COVER- SAVE McIntire... from what?
Drive almost anywhere near McIntire Park– on Park Street, on Rose Hill Drive– even on Cherry Avenue– and you'll spot the yard signs: "SAVE MCINTIRE PARK." Peppering neighborhoods more boldly than most autumn election placards, the signs say something about the town's most disputed land, its central park. But what exactly does "saving" McIntire mean?
In a succession of recent moves, the City has ignited controversy by handing public land over to the local YMCA, attempting to exile softball and a longstanding wading pool, and encouraging backers of a planned botanical garden to supplant a nearly 70-year-old golf course–- all while inviting a parkway to lop off the Park's eastern edge.
"If the parkway goes in, the Y goes in, and the garden goes in," complains Jim Moore of the McIntire Golf Committee, "that'll be eight times in eighty-three years that the park has been infringed on by development."
Botanical garden backers, who note that Thomas Jefferson himself envisioned such a project for his University, say theirs is a compelling vision for land on the eastern side of the park assembled early in the 20th century after a gift by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire. However, others want to fight to save the park's 56-acre western portion from a private facility, where membership would trump free public access. Still others focus on stopping the two-mile Meadowcreek Parkway, designed to link Albemarle County to downtown and eliminate traffic jams on Park Street, claiming it is a County pet project that will create more traffic woes than it can fix. But for the man who tends the greens and fairways of one of the town's most affordable sports complexes, "Save McIntire" is all about the golf.
An asset for Charlottesville?
Sandy Gray occasionally drags on a cigarette as he walks the hills of McIntire Park's golf course, bending over frequently to pick up lost balls or the odd piece of trash. There's not much work to be done to the course, according to this unofficial course groundskeeper, because keeping the grass long and untamed harkens back to golf's original days in Scotland before the advent of close-cropped grass and super-groomed fairways.
"It's an incredible piece of land– you can see what the country used to look like around here," says Gray, gesturing to the mountain views and wooded areas at the edge of the course. "It's in the middle of Charlottesville, but you don't think you're in the middle of Charlottesville."
Indeed, as he guides a visitor to "Suicide Hill," a sharp decline that leads to Holes 3 and 4 along the banks of burbling Meadow Creek, the din of Route 250 traffic recedes, and it becomes easy to forget the bustle to the north of Fashion Square mall and to the south of the Downtown Mall.
Spying a groundhog or a pack of deer is no surprise– "they love this place," Gray remarks fondly, as he surveys the baseball and softball fields that lie on the western side of the park, separated from the course by a steep ravine that holds the Norfolk Southern train tracks.
The 74-acre course has been home of sorts to both Gray and, for nearly 70 years, to thrifty golfers who these days get nine holes of golf for a mere $5, paid on the honor system when there's no attendant. Gray, who has been working largely as a volunteer beyond his $10 an hour City-paid salary (he claims to work nearly 40 hours a week, but only declares 10), says he has seen City Council's waxing and waning interest over the past decade.
"Starting 10 years ago, the maintenance was neglected," Gray says, walking up the fairway to Hole 6. "It became evident that they were not paying attention to this."
Which is when Gray, who graduated from UVA in 1969 and has been a permanent Charlottesville resident ever since, stepped in. Alongside other members of the McIntire Golf Committee, Gray has become a quiet advocate for the preservation of the course.
"We're facing the loss of three holes," Gray explains. "But our position is that it's perfectly possible to reconfigure the course and still have a decent-sized, nine-hole golf course. It's the perfect place for kids."
What threatens the course's existence? The Meadowcreek Parkway, first and foremost, will cut through the easternmost side of the course, chopping off Holes 3 and 4. Set below "Suicide Hill," both holes are tucked away from a visitor's initial view– yet when stumbled upon, offer stunning scenery not typically seen on public golf courses.
"This is an asset," Gray says, motioning around the course. The Meadowcreek Parkway, he claims, "is going to be ugly."
The Parkway, designed as a two-laner (but leaving room for expansion to four) will lead south from East Rio Road by the Dunlora subdivision to connect County drivers to a new McIntire Road Extended. Additionally, a proposed Route 250 interchange will potentially cut through the course's fifth hole, depending on the final design. And with the loss of three holes, at least one new group is waiting, hoe and spade in hand, to transform the Park.
A jewel for Charlottesville?
Helen Flamini, president of a new nonprofit, has her own version of saving McIntire. Bustling to and from various community meetings, PowerPoint presentation in hand, Flamini believes the best way to save McIntire is to open it to a larger public.
