Grand Avenue Park: The Heart of the Community for Nearly a Century

September 24, 2020, Feature, by Paula Jacoby-Garrett

2020 October NRPA Virtual Grand Avenue Park 410

For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

It was the 1920s and Orlando was experiencing an unprecedented population boom, nearly tripling its population, when Florida architect Howard M. Reynolds designed a pair of identical schools for the area to meet the growing demand. The schools’ design incorporated Mediterranean Revival architecture with arched entries, columns, tile-clad gable roofs and stucco walls. Inside, the classrooms were designed with high ceilings to maximize air circulation for the hot Florida climate. One of these schools, the Grand Avenue Elementary School, provided a learning environment for students in the local Holden Heights community for more than 90 years. In 1995, the school was designated as a city of Orlando Historic Landmark due to its architectural significance. 

In a shift to consolidate students into larger, more modern facilities, the elementary school was closed in 2017. Through a land swap, the city of Orlando traded land to the local Orange County School District for the 13-acre Grand Avenue school and park. The Orange County School District created the Academic Center for Excellence on its newly acquired parcel for pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students. 

The Grand Avenue Elementary School was repurposed as a community/recreation center, but wear and tear had put a toll on the aging building. On October 8, 2018, the city of Orlando approved a design/pre-construction agreement with Gilbane Building Company for renovation of the center. Plans were created that included improvements to the building and associated site, including a new gymnasium, a pottery studio, an associated gallery and a storage building. The planned remodel of about 30,000 square feet includes updates and a renewal of the existing building. An additional 40,000 square feet will be added to the facility’s overall size to provide for more programming space. On August 10, 2020, the Gilbane Building Company construction agreement was approved at the Orlando City Council Meeting. Construction has begun, and the project is expected to be completed in 2021. 

This year’s NRPA Parks Build Community project includes updates to the Grand Avenue Park facilities alongside the renovations to the recreation center to create a revitalized, vibrant neighborhood park for the local community. Each year, NRPA selects a high-need area in the city where the NRPA Annual Conference is held, to build or renovate a park. NRPA has worked closely with the city of Orlando’s Families, Parks and Recreation Department to create a dynamic, all-encompassing plan for the park that meets the needs of the local community.

“The city of Orlando would like to thank the National Recreation and Park Association and their generous donors for supporting the 2020 Parks Build Community project at Grand Avenue Park,” says Lisa Early, director of the city of Orlando Department of Families, Parks and Recreation. The generosity has added tremendously to the park project and allowed for equipment and facilities to be installed that otherwise would not, due to cost constraints. “These in-kind equipment and service donations total [more than] $450,000.”

Amenities for the park will include age-specific playgrounds with new, engaging, developmentally appropriate equipment. Included in the park will be accessible fitness equipment stations with shade coverings, outdoor nature-themed musical instruments, park benches, picnic tables, game tables, drinking fountains, grilles and waste cans. Sports furniture, such as bleachers, batting cages and goals for soccer, lacrosse and basketball, will provide recreational sport opportunities for children of all ages. Outdoor lighting is included for evening sports and community events, as well as an outdoor movie screen for movie nights in the park.

Groundbreaking for the new Grand Avenue Neighborhood Center took place on Thursday, July 16, 2020. In attendance were local officials, the city of Orlando Department of Families, Parks and Recreation personnel, as well as community residents and stakeholders. In attendance was Bakari F. Burns, commissioner, District 6, city of Orlando, who conveyed his enthusiasm for the project. “By providing new services in Holden Heights and having a venue for community programs, this facility will strengthen the fabric of our neighborhood, teach our children well, and prepare them to lead the way, but most of all, it will give them a sense of pride,” he stated during the event.

Existing programs will continue to be located at the center but will be expanded. For example, the Parramore Kidz Zone provides early childhood education and after-school programs centered toward creating thriving, healthy adults. “I’m excited for the community to see the expansion of the Parramore Kids Zone and all the opportunities that Holden Heights now will have here at this center,” said Regina I. Hill, commissioner, District 5, city of Orlando, at the recent groundbreaking event. “It’s quite amazing.”

For Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, it’s about the people and their surrounding neighborhood. “Redeveloping Grand Avenue is part of our efforts to invest in city neighborhoods by providing residents with amenities and programs to help them thrive,” he said at the groundbreaking event. “I look forward to having children’s laughter once again fill these historic halls as we return Grand Avenue to a place of compassion and support for the community.”

For more information about the 2020 Parks Build Community project and how you can be involved, contact Gina Mullins-Cohen, NRPA’s vice president of communications and chief marketing officer.

The 2020 Parks Build Donors Include:

Paula M. Jacoby-Garrett is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas, Nevada.