Proposed improvements to Whatley Park draw ire from neighbors

Proposed improvements to Whatley Park draw ire from neighbors
This rendering depicts where a proposed concrete path would be installed in Whatley Park.

Few dispute that improvements need to be made to San Marco’s Brown Whatley Park, but exactly what upgrades will be made and when is apparently still up for discussion.

The San Marco Preservation Society (SMPS) shared several proposed renovations to help bring the park in sync with American Disabilities Act regulations during its Wine Down in the Park fundraiser April 18.

SMPS has approximately $40,000 at its disposal due to money left over in the city’s capital improvement budget for parks and recreation in District 5, said Andrew Dickson, incoming president of the SMPS. The money became available when a soccer field was not built in another area of the district, he said.

The Society had planned to start work on its plans this summer, but due to the negative response from some residents, the proposal is up for further discussion, said current San Marco Preservation Society President Mary Toomey.

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These photos of Belmonte illustrate the kind of concrete path, benches and trees that will be installed in Whatley Park if the San Marco Preservation Society’s proposed plan is accepted.

Until the Society presented its plans at the Wine Down event there hadn’t been much feedback on the proposal, she said. “It’s sparked more interest in the park,” she said, noting the Society wants to work with the surrounding neighbors and build a “consensus.”

Dickson said there are no worries about losing the city money if the project isn’t started in June. The money has been allocated to Whatley Park, he said. “The money stays in place as long as the project stays in place,” he said.

The Society proposed to install a winding concrete walkway that will extend the length of the park from Broadmoor Lane to Hendricks Avenue so people “can cross the park without getting their feet wet,” said Dickson. The walkway would help make the park “wheelchair accessible,” he said.

Other proposed improvements include the installation of low-intensity “historic-style” lampposts, new benches, and the replacement of the handrail on the footbridge with a more attractive “historic-style” railing. Installing low-intensity lampposts to illuminate it at night would make the park safer, and deter “campers,” he said.

Also proposed is the planting of commemorative trees alongside the path. Donations are being accepted to cover the cost of the trees and benches at $750 per tree and $1500 per bench, which will include a commemorative plaque. Anyone wishing to donate these items should contact Dickson, Toomey or Courtney Reilly at the Preservation Society office.

“We want a uniform design for all the parks (in San Marco),” Dickson said, noting the benefits of the Society’s proposal are fourfold: to enhance the park’s beauty, to increase its accessibility, to elevate property values and to bring the community together in an aesthetically unified neighborhood.

            Poor drainage is also an issue in the park, Dickson said. A poster displayed at the Wine Down event explained the reasons why the park often floods during storms and why water in the creek is orange.

Years ago JEA capped the natural spring in Alexandria Park, which feeds the creek allowing the water to become stagnant. The storm drain downstream is placed 15 inches above stream level to prevent tidal intrusion from the St. John’s River. The rise prevents water from draining quickly from the stream allowing the park to flood during downpours. A 2012 water quality study showed that iron-loving bacteria take advantage of the iron-rich groundwater in the creek. It metabolizes dissolved iron in the water creating a rust color. The water is not polluted and supports small fish and frogs.

Fixing the drainage problem would cost six figures, Dickson said, adding that removing the concrete bed and restoring the stream to its natural state would cost seven figures. The city does not have capital to fix the drainage at this time, he said, noting some money raised from the Wine Down fundraiser will fund a study to recommend innovative and cost-effective ways to improve drainage and the creek’s appearance.

Differing opinions

Mimi Pearce, who lives in a home adjacent to the park, said several neighbors disagree with some aspects of the proposal. Drainage is the main issue and any available money should go to finding a way to alleviate the problem, she said.

Pearce also said there were objections to installing a concrete walkway the length of the park, as was shown on the map displayed at the Wine Down event. Belmonte Park is a “landlocked park” bordered on two sides by homes and is only accessible to the public on two ends, she said, noting it makes sense to have a concrete path in that park.

In contrast, installing a path in Whatley Park would divide its large open grassy expanse and distract from the park’s main focal point, the stream, she said. Because Whatley Park is horseshoe-shaped and bordered on all sides by public streets, a path is unnecessary; the park is already accessible on all sides, she said, adding the cement might be undermined by groundwater when the park floods. “They say the sidewalk will help keep people’s feet dry but it won’t, she said. “It will be covered when the park becomes a lake.”

Park_01           Also at issue is the proposed lighting and planting of trees. Installing lampposts is unnecessary because moonlights have already been placed in the trees years ago; they need only to be repaired, Pearce said. The park already has plenty of “mature” trees,” she said. Planting the trees to form a canopy over the concrete path would only detract from the openness of the green space, she said, noting she is amenable to the Society’s plan to replace the railing and add new benches.

Dickson said the moonlights in the trees have already been restored but that they don’t have much impact because they are underpowered and too small.

“Because of this lighting in the park we don’t have to install electrical conduits (to position the additional lampposts). All we have to do is tie into what’s there,” he said. And some of the mature trees are in poor health because park maintenance over the years has been “haphazard,” he said.

“We want to approach this in a thoughtful way with attention to detail, design and safety,” he said. “This park was designed as a passive use park and will continue to be a passive use park. It will continue to be an open green space. We want to make it a beautiful centerpiece to a beautiful neighborhood.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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