of our downtown. We know you will like it.”

    7. If you would like an example of such win-win redevelopment that includes parks and commerce, without diminishing either, visit downtown New Bern, NC. Buildings were erected only where structures previously existed, leaving Union Point Park alone. Moreover, for anyone moored in the town’s boat slips to make use of downtown, they must and do walk at least 3 blocks to stores, restaurants, and theaters, unless they eat at the hotel (built where structures already existed). New Bern did not diminish their central town park, Union Point, but improved it dramatically as an open space with more features but free of business structures. Also look at downtown Washington, NC: they decreased the building footprint, creating more open space with many of the features in our master plan, including estuarium, playground, gazebo and concert area, boat slips. And the water view is NOT blocked for the public by buildings.

    In summary, the master plan offers Greenville a win-win solution. We can have quality of life and economic development. The plan if implemented as is will provide a much better park that is conveniently located, will link River Park North, and thus attract lots more people, who will be potential customers to our Greenville businesses. Moreover, it does include business: food trucks and carts, a great way to support small business and possibly serve as a launch pad for new entrepreneurs, including ECU grads, who we want to stay in Greenville. What a great deal for all of Greenville!

    P.S. I also strongly support the Bell Tower and Museum, which also must be on high ground. History is a great part of any park.

  3. brianingreenvillenc says:

    Carol,

    A few points:

    1. If restaurants and other centers of street-level life are 3-4 blocks away, they’re MUCH too far to affect the park in any way. Seriously, read Jane Jacobs. Urban parks only work if they’re directly surrounded by streets that are lively and inhabited at all hours of the day.

    2. For that reason, you’re right to say that development on the south side of first street is key. That should definitely be a City priority, and can certainly be helped along though tax breaks and zoning (for a prominent example of new development at the entrance to a successful riverside park, see One Riverside, near Schuykill River Park in Philly). But if it were possible to make that happen, it would already have happened. If we want to inject more people into Downtown, we should be thinking about ways we can use our assets to help that process along. Land is the main asset we’ve got. For an example of the City leading downtown development by making a deal for private development on formerly public land (itself the result of a racist “urban renewal” land-grab in the ’60s, just like the one that created the Town Common), you might consider the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville, VA, which was one of the crucial early factors that made Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall one of the most successful pedestrian redevelopments in the USA. We might consider what it was that caused Greenville’s attempt at a pedestrian mall to fail in the ’90s, while Charlottesville’s held on through the weak years and then boomed at the end of the decade. Obviously, many factors were involved, but one major part would have to be insufficient private investment, and insufficient public will to get that private investment.

    3. Speaking of land: size is NOT an advantage to the Town Common. It’s way too big to be usable for a city the size of Greenville (yes, Central Park is huge — but so is NYC, and you’re right to say it would never be built like that today). It would function way better if it were a bit smaller. People need to feel like the park is busy and inhabited, in order to feel safe there.

    4. If you really think that the City of Greenville is ready to finance and maintain a world-class park on its own, you’re dreaming. Heck, NYC contains some of the most valuable real estate in the world, and even with that tax base, in order to build and maintain something like the High Line or Brooklyn Bridge Park, they need a public/private partnership. Same goes for most U.S. cities.

    5. Which is to say: the Master Plan is indeed a great plan. But how will that stuff ever get built? We’re having a hell of a time even getting enough funds to finish the Green Mill Run Greenway Phase II and South Tar River Greenway Phase III. For the kinds of ambitious projects that are outlined in the Master Plan, we should be thinking seriously about where the money is going to come from. In projects like Yards Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, the City has managed to get a private developer to pay to maintain a world-class park that’s open to everybody (and yes, lots of people from the ungentrified parts of SEDC and Brooklyn use those parks).

    Look, I would love to live in a place where public money fully funds great park development (that place would probably be Copenhagen, and I’d move there in a minute). But in the real world of Greenville, NC, in 2015, I do think that it’s short-sighted to reject out of hand the idea of working with people who have access to serious money, in order to come up with results that benefit everybody.

