Aug. 8, 2002 – The Northside Civic Organization is hosting a community meeting on Monday evening to discuss its plans to rehabilitate and refurbish the Estate Dorothea Tot Lot to make it suitable once again for its intended use as a playground for young children.
The meeting will take place at the onetime playground itself, at the side of Lionel P. Berry Scenic Drive, commonly called Crown Mountain Road, between the Dorothea fire station and Friendly Grocery and Gas Station. The organizers say they hope it will be a meeting of the minds as well as of the stakeholders.
The Dorothea Tot Lot has been around since the mid-1960s, a peaceful stretch of government-owned green space with swings, a merry-go-round, a slider and an asphalt basketball area at the rear. Today, it's choked with weeds and strewn with empty beer and liquor bottles, the playground equipment fallen into disrepair. Area residents and Northside members agree that it's a marketplace for drug dealers, a campsite for the homeless and a late-night party venue for people with boom-box radios in their cars — and that it ought not to be.
Ann Durante Arnold, president of the organization, said when she took office a year and a half ago, she set three goals — to get the fire station reopened, to get a notorious caved-in stretch of Crown Bay Road repaired, and to get the tot lot reopened.
Slowly but surely, progress has been made on all three fronts. The fire station recently reopened. The Legislature recently appropriated supplemental funding to repair the ruptured road. And the Housing Parks and Recreation Department has committed to providing $40,000 to get the tot lot back in shape.
The organization plans to replace the old play equipment with new, brightly colored items that are resistant to ultraviolet rays and vandal-proof, along with "impact-absorbent surfacing under the equipment," Cay Chandler, Northside's Tot Lot Committee chair, said in a letter addressed to the community and circulated to the news media. "There will also be new trash cans and benches and picnic tables. The basketball hoops are to be removed, and the courts will be painted with designs for toddlers to ride tricycles/bicycles around. The equipment has been placed away from nearby housing as much as possible."
Pictures of the equipment the association proposes to install will be available for review at Monday's meeting, she said.
The organization membership believes "this will be an improvement to the area, as there are no facilities on the North Side for small children at present," Chandler's letter states. "However, there has been an expression of disapproval by a few residents of the area on the grounds of noise. We need to get a realistic idea of what all the people in the area feel … We are very interested in your input and wish to hear all opinions."
The prime mover of the referenced residents is Priscilla Berry-Quetel, who lives just a short distance from the tot lot. She noted that the park "was created 37 or 38 years ago but has been in an unkempt status for several years." Meanwhile, she said, "with the advent of the gas station and the grocery store, the traffic on Lionel P. Berry Drive has increased a thousand percent."
The store and gas pumps are on property leased from Helen Berry Brown, who a decade ago operated the Berry's Farm restaurant and bar there.
As a result, Berry-Quetel said, "the people who own property in that area have gotten to the point where they have zero tolerance for any additional noise. We are having tremendous noise of diesel trucks and cement trucks that would not be there" but for the grocery and gas station.
Berry-Quetel earlier this year circulated a petition and collected 41 signatures in the neighborhood from people calling for police to rid the tot lot of criminal elements and the homeless.
But now, she said on Thursday, "things have changed since they signed the petition. I am speaking only of the people who live in the immediate vicinity of the park. I live in a complex of four units; that's about 16 people. The people who are immediately next to the park, that's another 15. There are people who live across the street who can't live there with the noise."
She doesn't want drug dealers and derelicts in the park, and she doesn't want small children, either.
"Whatever it was when the tot lot was there, that was fine," Berry-Quetel said. "Now, with the tremendous increase of noise, we don't want to have any more — to get home from work and have to listen to children yelling and screaming instead of the homeless yelling and screaming. And on weekends, listen to children at parties yelling and screaming."
And, she added, "When these children leave, who is going to control who goes into the park at night?"
Chandler said the Northside group revised its plans, seeking to address Berry-Quetel's concerns. It has, she said, applied for a grant to plant more native trees around the park perimeter. "This will in turn provide more shade, dampen noise levels and make the park far more attractive," she wrote in the organization's letter.
To address the problems of vagrancy, drug dealing and late-night noise, Chandler said, the space would be fenced and would have a gate with a lock "which will be opened in the morning and closed in the evening by the owner of Bryan's Plants. This is to prevent theft also and to stop people partying in the area late at night." The basketball court would be removed "to discourage adults from using the area late and night" and the fencing and gate "will prevent them from bringing their cars into the area."
Chandler said a Rotary group is interested in adopting the park, and its involvement would include checking on the grounds regularly, reporting to police any inappropriate usage and removing trash on a regular basis from receptacles to be installed. Notices that the park is under surveillance would be posted, and police would be called if anyone was on the premises outside of the posted hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Berry-Quetel said the plans call for "swings that are probably no more than 10 feet from landowners' houses." And, she said, the residents object to people parking inside the lot.
The Northside plan calls for three parking spaces within the park, one reserved for the handicapped. This is "to allow mothers to safely get small children to and from the park," Chandler wrote in her letter. "The parking on the main road is dangerous, as cars do drive by there quite fast sometimes." She added, "These spaces will be blocked off by the locked gate at night and are placed as far away from residential property as possible."
Berry-Quetel also charged that "there is not one member of the Northside Civic Organization that lives in the Dorothea area, and no one in the Dorothea area that has indicated any interest in joining."
From Berry-Quetel's perspective, it's a NIMBY situation — "not in my back yard." She said: "I am suggesting that they look at alternate locations that are not going to disturb anyone. The government has land in the Hull Bay area designated as a recreational area. They have found archeological remains there, but that didn't stop them at Tutu Park Mall. This would be a perfect playground for children of all ages, not just for tots, and then the adults could get to go to Hull Bay, too."
Arnold, however, said the Hull Bay area, located across the road from Larry's Hideaway, is not an option. Housing Parks and Recreation will not allow its use because of the artifacts found there, she said Thursday.
Meanwhile, the matter of funding is still an issue, too.
Chandler said Housing Parks and Recreation has given the group permission to oversee the rehabilitation and maintenance of the park. The Legislature appropriated $40,000 f
or those purposes on July 19, 2001, and Gov. Charles W. Turnbull approved the expenditure a year ago, on Aug. 7. As of a month ago, Housing, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson had not requested the release of the money from the General Fund, which officials have said is overdrawn. Hobson said then that release of the funds depended on the availability of commercial property tax revenues. He said if property tax bills went out in time for payments to come due before the end of this fiscal year, the funds could be released in this time frame, too.
According to Chandler, "HPR has requested the release of the funds, which should be released now that the governor has signed the property tax bill." However, when the group will receive the money "is still a mystery," she said, adding, "We cannot proceed without the funds."
Arnold said, citing Berry-Quetel's objections, "We're in kind of limbo. We have tried to work with her, changing the plans." Monday's meeting, she said, "is to find out how the residents around the park and on the North Side really feel."
Chandler said the group will be "seeking support to go ahead — to procure the plantings grant and proceed."
According to Arnold, "We are looking for community consensus" at the meeting. If that turns out not to be possible, she said, "we'll try to find another place."
The meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. Anyone who cannot attend but would like to express a viewpoint is asked to send written comments by mail to the Northside Civic Organization, PO Box 308533, St. Thomas VI 00803, or by fax to 777-9801.
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