Charleston loves a party, and yesterday we threw one for the ages: About 18 months after it was closed, Colonial Lake, a true icon of Charleston, was officially reopened with a celebration that will not be forgotten soon. Even the splendors of the 40th Spoleto Festival could not outshine the glory of Colonial Lake reborn.
The $5.9 million revival of Colonial Lake — financed mainly with tourism and hospitality taxes and $1.5 million raised privately by the Charleston Parks Conservancy — has produced a stunning public space that is already attracting kids with cast nets and all the rest of us to ogle the wonders of the flower beds planted by an army of volunteers.
Colonial Lake is such a magnificent success we should do it again. And Hampstead Mall should be next.
Even Charlestonians who know the city well don’t know Hampstead Mall by name, if they know it at all, and certainly don’t know that it is the city’s oldest park — older than Hampton Park, Marion Square or Colonial Lake. It is the park that time and the city forgot.
Located at the intersection of Columbus and America streets on the Eastside, Hampstead Mall is a jewel in the rough, waiting to be reclaimed. It dates to 1769 when Henry Laurens — Revolutionary war patriot, rice planter and financier of the slave trade — created Hampstead Village, patterned on London borough of the same name.
Originally planned as a suburb for wealthy planters who wanted to escape the grime of the city, Hampstead Village was started and burned during the Revolution and the public square was occupied by the military in the War of 1812.
Only when the British were finally persuaded to take no for an answer was Hampstead Village built out as a working-class neighborhood of whites and blacks.
Over the years the four-acre Hampstead Mall was cut in half first by Columbus Street and then by America Street, leaving the four quadrants we have now.
If once designed for wealthy planters, the message of the park today is unmistakable: Poor people live here, and we don’t care.
The magnificent oaks remain, and a handsome statute of Philip Simmons, Charleston’s most storied ironsmith, is in the center of one square, but all around there is neglect. One square is surrounded by a locked six-foot chain-link fence and sign that says “No Dogs Allowed, Violators Will Be Prosecuted.”
In the other squares, large areas have no grass. There are no plantings. The playground equipment is dated.
Maybe worst of all:
The park is largely empty.
We must do better.
To get a conversation started, I recruited Jenny Bevan and Christopher Liberatos, a husband and wife team who run Bevan & Liberatos, a Charleston firm that specializes in modern traditional architectural design and planning, and we’ve put together a plan to remake Hampstead Mall. We want to hear your ideas.
That’s right, our plan for the park starts with building housing and some retail space, not on the park, but on the vacant and under-utilized edges.
Because the peninsula desperately needs affordable housing, and more people living in the neighborhood will bring more activity to a better defined park.
The housing will also help finance the park improvements. Just across the street is Fraser Elementary, which was built in the era of segregation and has been empty for years.
With the school district bleeding money, the county doesn’t need the maintenance bill and should sell it for $1 for development and an agreement to build mixed-income and workforce housing and contribute to remaking the park.
In addition, Trident Tech should consider turning a portion of its surface parking lots into housing along the park’s edge, bringing still more people and activity to the district.
Trident could also use some of the new space for its own needs. But where are the students to park if you build on the parking lots?
We knew you would ask that. Rather than the surface parking lots, we should build a parking deck to be shared by Trident and the now-thriving Cigar Factory, which is going to need more parking.
Trident’s lots are empty on the weekend, a good place to provide for the needs of Friendship Baptist Church, which currently uses the fenced-off park square on Sundays.
“This is a really beautiful space, and the bones of a great park are right there,” says Harry Lesesne, the executive director of the Charleston Parks Conservancy, which in less than a decade has become a city treasure. “It is crying out for a really good plan and a really big investment. You ought to be thinking big.”
Start with what the Conservancy does so well: grass, flowers and updated playground equipment. Then make it a destination, not a crossroad on the way to someplace else.
Once upon a time, William Pitt the Elder stood on a pedestal at the center of Meeting and Broad streets. Building on the heritage of the Eastside, put Philip Simmons on a pedestal at the center of the park, the intersection of America and Columbus. He will announce to all that they are at a place that matters — and slow down traffic while he is at it. Unify the park by carrying the Simmons legacy across all four squares, using his graceful style in fences, gates, bike racks and the like. Put up a map to his house and forge that still stand a block away. Gateway banners over Columbus Street on either end of Hampstead Mall will welcome all.
Provide more uses for more people.
No one would be happier than Franciscan Sister Maigread Conway, who cared for the poor for more than 30 years, if we expanded the fountain dedicated to her into a smaller version of the one at Riley Waterfront Park, allowing kids to cool off on hot days.
The Trident Test Kitchen, a cafe operated by the students of the school’s top-notch Culinary Institute in the new retail space. Have breakfast or lunch in the diner or out on a table on one of the squares.
One square could have room for events such as a farmers market or craft shows. Neighborhood churches could use it for weddings and other events. You could throw a Frisbee out there.
The odds are stacked against any of this happening, of course. Some will see it as an engine of gentrification, forcing the poor out of the neighborhood. Other projects will be competing for money and attention, including plans to replace DeReef Park at Morris and Smith streets, the proposed Lowline project down the center of the peninsula and yet another proposed park on the U-Haul site on King Street.
But there are compelling reasons, too, that Hampstead Mall should be at the front of the line, not the back of the bus. At this moment when we are daily debating the balance between tourists and residents — them vs. us — Hampstead Mall is all about us.
This is a park for the locals in the most underserved section of the city. And it is the locals — black and white — who are getting cheated by the neglect, the disinvestment, that has gone on here for too long.
Now it’s your turn. How would you fix Hampstead Mall?
Steve Bailey is a former Boston Globe columnist who has returned to his hometown. He can be reached at email@example.com.