80K headache: Broken, dying, and disorderly days for McGuffey Park
Back in 2007, sleepy little McGuffey Park near the Downtown Mall got a fancy $700,000 make-over, courtesy of the City, which pitched in $420,000, and a trio of North Downtown moms called the Friends of McGuffey Park, who raised over $279,000 for the 1.1-acre project and received an award from the City Planning Commission for their efforts. They promised that the new park, with modern play equipment and a unique design, would become a “world class” facility.
But less than two years later, structural problems, dying trees, and hoards of unruly youths have created a world class pain–- as City Parks staffers intend to spend another $80,000 on repairs.
The problem with the teens has become so intense that local police have vowed to step up patrols, changed the closing time from 11pm to 9pm, and intend to put up no-trespassing signs.
According to police reports, there were 14 calls-for-service to McGuffey Park in 2008, but that figure jumped to 74 in 2009. In 2010, police have already been called 96 times.
Since 2008, there have been 37 reported incidents of vandalism, larceny, assault, disorderly conduct, and drug distribution in McGuffey Park and along 2nd Street NW. In 2010, one of two kidnappings in the City occurred on 2nd Street NW, granted it was a domestic incident where the two parties knew each other.
McGuffey Hill condominium resident Kai Rady describes regularly seeing over a hundred teens and young adults in the park during the evenings. She says that obscenities have been shouted at her and her husband, plantings have been destroyed, and that neighbors in second floor units have seen young people having sex in the shielded grassy area above their parking structure, which has also been used as a restroom, she says.
"It's not so much the teenagers, as it is the element they tend to attract in such numbers," says Rady, who sympathizes with the teenagers needing a place to gather.
“Go there on a Friday night especially,” says North Downtown Neighborhood Association president Colette Hall. “It has become the new hangout as an overflow from the Mall. Parents are just dropping their kids off at the park.”
Indeed, Rady says the park was used mostly by North Downtown area kids in the past, but now they seem to be from all over, racially mixed, and range in age from 12 to 20 and even older.
Hall says that she, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, and the president of McGuffey Condos appeared on Rob Shilling’s radio show recently to discuss the growing problem.
“We’ve recently adopted a zero-tolerance policy on trespassing after hours to deal with the problem,” says Charlottesville Police Captain Bryant Bibb.
“We’re hardening our stance," says Bibb. "We’ll bring the kids in and call their parents.” For older troublemakers, there is a fine of up to $2,500 and a year in jail.
Ironically, the McGuffey Friends, City officials, former Parks & Rec. director Mike Svetz, and even the Daily Progress editorial staff argued that the renovation would help solve the crime problem that they claimed plagued the old park, where "needles and condoms" were found in the morning. The landscaping firm, Siteworks, claimed that its design would address such problems by “creating better visibility from the street and by providing more potential for flow-through circulation.”
However, several teens a reporter spoke to said that the many benches, long picnic tables, rock walls, and dimly lit areas make it an ideal place for many different groups of kids to sit and hang out. They also said it's common knowledge that drugs are available in the park. Plus, it's conveniently located near the Mall.
“I think it would probably have been better to spend $400,000 on finding something for these kids to do,” says Rady. “It wasn’t like this before the park was renovated.”
“I was shocked and awed that the city was giving $400,000 for a facelift of one city park,” wrote another nearby resident, Sarah Peaslee, in a letter to the Hook. “Most of us said, If it's not broke, why fix it?"
Peaslee wondered what would keep out "vagrants and druggies" and predicted that the “lovely, long, fine wood benches” would actually attract more of them. "Help me understand," she concluded, "why the city spent so much to fix one unbroken park."
According to current City Parks & Rec director Brian Daly, several of the new park’s components are already broken, which could cost the City another $80,000 over the coming months.
Most notably, a former slide and sandbox zone has become a mud pit. Daly says the sod around the slide began deteriorating just three weeks after installation. Eventually, the ground began to erode, making the slide such a safety hazard that it was removed.
As for the sand, Daly says that kids got into the habit of dumping it into a nearby “weeping water wall,” which clogged the fountain (currently not functioning) and depleted the sand. In addition, the sand area filled with rainwater and didn't drain properly. As a result, the whole thing will be removed and replaced with more traditional play structures.
More drainage issues were highlighted during a late-May storm when stormwater overwhelmed the built-in drains, which Daly says are not functioning properly, and caused a cascade down the entrance stairway. Daly also says that new plants and trees in the park have not fared well, so a sprinkler system will need to be installed under the main lawn.
“It’s been a struggle keeping anything alive,” says Daly.
During the renovation, workers felled over 13 mature trees, including a veritable wall of greenery along High Street. Now, the mulch installed on that steep slope routinely pours onto the sidewalk.
Indeed, on a recent visit, a reporter counted at least five dead young trees and several others struggling. The once-shady park now offers limited shelter from the sun. During a recent noon-time visit, the park was filled with children from a nearby pre-school, but most were gathered under the trees in the center of the park, as the large picnic tables along the High Street side and the center of the grassy lawn were completely exposed. There were two children near the picnic tables, but they were sitting in the dirt beneath one of them to escape the heat. Another little boy braved the sun to squat in the empty sand box area and stir a dirty puddle with a stick.