Not in My Park

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

City officials would at least like to keep those people in the city, if not reverse the direction of the annual migration and attract users -- fee-paying users, in fact, to help the center pay for itself -- from the county. The south center would be the first step; a second, on the North Side, is planned after this one.

"Recreation centers in the city have traditionally been a gymnasium and a swimming pool, and that's it," Wessels says. "The community centers in Richmond Heights, Ballwin and Ste. Genevieve are a little larger. They offer not just recreational facilities but meeting rooms and other amenities. Also, one of Mayor [Francis] Slay's campaign planks was to build a community center on the South Side and then on the North Side."

After a year, though, plans are still in the most preliminary stages. The parks department held five public meetings between February 26 and March 18, asking for ideas from residents about what kinds of facilities to build and potential locations. The only real assumption made by city officials was that the center should, if possible, be located in a park, on property the city already owns, to save money. (The total estimated cost for the project is $8 million to $10 million.)

Suggestions ranged from a post office and meeting rooms to skating rinks, an Olympic-size pool and running track. The potential sites have been narrowed to twelve city parks -- including Carondelet, Marquette, Christy, St. Marcus, Tilles, Wilmore and Lindenwood -- and a few other sites on private property, all south of Interstate 44. Kennedy Associates and the parks department will conduct telephone surveys over the next few weeks to get even more input, with a final decision on the location and the type of facility to be built expected in late May. There's no timetable for construction.

Given that several sites are under consideration, complaints about the possibility of Carondelet Park as the site are premature, says Parks Commissioner Dan Skillman. The center's opponents, he says, are jumping to the conclusion that officials have already targeted it as the best location. "I'm not sure how people got this impression," Skillman says.

Wessels says he can't read his constituents' minds, so he can't comment on their motives, for or against the community center. Spears admits that the center opponents are a disparate group, and some of them may have less-than-noble motives. She's also worried about the long-term consequences of her group's forming alliances with some of them.

"People are coming out of the woodwork," she says. "Some have green-space issues. Some come with some regrettable cultural issues: [They] don't want neighborhood mixing. I don't agree with that. For me, it's purely an issue of green space, or just because I don't think the city's handling it the right way."

Premature or not, the impression that Carondelet is the leading contender for the center is widespread. Eby says she's concerned that the protests will stifle public participation before it really starts.

"We don't really have enough information to be for or against anything yet," she says. "It's not a given that the community center will be in the park. There's nothing to oppose or support so far."

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