FINLAY PARK

FINLAY PARK: What happened to my park?

ccope@thestate.comOctober 11, 2013 

— A pair of white and grey socks rested on the back of a bench near the bronze statue of Columbia’s former mayor Kirkman Finlay in the park named after him.

Maybe the socks were laid there to air out. Maybe they belonged to one of the two guys sleeping on the ground yards away.

A few minutes later, a park worker used a grabber he also used to pick up litter to throw the socks away.

Oblivious to the socks, the statue stared out across the park often called a gem in Columbia but so worn around the edges that some residents say the city has simply neglected it.

Red dirt, not grass or shrubbery, surrounds much of the upper tiers of the park’s signature fountain. Large swaths of black landscaping plastic, not greenery, cover the banks of the fountain’s hill. The paint on the playground equipment has long been badly faded. And the railings throughout the park are rusty and in some places, rickety.

Livingston Truluck, a resident in Governor’s Hill whose home overlooks the 18-acre park, thinks the park is beautiful.

He is proud of the park that is, literally, in his backyard.

“It really is a jewel – a diamond – that needs to be polished off,” Truluck said.

During prom season, limos line up for students to take photos by the fountain, with Columbia’s skyline as the backdrop, Truluck said.

“This is the shot,” he said.

But to make the park more photogenic and accessible, Finlay Park needs to be landscaped and groomed, he said.

The wear and tear on the park is something you can look at and see, he said.

“They’re running down the aesthetics of the park by over-utilizing it” for events like large concerts and car shows, he said.

Finlay Park needs to be more of a park instead of a venue, he said.

The grass has been beat down because vehicles drive over it and sand has been brought in for low-lying areas, he said.

A JEWEL THAT NEEDS POLISHED

Jeff Caton, the city’s director of parks and recreation, realizes improvements need to be made.

The old playground equipment desperately needs to be replaced, Caton said.

The water feature, including the fountain and its cascading water, is in significant need of repair, and there is water loss. The pond, not far from the fountain, has problems with its liner, Caton said.

The water feature has always been a challenge, said former city councilwoman Anne Sinclair, who was elected when plans for the park had already been set and shortly before it was under construction in the late 1980s.

Other problems include the retaining walls, which are not performing the way they should, Caton said. In fact, one retaining wall failed because of the summer’s heavy rains.

Some park walls were originally supposed to be walls of flowers, Sinclair said.

“You weren’t supposed to see the block, you were supposed to see plants,” she said.

The railing throughout the park should also be replaced and redesigned, Caton said, and the restrooms are used too often for resources to keep them up, he said.

But improvements for Finlay Park may be on the horizon.

“Right now we are laying the groundwork of presenting to council the option of renovating the park,” Caton said.

He said he hoped to have the paperwork done this week and anticipated it could come before City Council within the next few meetings, but he said that is up to the city manager.

Neighbors have been waiting for years to hear something could change at Finlay Park to make it the gem of Columbia that the city boasts about.

“It’s probably time to take a real hard look and say, ‘What can we do to make it really work like it’s supposed to work?’” Sinclair said.

A HISTORICAL PARK

The park has had three eras and twice has been named for prominent political leaders in Columbia.

In the late 1840s, Columbia City Council member Algernon Sidney Johnston oversaw the building of the park, said John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for the Historic Columbia Foundation.

During the Civil War, the park was used for temporary housing for refugees who had lost their property during the burning of Columbia, Sherrer said.

After the war, the park was considered a retreat and was a hot spot to go to, Sherrer said.

In the late 1890s, the city sold the property to Seaboard Airline Railroad, and the area became an industrial district, he said.

Columbia residents lamented that the city no longer had a large park downtown, he said.

“Many people saw it as this wonderful pastoral setting being transformed into an eyesore,” Sherrer said.

The park served as an industrial and commercial area for about 90 years, he said.

Then Columbia took back its park.

In the late 1980s, the green space became the city’s first step toward reclaiming the old industrial warehouse district and turning it into what is now the Vista.

Mayor Kirkman Finlay saw the park as an opportunity to introduce a much-needed green space into the center of the city and vowed to restore the park to its original use.

