Construction end nears with groundbreaking at Balis Park

Construction end nears with groundbreaking at Balis Park
Putting a little muscle into turning the dirt, left to right: Ryan Schmitt, president of Petticoat-Schmitt; Doug Skiles, president of EnVision Design+Engineering; Diane Martin, president of the San Marco Preservation Society; Mayor Alvin Brown; District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer; George Foote, president of the San Marco Merchants Association, and Rob Smith, landscape architect

Putting a little muscle into turning the dirt, left to right: Ryan Schmitt, president of Petticoat-Schmitt; Doug Skiles, president of EnVision Design+Engineering; Diane Martin, president of the San Marco Preservation Society; Mayor Alvin Brown; District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer; George Foote, president of the San Marco Merchants Association, and Rob Smith, landscape architect

Merchants counting the days until ribbon-cutting ceremony

San Marco Square merchants and neighborhood residents turned out to watch Mayor Alvin Brown, District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer, and members of the San Marco Preservation Society and the San Marco Merchants Association in the Apr. 5 groundbreaking event for the Balis Park expansion and renovation.

Seven gold-painted shovels hit rain-softened ground shortly after Mayor Brown addressed the small crowd.
“The big message here today is what we can accomplish when private and public sectors work together,” he said. “The greatest investments in our community come through vision and teamwork. You can feel the energy here today, from the families and neighbors and the small businesses working together to make this park tremendous for the next generation.”

For merchants, the groundbreaking signifies the beginning of the end of frustrating construction detours that began early last year. When the park is completed in late May, the ribbon cutting will herald, hopefully, back-to-preconstruction business for restaurants and retailers. Kimberly Clarke, owner of Kimberly Clarke Salon, had just moved from Riverside to San Marco Square right before the Streetscape project began. “I have clients from all over the city, including Ponte Vedra and even Tallahassee. To hear complaints about parking over and over again has not been fun,” Clarke said.

The new Balis Park in San Marco Square will include additional green space, a new traffic pattern through the square, safer pedestrian crossings and on-street parking. The upgrades will include a number of resident sponsored bricks, park benches and bicycle racks which will improve the overall feel and visitor experience of charming San Marco Square.

These renovations are possible through a public-private partnership between the City of Jacksonville, San Marco Preservation Society and San Marco Merchants Association. More than $85,000 was raised by these neighborhood organizations to renovate the park and ensure that it’s something the city can be proud of for years to come. In his address, Mayor Brown said, “On behalf of the City of Jacksonville, I’m proud to support the Balis Park upgrades. The city has invested $370,000 and this will be great for the small business owners, supporting local tourism, strengthening the tax base and building value in neighboring homes.”

The city’s contribution, however, was not specifically for the park expansion. It was a modification of the Streetscape contract to include additional roadwork that alleviated a traffic concern. The amendment was to care for pavement, curb, streetlight and similar improvements as part of the San Marco Streetscape and not for the internal work in the expanded median that will become an extension of Balis Park; it’s fortuitous that the roadway change could create the southern boundary of the new park area.

George Foote, president of the San Marco Merchants Association, noted that although during the construction it’s been a challenge, there’s been parking available in a lot behind the shops on Atlantic Boulevard, courtesy of Southside Baptist Church. “We do lose the drive-by impulse shoppers going to and from work,” he said. “But we’re excited about the additional green space and the polishing of the Square will make it even more customer-friendly. It will be more flexible and accessible for events.”

Commenting on the initiative, Doug Skiles, president of EnVision Design+Engineering, said “The greatest value is what this has done to bring the community together. It’s been exciting to watch the construction, and it will be even more exciting to see it completed.”
Boyer noted that it was Skiles’ efforts in spearheading the park renovation that made it happen. “This extension – which was the result of a solution to a traffic situation – has the potential to be transformative for the Square, turning it into a community green,” she continued.
When San Marco Square was originally built in 1926, the property on which Balis Park is situated was the location of a gas station, according to research done by Robin Robinson, San Marco Preservation Society historian and board member.

Transformed from what was a vacant lot during the mid-1980s, the actual creation of Balis Park was spearheaded by San Marco Preservation Society, with a donation from Mrs. Alba Balis in 1988. The gazebo was placed on the site in memory of Alba Balis’ husband, Sheffield Balis. Other improvements were added in partnership with the City of Jacksonville.

The children’s kite sculpture, which bears the name Balis Park, was added in later years, also under the direction of San Marco Preservation Society. Diane Martin, SMPS president, said “With the addition of more green space, trees, custom bricks and artistic bike racks, you might not recognize Balis Park in the center of the shops of San Marco. The Square will become even more of a destination for those wanting to shop, eat or play in Jacksonville!”

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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