There were high hopes for progress on Unity Park just before the coronavirus abruptly shut down the city of Greenville.
Like everything else this time last year, activity ground to a halt. The fear was a collapse of funding. But by summer it became clear the economic impact of the shutdown would not threaten the city’s ability to pay for the $60 million project, which charts downtown’s expansion westward on 60 long-neglected acres. Dirt began to move again.
Now, the city remains more or less on the pace it set after recovering from the pause in construction — an opening of spring 2022. What, for more than a century, was only a concept is now plainly visible.
There are still crucial financial decisions to be made, with questions about how the ultimate vision for the park will be paid for and whether it will all come to fruition. Chief among the unresolved issues is the 10-story observation tower long promised as an iconic addition to the Greenville skyline and a beacon for the park lighting the night sky.
The plan is to pay for much of it with private donations. Currently, funding is projected to be about $4.3 million short — not enough to put its construction in doubt but sufficient to raise questions among City Council members about the financial ramifications.
There are other big-ticket items yet to come, such as the $2.8 million transformation of a wetlands area into a nature zone with educational opportunities, and a $2.75 million maintenance facility that city leaders say needs a different design and location.
And off in the distance looms the potentially lucrative redevelopment of about 10 acres of city-owned property bordering the southern side of the park.
Meanwhile, one of the most-consequential elements of the park project — the restoration of a half-mile section of the Reedy River to a more-natural state — is taking form.
A century in the making
For perspective, it is Greenville's most-ambitious civic project since the creation of Falls Park nearly two decades ago.
The Falls Park project, which became Greenville's postcard when it was finished in 2004, was the culmination of master plans for three parks developed way back in 1907 by acclaimed Boston landscape architect Harlan Kelsey.
The first, Cleveland Park, was built in 1926.
The third, what Kelsey then referred to as Hudson Athletic Fields, is now 114 years in the making.
City leaders say the Unity Park name is a reckoning with racial injustice in an area where not so long ago the government ignored the pleas of the historically Black community for improvements, then actively dismantled and disenfranchised their Southernside neighborhood.
The public works facility was there, creating a city junkyard and a source of toxic ooze into the river. The city built segregated Mayberry Park for Black people in 1920, then when a minor-league baseball team came calling, took half of the park back in 1938.
As an exodus to the suburbs began in the early 1970s, higher levels of government mapped a highway bypass through the heart of the area, removing homes and forcing residents out before the plan was scrapped.
As downtown began to come to life again two decades ago and it became clear its expansion would head westward, money began to move that way, too. The city quietly bought as much property as it could.
Five years ago, the intention to build Unity Park became a mainstream idea, more likely than ever before. It became the lynchpin of Mayor Knox White's vision for future growth.
Now, after consultation with neighborhood stakeholders that began with periodic community cookouts to introduce the idea, park plans press forward with the hope for revitalization and concern about the economic displacement that often comes with it.
On March 15, the City Council received a two-hour briefing on the status of the park as eyes are cast toward the next phase, which includes the tower.
The first phase of the Unity Park project is locked in financially — according to a presentation that included city staff, project consultant MKSK and contractor Harper Construction — with $48 million of its cost paid for by loans borrowed against hospitality tax proceeds.
Another $15 million will come from private donations and grants.
The city feared a steep drop in hospitality revenue. It implemented a 90-day "pause" on the project last spring. In the meantime, $250,000 in funds were diverted to provide "micro-grants" to aid ailing local businesses.
But despite the pandemic, the hospitality tax fund had a surplus rather than a deficit. The current budget initially held back funding for Unity Park but it was put back in before final approval.
The demolition work has been done on the 40 acres that the public works facility once covered before it made its $25.6 million move into a brand new facility a few years ago.
The development of the old row of warehouses along the river — The Commons — has signaled what's to come. The city is renovating an end piece it owns in the warehouse row into a visitor's center. The city also demolished warehouses across from the development to clear the path for the closing of Welborn Street to turn it into Welborn Square. It will become a children's playground area that will include a 3,500-square-foot expanse of "sprayground" sponsored by Greenville Water System.
When the park opens next spring, the playground and visitors center will be complete along with a 9-acre greenspace to be called Michelin Green after the company donated $1 million.
Connecting both sides of the park across the river will be a custom-made, 14-foot-wide pedestrian bridge. The Auro Bridge, named after the local hotel group that contributed $500,000, will cost $2 million. Two other pedestrian bridges will accompany it, and the foundations for all three are being poured now.
The Mayberry Park field, now in disrepair, will be fully renovated with a $500,000 donation from Greenville Drive owner Craig Brown and his wife, Vicki.
The Swamp Rabbit Trail will have a second, parallel stretch to provide a path along both sides of the river. Currently, the trail is detoured through the section of Unity Park construction.