As president of McIntire Botanical Garden, a 501 (c) 3, she displays pictures of the golf course's rolling hills and treelines alongside examples of the country's other botanical gardens, replete with native plants, arboretums, and winding trails.
"I grew up in Brooklyn going to its botanical garden," she explains. "When I moved down to Albemarle County in 1976, I took that idea with me until last year, when it seemed that everything came together– the changes in McIntire, City Council's vision– it was a wonderful opportunity to bring the idea to the community."
In 2004, City Council created the McIntire Park Master Plan Committee. Headed by former mayor Maurice Cox, it conducted a poll of sorts in which it alleged, from 286 surveys, that walking trails and gardens were a high community priority. Consequently, the Committee recommended phasing out the golf course in favor of a "landscape park."
However, when the western side of McIntire was set to be master planned in 2007 and 2008 with the main goal of finding a final location for the YMCA's ground lease with the City, the plan for McIntire East was put on hold. Flamini wasn't deterred, as she found a new advocate for her garden: City Council.
Presenting her botanical garden proposal first to Mayor Dave Norris, then to the rest of City Council, Flamini emphasized a link between her garden and council's "vision" for Charlottesville– which includes green living, economic sustainability, and a connected community. A botanical garden in the heart of the city, she hypothesized, would serve all those visions.
"It's the perfect opportunity, with all the changes going on, to open up the park for everyone to enjoy," Flamini says. "It seems like it's time has come."
The time was early 2009 when Norris jumped on board with the botanical garden proposal, re-opening the push to phase the golf course out of McIntire in favor of a garden, arboretum, or conservatory. It was a move seen as hopeful by some– but disingenuous by others.
"Dave Norris saw this as an opportunity to refocus, take the heat off of City Hall about what we're doing to save McIntire," says Bob Fenwick, the founder of the "Save McIntire" movement, which began last year when softball-playing Fenwick learned that the City was ousting its softball leagues from McIntire. He began attending public hearings in a "Save McIntire" t-shirt before expanding the effort to include signs in dozens of front yards– and, more recently, launching his own campaign to run for a seat on City Council.
Regardless of the politicking, Flamini and the nine-person Botanical Garden board report nothing but support coming from the community. With McIntire inevitably facing a makeover once the YMCA breaks ground on its facility and Meadowcreek Parkway gobbling some of the golf course, Flamini believes there's no better place for a community project.
"McIntire is a central park located in the heart of the city," Flamini says. "With all of its changes, this is where [a garden] should be– in the center of the city, a beautiful jewel."
The Pedestrian Question
A key ingredient to the pending changes at McIntire lies in proposals to increase pedestrian access, particularly to the east side.
"There are a lot of people who have never been in this side of the park, unless they are going specifically for an activity the park already has," Flamini says. "With all of the changes going on, it will be a central park area in the heart of Charlottesville."
According to Flamini, Meadowcreek Parkway will allow up to three points of pedestrian access to the east side of the park: a bridge over the 250 interchange, a cross-over from the former Rock Hill Academy (now home to MACAA, the Monticello Community Action Agency), and an entrance from a Flamini-proposed parking area off Melbourne Road.
Meanwhile, Chris Gensic, the city's parks and trails planner, has been urging a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks that sever the East and West sides of the park. The state recently approved $90,000 for preliminary design work on the bridge with a followup hearing in the fall for construction funding, according to Gensic.
The access question has so long vexed planners that the Piedmont-Virginia YMCA and the City rejected the Eastern side for the planned Y, as the interchange design seemed to cause more confusion than accessibility.
"If Meadowcreek Parkway is built, the interchange at the bottom won't allow entrances off 250– there's no way to access it vehicularly," YMCA Chairman Kurt Krueger said. "People who are disabled, folks who can't walk from one side of the park to the other– it's impossible to reach, even if there's a bridge built to develop that side of the park."
Does Krueger's assessment ring a warning bell?
"The best kept secret in Charlottesville"
Several people echo Krueger's sentiments– that McIntire East is inaccessible and under-utilized. Yet the opponents to the golf course often overlook its largest constituency: the children of The First Tee. And for a community that seems eager to throw support behind any programming for youth– the very argument that helped Krueger's YMCA snag a residence at the park– forcing out one of the city's most successful youth program is quite out of character.
