IN THE MIDLANDS

The dinosaurs stay! Forest Acres‘ parks system makeover almost done

dhinshaw@thestate.com April 17, 2014 

These beautiful spring mornings, friends with pre-schoolers meet at Forest Acres’ Citadel Park because of the protective mat surrounding the playground equipment.

“When they fall down, they don’t get skinned up,” said Patterson Graham, father of a 3-year-old.

Known as “the dinosaur park” because of the historic presence of two plastic T. rexes on springs, Citadel Park has always been a popular gathering spot.

But a little over a year ago, the city finished an update that has made the park so much more appealing that officials are returning now to double the street-side parking spaces from 15 to 31.

Over the past decade, the suburban Forest Acres City Council has devoted about $821,500 to improving three of its four city parks using revenues from its share of a countywide tax on restaurant meals.

The city installed new playground equipment at Citadel, walking trails at Quinine Hill and decorative lighting at Idalia Park.

The three-park makeover leaves Pinetree Park the last in line for improvements that Mayor Frank Brunson said should get done this year.

Brunson said what inspired park renovations a decade ago was the need to get outdated and unsafe playground equipment out of the parks.

But there was one thing residents were unwilling to compromise on.

The dinosaurs had to stay.

Slow, steady progress

Ellen Purvis, whose Hansford Avenue home overlooks Idalia Park, said the “tot lot” and picnic area off Forest Drive used to be dark and neglected.

City crews came by once or twice a year to tend to the park, so she and her husband cut the grass. Neighbors picked up trash and debris.

Purvis said she filled out at least three city-sponsored surveys and attended council meetings to try to stay on top of plans for the park, but became frustrated at the pace.

She’s especially pleased that decorative lighting was added, making the park feel safer at night. A dozen trees were planted, along with beautiful rye grass – the first winter, at least.

And now, the city regularly maintains the park on a regular basis – a “wonderful” change.

“Overall,” she said, “it’s good.”

Two rundown houses recently have been replaced with big new homes and Purvis expects another to come down soon as the neighborhood attracts younger families.

Councilman Curt Rye said it might be a stretch to say better parks were the reason for the transition.

Still, he said, city parks have gone from being “close to an eyesore” to pleasant neighborhood spaces, each maintaining their own character.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done and would like to see it finished,” he said.

The first to be addressed was Quinine Hill Park, nearly two acres off Beltline Boulevard and Forest Drive. It was completed in January 2009 after the council rejected a proposal for tennis courts there.

Citadel and Idalia parks followed in January 2013.

Rye said the council would not have taken on the work without the new revenue stream – the meal tax, collected starting in June 2003. The tax generated $935,742 for Forest Acres last year alone.

Though the practice is frowned upon by the hospitality industry, the city has been using those revenues, dedicated to stimulating tourism, to fix up its parks. It also devotes $50,000 to $60,000 each year to park maintenance, Administrator Mark Williams said.

Pinetree Park next

City Council members agree with residents that the upgrades have been painfully slow, in part because changes to streets for dedicated parking have required the blessing of the state highway department.

Three residents who live near the city’s fourth and final park to be addressed, Pinetree Park, showed up at this month’s City Council meeting.

John Chamberlain and neighbors Michael Graf and Robin O’Neil said the city needs to fix erosion and make the park more appealing.

“The problem is it’s been neglected,” Chamberlain said.

The council had on its agenda approval of a $5,500 bid for Brown Tree Service to cut down 20 of the 69 trees within the park and prune another 40. The bid includes the cost of grinding stumps, too, assistant administrator Jake Broom said.

The city hired an arborist to examine the trees.

Andy Boone with DendroDiagnostics said the trees are in “a state of stress,” and removing those with structural defects and fungal problems will make the park safer. “My recommendation was to take out the ones that were hazardous, prune the others ... and do some replanting,” he said.

While most of the trees in the park are 50 to 60 years old, five of the pines in the park have reached the century mark, Boone said. Two of the five need to be cut down.

Williams said the work to thin the trees at Pinetree Park will be done soon.

The city has worked with landscape architects Grimball Cotterill & Associates to develop plans for all its parks, and Williams said the firm recommends “massive grading (and) retaining walls” to address erosion. He did not have an updated estimate last week.

Sand and leaves wash into the street and onto residents’ lawns. Tree roots are bare and exposed.

“We’ve struggled with it,” Williams said. “It’s been the hardest one to address.”

But that’s about to change.

Rye, who has been one of the council’s biggest park advocates, asked the three residents to help the council gauge what residents want at Pinetree Park. Because it’s just two blocks from the city’s signature playground at Citadel Park, he doesn’t see adding equipment.

Its only amenities are two picnic tables.

“It would be nice to go in there, do some landscaping,” Rye said. “Maybe even define some parking and eliminate the urge for people to park up in the park.”

A popular park

Amy Grossberg said when her family was house hunting three years ago, Citadel Park was a big selling point. Turns out they chose well; Grossberg said her family uses the park just about every day.

She has noticed a group of women who meet in the park each Wednesday for an early-morning workout.

Parents host birthday parties on weekends – lots of birthday parties.

And on Halloween, the entire neighborhood comes together at Citadel Park for an appetizer-and-dessert potluck before trick or treating.

Citadel Park is so popular that, sometimes, Amy Grossberg has a hard time pulling out of her driveway.

Still, that doesn’t quell her affection for her neighborhood park.

“Parking is an issue,” she said, “but we love it.”

Neighborhood parks in Forest Acres

In the past decade, the suburban city of Forest Acres has devoted $821,500 to updating its neighborhood parks. Officials expect to address the fourth and final park, Pinetree Park, this year.

Citadel Park: The city’s signature playground, at 4941 Citadel Ave., off Trenholm Road not far from Forest Drive

Idalia Park: A neighborhood green space with a ‘tot lot’ at Idalia and Hansford avenues

Pinetree Park: A shady green space with picnic tables, not far from Citadel Park

Quinine Hill Park: The city’s largest park, at nearly two acres, at 2312 N. Beltline Blvd. It has shredded rubberized walking trails, playground, arbor swings and picnic areas.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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