The former Meadowbrook Park built during the Great Depression and burned down will be the setting for Meadowbrook Green. Eventually, that green is where the observation tower will stand — once it is funded.
The tower has been a salient image in presentations of the park from its inception. It has gone through conceptual changes, scaled down, then back up. The cost: $9 million, all paid for through private donation.
So far, the public relations firm tasked with raising that money and more, the Hughes Agency, has accounted for about half the construction cost of the tower either in pledged money or expected pledges.
Overall, the firm has secured $10.2 million in pledges for the park project, $3.4 million of it raised during the course of the pandemic, Hughes representative Bill Fox said.
The council has been asked to approve $590,000 in design costs for the tower. Fox said the agency needs more than the current conceptual drawings to sell to potential donors. However, council members questioned whether so much should be invested up front for a project that appears to be only halfway funded.
City Manager John McDonough said he would bring forth other options for how to move ahead out of concern that the up-front investment in design is too costly at this point.
The mayor said that the tower will be funded in some shape or form with a host of options, and moving forward on design is important because the process can take months.
"It'll be the symbol of the park," White said. "For most people who visit Greenville, it will probably be the reason they actually go to the park."
Restoring the Reedy
Another looming cost is also a high priority that relies on fundraising.
At the eastern corner of the park, where it meets a hill planned for affordable housing construction on city-donated land, a natural wetlands area exists.
Duke Energy donated $500,000 to help pay for a project to turn the wetlands into a preserved, educational experience complete with boardwalks and viewing areas. The total cost is $2.8 million. The expectation is that private donations will fund it.
“I see this as one of the priceless pieces of the park," City Councilwoman Dorothy Dowe said.
On the other side of the park along the north edge is a western wetland. It is in dire need of cleanup, MKSK consultant Darren Meyer said. There is potential for a $170,000 allocation for design work, but council members said the area would likely stay passive and did not see a need to design a project that might not be funded.
Feeding the wetlands, and serving as the centerpiece of the park, is the Reedy River. For more than a decade since the Swamp Rabbit Trail cut a path alongside it, the view of the river has been obscured by dense stands of trees.
During the Great Depression with the railroad passing through, the Reedy River was dug into a narrow channel that created steep banks and caused floodwaters to rise quickly without adequate room to accommodate rainfall.
It created large floods. Pictures of Meadowbrook Park show floodwaters surrounding the stadium. In February 2020, a flood forced emergency crews to rescue a person from the area of the Swamp Rabbit Crossfit gym.
Today, the riverbank is undergoing a stark transformation, bordered by boulders and becoming broader to allow a gradual accommodation of rainwater.
On north side of the river, masses of trees have been removed, leaving but a bare few. The removal is by design: For every tree removed, two more will be planted, and the majority of trees needed to go because they were considered invasive species. Later in the project, the same work will occur on the southern side.
New soil has been added, with a sandy makeup to improve filtration.
Similar work has been done where the river flows through Falls Park and most recently in Cleveland Park. When the Unity Park section is done, the stretch between it and Falls Park will be up for remediation, Public Works Director Mike Murphy said.
The Unity Park river work is being funded with $5 million from the city's stormwater fund.
Opportunities for development
Looking beyond the boundaries of the park, future development will focus both on affordable housing to the north and how best to maximize a stretch of formerly industrial land along Mayberry Street to the south.
In the years leading to the park's manifestation, the city quietly bought about 50 acres total, controlling much of the low-lying area's high ground. Last month, the city donated $8 million of that land to the Greenville Housing Fund, largely on a hill at the border overlooking the park.
The 6 acres total is set aside for workforce and senior housing, close to 400 units. Because it is city-owned, it is immune from one of the main impediments to affordable housing: land value.
To the south, city-owned land perched above Mayberry Street is set aside for broader-scale future development. Though plans aren't certain, the idea is to create a mixed-use development that would help fund the park, including potentially covering any shortfall in paying for the observation tower.
The city will also have to consider how it funds the park's operation, estimated to be $1.3 million or more annually.
“Going back to the original days of this park," White said, "we always thought that we could sell our property on the edge, and that’s how we would pay for a lot of the park, and that’s still a very valid idea."
Ideas for the Mayberry property include a hotel, retail stores, a medical center and a college campus in addition to more multifamily housing. A preliminary plan was drawn up by Savannah urban designer Christian Sottile.
The city will conduct a return-on-investment analysis for the property before presenting a proposal.
While that is under consideration, the city's staff will rethink the design and location of a new maintenance facility. The design is similar to the city's new parking headquarters on Rutherford Road, and White said that what works on that corridor isn't the same aesthetic for the park.
The facility was to be placed along Hudson Street. Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming said it would clutter the avenue that the city has worked hard to beautify.
“You have places to put something that would be substantial, but that’s not the place to put it," she said.