The First Tee of Charlottesville is a nonprofit youth development organization, just one branch of 206 chapters in 49 states (eight in Virginia alone) and five international sites. How does it work? By combining golf skills with life skills, First Tee teaches children ages 5-17 nine core values including respect, confidence, and perseverance, among others. Founded by the World Golf Organization in 1997, it was brought to Charlottesville by Philip Seay, now First Tee program director, in 2001.
While Seay boasts of the program's success– calling it the "best kept secret in Charlottesville"– he is hesitant to make it a "numbers game," where the actual character development is overlooked in favor of bringing in more and more participants. Nonetheless, the program has served approximately 350 children in each of the last five years. The best part? "If children want to be here, we make sure they are here," Seay says. The First Tee offers scholarships to families that cannot pay the $75 summer fee or $50 spring or fall fee.
"Brian Daly [acting director of city parks and recreation] tells me repeatedly that we are one of the most successful programs in the city– a core program," Seay says.
Indeed, the program has undeniably taken off over recent years, with three seasons of programs a year and a recent foray into Charlottesville elementary school physical education classes with the First Tee National School Program (which will expand to 5,700 Albemarle County students in the fall). First Tee chapters usually partner with a city or county that can offer a central golf course and learning facility for the organization to consistently use– hence, Charlottesville's First Tee signed a use agreement with the city in 2004, naming Pen Park's Meadowcreek course as its central location. However, the use agreement also named McIntire's course as an "affiliate" course, allowing the First Tee to transfer overflowing programming there– a turning point for the program's participation.
"With close to 400 kids, we have to have a place for programming," says executive director Rion Summers. "McIntire is a location that's easy to get to– a direct pipeline to the heart of the city."
The equation is simple: by allowing programming to take place at McIntire's nine holes, the First Tee can serve more children and not overwhelm Meadowcreek's course and disturb public patrons. But take McIntire away, and the balance is not so simple.
"If we lose McIntire, the bottom line is this: this city can follow the contract as it's written, so we dump all the kids at Meadowcreek," Seay says. "We need a golf course, so if you don't want us at Meadowcreek, you need to turn around and build us a golf course– or tear up the contract."
The issues go one step further: due to internal decisions made by the city's parks and rec department, the First Tee ultimately runs McIntire's golf course, overseeing maintenance in return for the course's revenue– meaning every cent the course makes goes directly to the First Tee. The course took in $18,511 in 2008 alone– quite a few $5 rounds.
According to Seay, the entirety of First Tee programming cannot fit at Meadowcreak without intruding on its ability to make money off public use of the course. While private courses, most notably Farmington, donate time to the program, it is limited. Seay also notes that the program's volunteer coaches– most retired golfers themselves, including Sam Snead, Jr, son of the man who won a record 82 PGA tour events– have schedules the program must work around.
With the First Tee's scholarship program, dozens of children are bused in from the city's low-income areas and from Albemarle County– a feat the YMCA also hopes to accomplish when its facilities open. While most of the First Tee's publicity comes from word-of-mouth, it is consistently ranked as one of the strongest chapters in the Mid-Atlantic region. One of its members was recently honored in New York City, with Jack Nicklaus– widely regarded as the greatest golfer of all time– handing him the award.
"This is not some little golf program over here in the corner," Seay says. "We make sure the kids get a quality experience."
McIntire groundskeeper Gray agrees. "This can be where a lot of kids get their start," he says.
Without McIntire, will the First Tee children find a new home?
Where is Charlottesville's Central Park?
When it comes to the past five years of master planning McIntire Park, could it be a case of the old adage "too many chefs in the kitchen"? With various special interests groups stepping forward to take a piece of the pie, the Park has been divvied up to provide resources for the community– albeit, only for specific niches in the community.
Some people don't like to play softball and baseball. Some people are uninterested in competitive-length swimming pools, such as the indoor one the YMCA hopes to offer. And, as is painfully obvious to the golf community, some people don't like to golf.
Yet while Flamini and her botanical garden proposal aim to open up the park to a wider community, will such a democratic vision succeed?
Visitors to Richmond's Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden must pay either an entrance fee ($6-10) or a membership fee of $85 per family– a not inconsequential sum in these economically challenging times. Ginter's capital campaign, which ran through the '80s and was completed in 1997, began with a major bequest from the Ginter family and raised $41 million dollars to complete the bulk of the gardens. The McIntire Botanical Garden organization doesn't rule out similar price tags for their proposed garden, but they hope to avoid it by relying on private donors and public funding for installation of the gardens and future maintenance.
For Rob Schilling, former city councilor and member of the McIntire Park master planning committee, that spells financial disaster for the taxpayer.
