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Great Urban parks - Unbounded Visions
Lee Walton

In a recent Commentary by Governor Sanford published in the Palter & Chatter on Sunday, April 2nd, he challenged each of us to share his "once in a lifetime" vision to create a world-class park of tomorrow on the southern tip of Daniel Island - a park to challenge "…the great parks in the great cities of the world." Governor Sanford then offers two constants shared by each of the world's great venues: They enhance value of the surrounding community, and quality-of-life is geometrically enhanced by the open space in urban environments. Respectfully, there are two additional constants of equal importance - great parks of the world and many smaller, but as equally cherished, parks in our own region and city are unbounded by physical barriers or time. Their physical boundaries are those of the public realm - streets, boulevards, waterfronts and other public spaces. Their timelessness is their ability to remain useful, desirable and meaningful to successive generations of urban dwellers and occasional visitors alike.

Excellent examples of the unbounded characteristics of space and time vary from the greatness of Central Park and the Washington Mall to the uniqueness of the colonial squares and divided boulevards of Historic Savannah. In Charleston, four of our own well known urban parks also share the constants of unbounded space and time - Hampton Park, White Point Gardens, Colonial Lake and Marion Square each are surrounded by open borders to the public realm.

The lower Charleston peninsula is fortunate to have two urban parks with ample open space that clearly demonstrate the benefits of having all boundaries within the public realm. Both Colonial Lake and Marion Square each occupy complete city blocks bounded by unfettered access from adjacent public streets. Their borders are open to all without walls or incompatible adjacent land uses that chill or intimidate visitors. Each of these urban parks also has sufficient area to assimilate a reasonable number of visitors as each seeks their own enjoyment. But there are physical limits to the carrying capacity of these parks beyond which an enjoyable outing becomes a noisy, overcrowded, ever trashy experience.

Marion Square is now overburdened by a frequent "tent city" atmosphere from a steady stream of events and festivals that wear down the very grass of its openness. With no public restrooms (designed, but deleted to save costs during its recent revitalization), rows of port-a-potties along Calhoun Street now offend the sensibilities and noses of all comers. The recent new Ravenel Bridge Run simply overwhelmed the carrying capacity of this beautiful park and surrounding streets. Even the race organizers publicly expressed their displeasure about the overcrowding, mounds of trash and resulting confusion.

Charleston can, and must do better on Daniel Island and also within the Lower Peninsula. Clearly there is ample demand to create another large urban park with sufficient open space to prevent the over use and shop-worn appearance of Marion Square caused by a relentless stream of destructive, overcrowded events. There is still a viable option that could provide another large, boundless urban park that will quickly create the three intrinsic constants of value, quality-of-life and timelessness, which flow from open space free from incompatible borders.

Ansonborough Field, or Concord Park as J. "Pericles" Riley now prefers it to be called, offers that same "once in a lifetime chance" for the peninsula that Governor Sanford envisions on Daniel Island. The utilization of all eleven acres of Ansonborough Field, bounded totally by the public realm, still offers that "once in a lifetime chance" to construct another badly needed urban park and recreational venue for the timeless benefit of Eastside Neighborhoods in particular and greater Charleston in general. But this fleeting chance will take a leader with altruistic vision to become a reality. One like former Mayor Kirkman Finlay of Columbia who had a vision to turn an underutilized piece of old railroad yard into a centerpiece of vibrant urban green space. The key to Finlay's vision and strategy was consistency - maintaining the necessary ethics a leader needs to develop a vision and convince others of its timeless benefits. Although he would loose a valiant battle to cancer, his vision survived. Columbia built Finlay Park as a tribute to one man's ceaseless courage and as his enduring gift to the people of Columbia.

The citizens of Charleston deserve better than another "good-old-boy deal", high-end condominium and trendy commercial project on Ansonborough Field targeted to the part-time resident "from off" and the tourist tax dollar. If Charleston cannot replace the truly affordable, work force housing that once existed on Ansonborough Field as a meaningful hedge against gentrification, then do the next best thing - keep this last large piece of valuable publicly owned property in the public realm. Build a much needed urban park that enhances value within the surrounding neighborhoods, enhances the quality-of-life for all who will enjoy its openness and tranquility, creates a timeless attraction to generations yet unborn, and, lastly, remains unbounded by incompatible, five story concrete barriers of commercial and residential uses. Charleston still has this "once in a lifetime chance"; all we need is an unselfish, leader with vision and courage like Columbia's late Mayor Finlay.

Over three decades ago (May 2, 1975) an editorial in the Palter & Chatter's more noble namesake expressed "The Need For Open Space" in which one of its more visionary editors stated "… a valid case can be made for some kind of requirement for the provision of adequate open space to temper the inevitable congestions of development. Without open space, city dwellers find relief in street activities that frequently takes the shape of crime..." but with open space, there is "the happy results of giving elbow room in a crowded community." It's difficult to believe that today's Palter & Chatter has fallen victim to the pressures of greed, self-satisfaction, immediate gratification and raw political power now exerted over it by Charleston's own "Pericles" as he rushes headlong to construct his modern-day Acropolis.

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