    Peace,
    Brian

    • Carol Collins says:

      I guess I was a bit long winded, but my major points were (and are): (1) why not have both a great park and the economic development by developing the south side of First St. as you suggest (and I would LOVE), and (2) if we just focus on all the ways we cannot accomplish a goal, we certainly will not accomplish the goal. To accomplish a goal, we need to focus on being creative about the ways we can accomplish the goal. The goal of neither diminished development nor park need not (and I doubt will) be created overnight nor in the next couple of years, BUT we can make progress on a plan to have both goals met: First St. development AND a really nice park attraction.

      Regarding my point (1) above: The problem with giving up on both goals (south side of First St. development and keeping the large park) at the get go is that once we diminish the park with permanent structures, we are stuck with that diminished park even if those businesses fail and buildings become empty. Moreover, our diminished park will consist of the part most often flooded. Thus, with your plan you want citizens to assume the risk of failed businesses.

      But, whether the commercial establishments succeed or fail, that diminished park is all we will have for the future when the city is big enough by your standards to have such a park. I believe the city is big enough now, but I also believe in a few years Greenville will be big enough by your standards. (I gather that such growth is what we envision; otherwise why have all that new business downtown.)

      Regarding my point (2) above: So let’s be like the Ducks Unlimited folks when they began. They had a vision and were determined to see that vision realized. Thus, they did not waste their time thinking of how impossible the task was but instead put their thoughts and energies into making their vision happen. (And they did it without government support.) We have many people and a much less daunting task than did Ducks Unlimited folks. Thus, I am confident that as the majority of citizens of Greenville want the both the full park (they approved a master plan for park enhancements years ago) and a thriving commerce (as I do), we can get both.

      Regarding your comment about walking distance: I find it odd that folks can walk from a parking space or as you say from their neighborhoods to the park and cannot walk 3 blocks to an existing commercial establishment. ECU students walk more than that all the time to the bars, and also regularly from one end of campus to the other and to and from the College Hill area. Also as I said, I have seen towns with downtown parks at least 3 blocks away from commercial establishments and where people park cars) and both the park and the businesses are successful.

      However, again, development on the south side of First St. fixes your problem AND keeps viable a nice park attraction as the Master Plan now describes.

      Regarding your comment about public/private partnership: As far as the public/private partnership (Ducks Unlimited did not have such when they undertook their successful efforts), we citizens have already started that partnership.

      The public part of this partnership as it exists now is twofold: (1) the initial commitment of the land to the public as a park, which has already cost citizens by removing this land from our tax base, and (2) the approval years ago of a Master Plan for improving the park, with the expectation that it would be implemented at a cost to us citizens. (I am sure citizens thought that more of the plan would have been implemented by now, but the 2008 economic recession impeded progress.) Another aspect of this partnership can involve grants of any kind via creative joint efforts of business interests working redevelopment and economic commissions, etc.

      Now it is time for the private side to step up, and think creatively to build businesses and not diminish the kind of park that citizens have already said they wanted. (Remember what the Ducks Unlimited folks accomplished during the Great Depression without public help, and you already have help via the existing park and the publicly funded Master Plan.) Moreover, by developing around the south side of First St., private interests do not make citizens take the risk of their possibly failed commercial establishments. But business must be determined to think of ways to have both the park and commerce. And I believe that business interests really do want to be heroes in this matter.

      Another consideration in planning for a vision for Greenville: In developing Greenville, land is too valuable for one or two story buildings anywhere. We need vertical development where stores and restaurants or whatever occupy ground floors, and apartments/condos/offices occupy several upper stories and parking lots exist in the form of parking decks. Thus, a very small parcel of land on the south side of First St. can house much commercial activity by building in existing parking lots and using parking decks to replace the lots. We can even have our downtown hotel this way.

      As you see, planning for quality of life AND economic development takes a big picture planning approach with a creative, “can do” attitude. Given that the Master Plan cannot and will not be implemented overnight, we have time to plan for commerce AND a park downtown that serve our needs now and for a growing Greenville. And I know neither you nor I (nor anyone else) need to move to Copenhagen to do this!

Join the discussion! To promote civility and the useful exchange of ideas, we moderate comments and require full names (first and last), and a valid email address (used solely for verification). If you have an issue posting, please describe it and paste any error message you receive in the body of an email. Send to: tonyn@greenvilleguardian.org. Thanks for your participation!

%d bloggers like this: