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.
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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