ONARCHITECTURE- Jilted park: Forest Hills funding snatched

This master plan for the renovation of Forest Hills Park will have to be shelved, as funds for the project were reallocated due to "financial realities."

Just weeks before construction was to begin on the $750,000 renovation of 7.1-acre Forest Hills Park in the Fifeville neighborhood, the city elected to defer the project and reallocate the funds, specifically to the $10 million Smith Pool project. At a City Council meeting last month, Parks & Rec director Mike Svetz deemed the switch necessary because of "financial realities" facing the city. Mayor Dave Norris applauded the decision, commending Svetz and City Manager Gary O'Connell for taking a "hard look across the board at capital expenditures." 


What a difference a year makes.

Last year, the City had no problem spending $400,000 on the renovation of McGuffey Park, a little 1.1-acre park and playground next door to the McGuffey Art Center on Second Street NW. In fact, the City Planning Commission awarded a neighborhood group called the Friends of McGuffey Park an "outstanding neighborhood effort" award for raising an additional $224,000 (the total cost of the renovation was nearly $700,000) for the project and shepherding it through the system.

The small toddler park, completed last fall, features state-of-the-art playground equipment, a wall mosaic celebrating donors, beautiful long wooden benches, extensive landscaping, and a "weeping water wall" for children to splash in.

At the time, some questioned the fiscal responsibility of spending so much on such a small amenity. 

"Spending $400,000 on that one little park is a travesty," said Charlottesville resident Kevin Cox. "There aren't enough cops on the street, and the City wastes money on a playground."

Longtime North Downtown resident Frances Walton, 62, thought there were "better uses for the money," like undergrounding utilities, and believed the push for the park was "generational," spear-headed as it was by North Downtown's new crop of residents, many of them young moms.

However, no one in city government questioned the $400,000 expenditure or considered spending it on more obviously decrepit parks like Forest Hills. In fact, when the Hook ran stories in which citizens questioned the cost, two McGuffey Friends accused the paper of "gratuitously trying to stir up controversy by placing a negative spin." (Another suggested in a letter that the Hook's coverage must be a "vendetta" originating from a romantic jilting by one the "wonderful women" who founded the Friends.)

At the time, Svetz defended the expenditure in more sober terms, saying it should be seen in the context of all the planned improvements to the city's park system.

"We've also completed a master plan for Forest Hills Park and currently have funding of $751,000 for that park," said Svetz, noting the considerable design input from the neighborhood. "As you can see, McGuffey isn't all that's being done to improve the park system in Charlottesville."

As it turns out, McGuffey may have been the last city park to get an extreme make-over for the foreseeable future. In addition to Forest Hills, ongoing plans to improve Rives and Azalea parks have also been also deferred. 

Although Svetz is away this week, City spokesperson Ric Barrick says there is still hope for Forest Hills Park.

"We will hold off on Forest Hills until we find ourselves in a more comfortable financial situation," he says. "But it is on hold and not off the table."  


West Main make-over 

If all goes according to plan, West Main Street from JPA to Ridge/McIntire will be getting a long-awaited make-over. 

Thanks to a joint project with a private developer, the City, and UVA, the sidewalks will be widened, trees and new lights will be installed, and utilities will be buried. Developer Bob Englander, who is building a 9-story mixed-use building on the corner of West Main and Ridge/McIntire, is kicking in a $300,000 proffer for a re-zoning consideration that will cover the portion from Ridge to 4th streets. UVA is putting in $750,000 for its portion from JPA to Roosevelt Brown Boulevard, and the City is kicking in $1 million for the rest.

According to Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert, to ensure continuity, the entire project is being guided by a single master plan already completed by the Philadelphia-based design firm Wallace, Roberts & Todd, despite multiple designers for each section. Although Tolbert says a designer has not been chosen yet for the City's portion, he notes that UVA has hired an architect who will begin working on the streetscape. 


Sprucing up 2nd Street

Unlike Englander, developers Lee Danielson and Halsey Minor won't be chipping in a dime for their nearby streetscaping project. Although the contractors building the $30 million Landmark Hotel on the Downtown Mall will do the work to fix the streetscaping between it and the Live Arts building at 2nd Street SE, the City will foot the $200,000 bill. Again, Tolbert says the project will follow design guidelines already laid out by Wallace, Roberts & Todd.

Eventually, the streetscaping will be improved beyond the railroad tracks as the Gleason condo project, which broke ground last month, and a Coran Capshaw office building beside ACAC, already topped off, move forward.

 "The design by WRT goes all the way to Monticello Road," says Tolbert, "and the intent here is that developers incorporate the plan in their projects as they go forward."