MANAGING A SMALL BUDGET

Finlay Park is considered the iconic park of Columbia’s 60-park system, Caton said.

Another South Carolina city with an iconic park is Greenville, with its new Falls Park.

Falls Park, which has cascading waterfalls and a pedestrian bridge, has a budget for taking care of the park, said Jordan Franklin, the park’s garden manager.

The Greenville park is successful because there is a lot to do near the park, Franklin said. People can walk to the shops, restaurants and businesses in downtown Greenville before or after a trip to the park, he said.

Caton said the linear design of Falls Park doesn’t have the opportunity for large gatherings that Finlay Park has.

Columbia’s park system also has many neighborhood-based parks, Caton said.

Karen Montmeny, who lives near the Hampton Hills neighborhood and has four children, said she almost never goes to Finlay Park because Woodlands Park is within walking distance.

There aren’t very good spots for parents to sit at Finlay Park, she said.

“It didn’t strike me as being an especially comfortable place,” she said.

While Columbia’s park system has grown, the city’s park operational resources, including staff, have not expanded at the same ratio, Caton said.

As a result, “there is a lot of activity that takes place specifically in Finlay Park that is not managed,” Caton said.

That includes the unscheduled groups that gather in the park such as family reunions, church groups and the groups that gather to feed the homeless, he said.

If all of a sudden 100 people are being fed, it’s like an event taking place without our knowledge, he said.

The trash bins and restrooms are not prepared for that, he said.

A few years ago, Finlay Park had a problem with drug deals, robberies and sexual activity.

But City Council took action and addressed that problem by adding a gate to the top parking lot, so those issues are no longer a problem, Truluck said.

“The myth of the park now is it’s not a safe place – that’s the myth,” Truluck said. “Whereas the reality is that’s the old reputation.”

He said instead of shootings and drugs, the main problem at Finlay Park is people loitering, which dampens the family atmosphere of what a park should be, he said.

The homeless in the park also regularly deter those who live nearby, neighbors say.

“As a parent, I wouldn’t bring my kids here right now,” said Katie Spann, a resident of the nearby Arsenal Hill neighborhood. She doesn’t want to hear some of the comments made to her, she said.

Bob Wynn, the Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association president, said his wife and two grandchildren went to the park recently, and every single swing was either occupied by a homeless person or someone’s backpack.

“It’s a very uncomfortable place for families and children, which is not what it is supposed to be,” Wynn said.

A SPECIAL PARK

Finlay Park is a special park because of its different activities, Sinclair said.

Those activities include the summer concerts, walking trails, the playground and places to sit and enjoy the park, she said.

In the future, it also could house an $850,000 splash pad for children using the "Busted Plug" sculpture, created by artist Blue Sky, as its centerpiece. City Council is deciding whether – and exactly where – the city’s newly acquired sculpture might fit in when it has to be moved from Taylor Street near Palmetto Health Baptist hospital.

The sculpture could be part of the larger park renovation, Caton said.

And it might draw new groups of people, including more families, to the park.

Matt Kennell, the director of City Center Partnership, lived on Main Street for six months when his children were younger. He said Finlay Park was a great resource for his family.

Kennell, who has a background in urban planning, said the park benefits from housing that overlooks the park and surrounding businesses, and the nearby library and post office.

“It’s a knock-your-socks-off, designed public downtown park,” Kennell said.

SIGNS OF DECAY

Dirt or mud instead of landscaping in many areas

Large areas of exposed landscaping plastic

Leaking water features

Old playground equipment with badly faded paint

Badly rusted and, in some places, loose railings

Bathrooms that aren’t properly maintained

Incidents reported in Finlay Park

A breakdown of incidents in Finlay Park from 2008 through mid-August 2013.

200820102013
Criminal sexual conduct001
Robbery100
Aggravated assault020
Autobreak-in200
Larceny130
Simple assault210
Drug offense003
Weapons violation100
Vandalism031
Loitering437
Disorderly conduct222
Drunkeness202
Liquor law violations719
Trespassing100
Other721
Total301726

SOURCE: Columbia Police Department

Reach Cope at 803-771-8657 or on Twitter @cassielcope.

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