Not in My Park

Opposition to a South City rec center may not just be about the color green

Birgit Spears still isn't sure exactly what she's fighting. More than a year after Congressman Dick Gephardt announced he'd secured funding for a new recreation center in South St. Louis and after a month of meetings about the location of the facility (now tagged a "community center" by its supporters), Spears and her Holly Hills neighbors don't know what city officials are planning or where or when they want to build it.

So far, about the only thing Spears is sure about is that she doesn't want the new facility in a public park -- especially not in Carondelet Park, just across the street from her house. And judging by the number of signs opposed to a recreation or community center that have popped up in the manicured front yards along Holly Hills Boulevard in recent weeks, many of her neighbors agree.

Spears, a founding member of the not-for-profit Friends of Carondelet Park, says she welcomes some sort of community center in South St. Louis modeled on the recent binge of state-of-the-art centers in St. Louis County that combine traditional athletic facilities with large meeting rooms and senior services. Spears does object, however, to taking up five to seven acres of green space to build it.

"The city has a lot of wasted space, a lot of dead space," she says. "Parks are neither wasted space nor dead space. To even think about putting it in a park -- as opposed to all these dead spaces and asphalt spaces that are all over town -- is abominable."

It's hard to gauge just how widespread the opposition to a center in Carondelet Park really is. Spears says most of her neighbors don't want the center there, citing the loss of green space, the city's poor management of its existing rec centers and potential traffic problems as reasons.

But others say opponents of the center are a small but vocal contingent. "We've got about 6,000 housing units in the ward, and there are only about ten signs," says Alderman Fred Wessels (D-13th). His ward covers the western part of Carondelet Park and Holly Hills. "There's some opposition, but I see more people in favor of it."

Pat Eby, who lives east of Holly Hills in Carondelet, about a four-block walk from the park, worries that Spears and other opponents are creating the illusion of a widespread grassroots movement where only pockets of resistance exist. All of the opponents, she says, live in Holly Hills, which has about 3,200 residents. The neighborhoods surrounding the park, according to the 2000 census, have about 32,000 residents.

"I'm concerned about manipulation," Eby says. "There are less than twenty signs, and they're all on two streets. I'm concerned that we might lose out on something good because of a manufactured opposition as opposed to a groundswell of public opinion."

There's also a simmering suspicion that some of the center's opponents -- almost exclusively residents of the solidly middle-class, 90 percent white Holly Hills -- are motivated more by fear and prejudice than by environmental concerns or traffic worries. The neighborhood, buttressed by the park to the south, Interstate 55 to the east and St. Matthew Cemetery to the west, is a quiet, affluent enclave, largely cut off from more integrated and working-class areas nearby.

"When people say the city doesn't take care of the rec centers they have, the underlying problem is that they don't want poor people or African-American people in their neighborhood," says Alderman Matt Villa (D-11th), whose ward includes the eastern end of the park and the integrated Carondelet neighborhood. "They're afraid of both race and class. It's embarrassing for me."

Talk about the new center -- nobody's even sure what to call it at this point, and Spears says the "community center" label city officials now favor calls up images of a building where social-service agencies would be housed -- began in February 2002, when Gephardt announced, with considerable fanfare, that he'd secured $1.25 million in federal money to plan and design the new facility.

Discussion of a master plan for Carondelet Park had started before Gephardt's announcement. Within a few weeks of his press conference, a committee -- including representatives from Friends of Carondelet Park, the Holly Hills Improvement Association and a handful of other neighborhood groups -- began work. Their final draft, approved by the St. Louis Planning Commission in February, has two options: one with the center, one without. Late last year, the city parks department hired Kennedy Associates, a local architectural and engineering firm, to choose a location and start preliminary planning.

There's not much argument from anyone that the city needs new facilities. The ten existing rec centers, such as the one at the corner of Twelfth Street and Park Avenue, are, without exception, old, rundown and poorly maintained. The equipment is minimal and outdated; the locker rooms smell bad. In the summer, when most families in the city want to take their kids swimming, they head to the county, where local governments, helped by a mid-1990s half-cent sales tax, have built state-of-the-art municipal rec centers and water parks in the past ten years.

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