Marshall Park is on its way out – but will new development have enough park space?

It sits in the southeast corner of uptown, a forlorn expanse of trees, concrete and grass that’s often as empty as the shuttered government building next door.

But Marshall Park likely won’t be around much longer. Mecklenburg County officials are in talks to sell the 5.5-acre park and almost 12 nearby acres to a development partnership for $33.7 million. Their vision: redevelop the site into a vibrant new community with thousands of new residents, complete with offices, shops, restaurants and hotels.

The plan also includes a park that’s about a third the size of the current Marshall Park. And that’s become a sore point: Advocates and neighbors say Second Ward needs a park comparable to Romare Bearden Park, in Third Ward next to BB&T Ballpark, and First Ward Park, across Seventh Street from ImaginOn.

“Why would we not replicate the same success story in Second Ward as in First and Third wards? This is a tremendous opportunity” said Ed Barnhart, a member of Mecklenburg County’s Park and Recreation Commission, which has called for a five-acre park to be included in the new development.

Called Brooklyn Village, the $683 million mixed-use project will include 107 affordable apartments in addition to upscale high-rises and condominiums. The name recalls the Brooklyn neighborhood, an African-American enclave demolished in the 1960s and ’70s in the name of urban renewal, displacing more than 1,000 families.

Nearby neighborhood associations, such as Chantilly, east of uptown, have also called for a larger park.

Mecklenburg County owns the land targeted for redevelopment, including Marshall Park, the shuttered Board of Education building on Martin Luther King Boulevard, and the Bob Walton Plaza building on Stonewall Street. County commissioners picked a development partnership in June, led by Peebles Corp., Stantec and Charlotte-based Conformity Corp., and are working toward a final contract to sell the land.

The developers’ proposal includes 2.3 million square feet of newly developed space as well as a 1.77-acre park, which would feature space for activities and cultural elements honoring Brooklyn’s history. They argue Second Ward will be better off with a well-designed, engaging and frequently used park in the middle of a vibrant new development.

“The success of urban parks is not necessarily determined by its size, but by the programming, uses and activity along the perimeter of the park,” said Don Peebles, head of Peebles Corp. The park would be ringed by residences and outdoor cafes, which planners say will ensure a steady stream of visitors.

The details of the proposal are still being worked out, and a community meeting is planned for the week of Sept. 12 to discuss the issue of open space in the new development. (You can follow the process, learn about upcoming meetings and leave comments online at the “BrooklynVillageCLT” Facebook page.) The developers have agreed to fund $23.1 million worth of infrastructure improvements, including the proposed park.

“Marshall Park is a very pretty place, but primarily because it is bounded on two sides by heavily-used streets and on the third side by a commuter parking lot, it is significantly underused,” said Monte Richey, head of Conformity Corp. “We hope to eliminate under-utilization by changing the obsolete layout and restoring economic vitality.”

But Rick Winiker, president of the nearby Chantilly Neighborhood Association, said a larger park is necessary for coming decades, when thousands of new residents will need a place to gather in Second Ward – and that pointing to Marshall Park’s current lackluster state isn’t a reason to throw out a park of that size.

“It’s a matter of leaders being able to have the foresight to preserve space that’s available to all members of the community,” said Winiker. “It’s difficult to campaign for a space that’s not loved by anyone now, but open space in general is dwindling. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Mecklenburg commissioner Pat Cotham, a Democrat, voted against the redevelopment plan, which she said doesn’t include enough park space.

“We’re talking about adding all these houses. We’re adding apartments and condos,” she said, pointing out that a May study ranked Charlotte 95th out of 100 large U.S. cities for its park space. “That didn’t make sense to me.”

Geese and protests

Over the years, Marshall Park has become the city’s informal gathering spot for protests, rallies, vigils and political gatherings. The park has hosted everything from Occupy the Democratic National Convention to Tea Party rallies, prayer vigils after the Sept. 11 attacks, World AIDS Day commemorations, an anti-Ku Klux Klan march, and July 4 celebrations.

And yet the park has struggled to attract everyday visitors. As early as 1986, 13 years after the park opened, a pair of Observer stories described it as “Charlotte’s little-used Marshall Park,” and “a deserted vista surrounded by government buildings and hotels.” The stories reported on a plan – one which never came to fruition – to develop apartments and restaurants nearby “to give it some life.”

A 2001 story described Marshall Park and Second Ward as an “uptown area that’s home to more geese than people.” Those geese and ducks have sometimes been a source of consternation. A 2002 Observer story about a campaign to discourage people from feeding the geese included the memorable sentence, “Geese have a bowel movement every 12 to 15 minutes, producing a pound of poop a day.”

Still, when the park, named for former Charlotte City Manager James Marshall, opened in 1973, local leaders were enthusiastic. It was the height of urban renewal, the program under which the city used federal dollars to buy up land in the perceived “slum” of Brooklyn, where they demolished buildings to construct the park and government center.

“Crowds Revel in New Park,” proclaimed the Observer headline on June 3, 1973. Four clowns –Toothy, Teardrop, Dot and Blosum – made balloon animals for kids, and a “tanned, jovial Mayor John Belk” in a plaid sport coat and white shoes turned on the fountain.

“Now this – THIS is what Charlotte needed. A patch of beauty, a green place among all the concrete and glass,” an unnamed woman was quoted as saying.

How big is big enough?

Focusing on size is the wrong measure for a park, supporters of the redevelopment and some urban planners say.

“Numbers are the biggest red herring,” said David Walters, a longtime urban planner and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte. “Size is such a wrong issue. The quality of design is the real issue.”

Walters said Marshall Park, with its large concrete swaths and isolation in a quiet government district, “was a loser from the day it was designed.”

“The fact that Marshall Park has been a lost space for 25 or more years shows there’s nothing magical about the number five (acres),” said Walters.

And though Cotham and some other county commissioners said they want more park space, others have said it’s not a concern. Bill James, a Republican, has pointed out that reserving more acres for park space reduces the amount available for development – potentially lowering the county’s proceeds from a sale.

And Vilma Leake, a Democrat, said that since the original Brooklyn neighborhood didn’t have a park, it doesn’t make sense to include a large one now.

“I remember Brooklyn as it was, not a 5-acre park. There were no parks there, period,” said Leake during the commission’s June 15 meeting to vote on the development proposal. “I can’t support putting a 5-acre park in an area that had no park.”

But the Parks and Recreation Commission, made up of citizen volunteers, says the proposed size just isn’t big enough.

“It’s the size of somebody’s yard,” chairwoman Elaine Powell said.

Monday evening, Marshall Park was almost empty. A few businesspeople scurried across the park’s sidewalks on the way to their cars, and a couple wandered past hunting Pokemon on their phones. A solitary person, 20-year-old Zay Curry, sat on a bench, holding a backpack.

“It’s just a walk-around,” Curry said of the park. Gesturing toward the skyline, he added, “It’s a good picture view. (People) mess with the ducks.”

After sitting and chatting on the bench for a few minutes, Curry got up to walk away. When he left, Marshall Park was empty again, save for the ducks, about two dozen of them, paddling across the pond.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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