The newest neighborhood park in St. Petersburg has begun with an idea and a dialogue.
Residents of the Riviera Bay neighborhood in northwestern St. Petersburg met with city officials Tuesday night to discuss conceptual plans for a proposed park at Rio Vista Elementary School, which has sat vacant since 2009. The school is on an 8-acre site south of 83rd Avenue, between Macoma Drive NE and Siquita Drive NE.
About 75 people attended the public meeting held in the meeting room of the St. Petersburg Presbyterian Church at 600 83rd Ave. NE. District 2 Council Member Jim Kennedy hosted the event, joined by fellow Council Member Karl Nurse and city staff members representing various departments including Leisure and Community Services and Engineering.
The $1.6 million estimated for the demolition and new construction will be from a Park Preservation Fund, known as the Weeki Wachee Special Revenue Fund. The money for the fund came from the $14.4 million the City of St. Petersburg received for the sale of the 440-acre Weeki Wachee Springs.
In 1999, voters approved the grant, to be only used for developing, building and maintaining parks in the City of St. Petersburg. Last year, the City Council approved allotting Weeki Wachee funds to build the Rio Vista Park, as well as resources to maintain the facility for 10 years.
At Tuesday’s gathering, the first order of business was to remind everyone that this meeting was only the first step.
“Nothing we have here is set in stone,” Kennedy said. “We are looking for input. We intend to have at least two other public meetings.”
The City of St. Petersburg proposes to lease the Rio Vista Elementary property from the Pinellas County School District. After asbestos abatement and demolition of the school buildings, the challenge is to build up areas to provide adequate drainage and water runoff patterns. This was one main concern of Rivera Bay residents, especially since the recent flooding from Tropical Storm Debby.
After construction and landscaping, the new park should be open by the end of summer 2013, according to City Architect Raul Quintana. He said the park would have an open play area, a zone with fitness equipment, a running trail, two tennis courts and a community flower garden.
A basketball court and covered pavilion will be the only structures to stay from the elementary school. Parking spaces would also be developed from the existing school lots.
Landscape Architect Hunter Booth began by discussing the current intent of the proposed park. His company, Graham-Booth Landscape Architecture on Second Street North, is working with the city to plan and develop Rio Vista Park.
Booth said the park will be “passive,” referring to a lack of activities, like a large baseball field, that could be disruptive to the surrounding neighborhood. There will be no strong lighting for nighttime activities. Quintana added the park will be open only during daylight hours, with nighttime lighting just for security. Also, there will be no rest room facilities.
Quintana fielded questions from the audience, trying to address many of their concerns.
“The purpose of this meaning is to get your input,” Quintana said, “and to explain the concept. That is really what it is. It’s a concept.”
“We have to begin with something to bring to you, to start the dialogue,” he added. “The plan is conceptual and completely fluid.”
Although many residents in attendance felt the Rio Vista Park was a noble concept, there was still apprehension. Mostly it was from worries about long-term maintenance, parking and the protection of the surrounding community. A few residents related recent incidents of break-ins and other acts of vandalism, which could get worse with higher traffic a park could bring.
Doug Jackson owns the property adjoining Rio Vista across 81st Avenue North. He is the resident who will be closest to parts of the park with the most activity, such as the tennis courts and playground. His concern is that the city will not keep up the park once built.
“In concept, I like the idea of a neighborhood park,” Jackson said. “I think it would be good for the area. My problem is I don’t have a lot of faith in the city in regards to maintenance.”
When the school was open, Jackson cited several problems not addressed by the city. There were things like unmowed grass, unrepaired streets and an 8-inch depression in the shoulder of 81st Avenue. That dip could have caused parents and children to slip. Jackson saw these details as liability issues, ones that the city had never repaired, no matter how many times he complained.
Jackson also expressed concerns about security at the park, as well as the lack of restroom facilities.
“That’s a problem for me,” Jackson said. “Right now, I have problems people walking their dogs. I do not want to pick up after people as well.”
Leisure and Community Services Administrator Clarence Scott had no doubt that the city will keep a regular maintenance plan.
“With regard of maintenance of the park,” Scott said, “we can assure you that this park will be maintained to the same level as the rest of our well-maintained parks in the system.”
“St. Petersburg is recognized nationally as one of the best park systems,” Scott added with pride. “We are not going to treat this park differently. The park will be in a regular schedule.”
As a neighborhood with mostly single-family homes, Riviera Bay has many neighborhood children. Those with kids, like resident Katy Prats, were the most enthusiastic about St. Petersburg’s newest park.
“I have kids playing in the park all the time,” Prats said. “I think that the park is going to be well needed. I love the idea.”
“Right now there is an abandoned site,” she said, “with weeds growing, vagrants coming in there and kids breaking windows. This will be a huge improvement over what there is now.”
“Right now it is an eyesore,” Prats added, “and it will be beautiful.”
The next public meeting discussing the proposed Rio Vista Park has not yet been scheduled, but it will be announced by the city after the planners have a chance to make changes based on this session of community feedback. For more information, or to comment on the projected project, residents are asked to contact Council Member Kennedy at (727) 893-7117. He can also be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.