"There are groups that want their hands in McIntire Park, and the city taxpayer will be on the hook," says the former Republican City Councilor Schilling. "If Mayor Norris can pay an astronomical number without using taxpayer money, I don't have an issue with it. But I think this will be another burden on the taxpayer."
Indeed, although Flamini hopes City Council will green-light her botanical garden as the new face of East McIntire, she acknowledges the cost of installing and then maintaining the space will ultimately need public support.
Yet Gray walks along the course's rolling hills and envisions a place for all. The way he sees it, there's no reason the golf course can't co-exist alongside other activities in the park. In fact, he says, when he's supervising the course, he frequently allows people to walk their dogs, ride their bikes, or jog– as long as they are aware of any flying golf balls.
"The course allows for other things– the hillside could be gardened, we can start trees along the fairways, put in paths," he says, gesturing around to various fairways. Standing on the ninth hole, near his favorite spot on the course, he insists the golf community would do anything to keep the course intact– even share the land.
"We can have a day or two when the course is closed to let the public come out and fly a kite, have a picnic," he suggests.
Even The First Tee, for whom the course is a vital lifeline, welcomes the gardens into the park– as long as co-existence is an option.
"There's no reason we can't all sit down and figure it out," says First Tee's Seay. "We're open to working with and being part of other organizations."
Despite such offers, the botanical gardeners aren't quite sure their vision is meant to coexist. According to McIntire Botanical Garden vice president Peter McIntosh, golfers and gardeners aren't enemies... they just aren't meant to be co-tenents.
"My idea of a botanical garden is inconsistent with people hitting golf balls," McIntosh says. "With or without the Parkway, McIntire should be a botanical garden."
But in the report given to City Council in August 2004, the master planning committee recommended phasing out the course in hopes of transforming McIntire into a "landscape park," where "the central idea is that it would be an unprogrammed open space where visitors could enjoy flying a kite, throwing a frisbee... or just doing nothing."
Which begs the question: where is Charlottesville's central park?
New York City has Central Park; Boston has Boston Commons; Richmond has the Bird Park/Maymont estate complex; even tiny Staunton has Gypsy Hill Park, a place to feed ducks, hear a band, ride a tiny train, canoodle in the grass, play frisbee, or, as McIntire's master plan recommends, do nothing.
Although Charlottesville has its share of recreational space, the majority of it is dedicated to specific activities– the regionally-operated Darden Towe Park (shared between the city and county), for example, has three softball fields, a complex of soccer fields, a dog park, and the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center– not quite the landscape park McIntire's master plan envisioned.
"New York City needs parks, but here we have yards," Gray notes. "We need to have a better idea what the demand is for McIntire to be a central park before we decide to eliminate it. Why not have a golf course on it and have other things built in?"
He takes another draw on his cigarette and squints again at Hole 3. In a few months time, will he be gazing upon a ribbon of highway? Or will his course be gone, replaced with gardens, as Flamini hopes? Although City Council has no current plans to reopen the master planning process for McIntire, all interested parties remain poised to jump into the fray– ready to save McIntire at a moment's notice.
The First Tee of Charlottesville teaches youth life skills. But can the golf community and botanical garden backers practice good sportsmanship when fighting over McIntire?
Helen Flamini, president of the McIntire Botanical Garden non-profit, has visions of transforming the golf course's hillsides into trails and native plants.PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
SAVE McIntire Park signs have slowly popped up around the park, indicating the preference for some to keep development out of the city's central park. But what does "Save McIntire" really mean?PHOTO BY STEPHANIE GARCIA
First Tee participant Benjamin Krasner puts putting and life skills to work.PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Unofficial groundskeeper Sandy Gray. "We were made to feel that our input was not wanted in 2004, 2005– the [master planning] process is way flawed."PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
If the longstanding Meadowcreek Parkway and Route 250 Interchange are built, McIntire's golf course, housed on the park's eastern side, could face the loss of three of its nine sand-greened holes. The various roadway changes will allow for up to four pedestrian access points into the park– two over the Norfolk Southern train tracks, one over the parkway, and one from Melbourne Road (not pictured)– which the McIntire Botanical Garden group hopes to transform into a botanical garden, arboretum, or conservatory. On the western side of the park, the Piedmont-Virginia YMCA is still in the design phases of its facility, which will demolish two of the park's brick picnic shelters. The city has saved the two softball fields, but critics are wary of the YMCA and its eventual growth.