Unity Park

July 21, 2022, Feature, by Tara Eaker and Leslie Fletcher

august 2022 feature unity park 410

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A park in Greenville, South Carolina, incorporates history to foster community

On May 19, hundreds of people gathered on an unseasonably hot morning to celebrate the opening of Unity Park, the latest jewel on an emerald necklace of signature parks along the Reedy River in Greenville, South Carolina. A century in the making, the 60-acre park pays homage to the legacies of the two historic neighborhoods surrounding it — Southernside and West Greenville — where residents describe a painful history of segregation, as the land once served as a buffer between the predominantly white downtown and the Black communities.

In 1924, after voters approved a $110,000 bond referendum to build a 120-acre park across town, City of Greenville paid $15,000 for 15 acres of marshy meadowland in the Southernside neighborhood to build a park for Black children, who were not allowed to play in the segregated parks elsewhere in the city. Those 15 acres became Mayberry Park, which opened in 1925. A few years later, the city committed additional funds for an athletic field with bleachers and playground equipment.

In 1938, Mayberry Park’s accessible space shrank when the city leased half of the land inside the park to a Baltimore businessman at no cost to build Meadowbrook Park for an all-white minor league team. Not long after, more land was taken for stadium parking and to extend left field.

In 1939, Reverend Elias Holloway, the first African American postman in Greenville and an outspoken community leader and civil rights activist, wrote a letter to the Greenville Piedmont newspaper saying in part, “The Negroes of this city have been seeking for some time for an outlet for the surplus energy of their boys and girls, also for people in general. We want the park because our social and recreational life is at stake. Please give us a park.” Holloway’s request wouldn’t be granted for 83 years.

Bringing Play Equity to Greenville

In 2004, at the urging of the late Tom Keith, the landscape architect for Greenville’s Falls Park, Mayor Knox White began the process of creating a park that was originally recommended in 1907 by renowned Boston architect, Harlan Kelsey.

In October 2012, after many years of planning, the city hired Jeff Waters, a landscape architect, to oversee the development of what would be the first iteration of Unity Park. At the time, the city owned approximately 25 flood-prone acres in the area, which included its sprawling Public Works campus.

“Our initial focus was only on the land that the city already owned, and the challenges were significant,” recalls Waters. “The site was a historical brownfield (land previously used for industrial purposes), was partially located in the floodplain and was bisected by a river that had been straightened in the 1930s to allow for rail lines on both sides.”

Working with a consulting firm, the city hosted a series of community workshops where residents of the nearby neighborhoods could share their ideas and suggestions for the new park. According to Waters, the residents’ vision for the new park always included keeping the existing ballfield, the last remnant of Mayberry Park.

Lillian Flemming, Greenville’s longest-serving City Council member, who grew up in Southernside and whose mother, Lila Mae Brock, is memorialized with a bronze sculpture near the park, remembers those first meetings and how important it was to residents that the area’s history be incorporated into the park.

“We grew up playing in this area — skating down Nassau Hill, catching fireflies and making our own toys out of whatever was around,” remembers Flemming. “So, we felt very strongly that the emphasis of the new park should be on children and play.”

As the public engagement activities continued, the city began acquiring property in the area and in 2014, the relocation of the city’s Public Works operations removed one of the final obstacles standing in the way of the park’s development.

Meanwhile, the city wasn’t the only one buying property. “Even before there was an approved park plan, people began buying property along the edge of the park site,” says Mayor White.

In 2016, in response to increasing development interest and concerns about gentrification, the city established the Reedy River Redevelopment Area, which included the park site, as well as surrounding areas. Consulting firm MKSK was hired to design a signature park, complemented by an affordable housing strategy and form-based code to guide future development. The city also established a citizen advisory committee to help guide the project.

The city again engaged the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, who worked closely with the project team over the next three years to develop the master plan for the park. Mary Duckett, another longtime resident and president of the Southernside neighborhood association, smiles when she describes students from AJ Whittenberg Elementary and St. Anthony Catholic School drawing what they wanted to see in the new park.

“They were so smart and kept building on each other’s ideas for what they wanted to see in the park,” says Duckett. “That’s one of the reasons why my favorite part of the park is the playground area.”

During this time, local entrepreneurs purchased and began renovating a row of dilapidated warehouses that sat in the middle of the park site. The 90,000-square-foot development, called The Commons — which features a food hall, brewery, shops and offices — opened shortly before park construction began in 2020.

The $66 million park budget included planning, design, property acquisition, construction and utility undergrounding. It was funded through hospitality taxes, utility undergrounding funds and stormwater funds. The city also hired a local public relations firm to oversee corporate and private fundraising efforts, which resulted in more than $12 million in private donations.

“When a promising vision is put forward, we are fortunate to have local leaders that will unite behind goals that serve the common good,” says White. “There is a certain pride in the fact that a community of this size has been able to accomplish so much in Greenville.”

Phase One

The first phase of the project involved restoration of the half-mile section of the Reedy River that bisects the park. New, gently-sloping riverbanks were created to enhance water quality, reduce erosion and mitigate the potential for flooding — a persistent issue for decades in this area. Additionally, native understory plants and trees were added to help stabilize the banks, filter sediment and pollutants, and provide wildlife habitat.

Though some strategic tree removal was necessary, it was offset by the addition of nearly 750 trees planted throughout the park to re-establish the tree canopy and provide habitat, shade and visual interest.

According to Waters, to complement this strategic work, tons of dirt were removed from the park site and replaced with soil containing a higher percentage of sand to encourage drainage. Bioswales installed in the large parking area also help capture runoff. “It’s what you don’t see that brings the biggest sense of accomplishment,” says Waters. “We created a state-of-the-art drainage system to reduce excess runoff, remove pollutants and help mitigate flooding.”

Along with environmental protection, connectivity was a critical component of the park’s design. Since the park straddles the Reedy River, there were opportunities to provide connectivity through an extension of the Swamp Rabbit Trail on the north side of the river and the addition of three unique pedestrian bridges. A network of five looped walking trails totaling 2.5 miles also was added.

A trail named for Elias Holloway connects the Southernside neighborhood to the park, creating a safe entry for pedestrians and cyclists. The trail features a structure with wind chimes and interpretive panels, providing park visitors the opportunity to learn about the history of the park and the people who envisioned it.

The Prisma Health Welcome Center, a 10,000-square-foot facility, sits adjacent to The Commons at the very center of Unity Park. The center includes restrooms, gallery space, a first-aid station and flexible event space, which can be reserved for private and community gatherings. Visitors can relax outside on the wraparound porch and enjoy views of the Reedy River and the Swamp Rabbit Trail that run alongside.

The park’s most anticipated feature, the Greenville Water Splash Pad, is a 5,000-square-foot deck featuring 39 jet heads and two spray zones — one for small children with smaller spray patterns, and a big kid zone with a spray pattern up to six feet in height. The splash deck is surrounded by a flagstone perimeter and a row of boulders, as well as curved wooden benches where parents can watch the fun.

The splash pad is just one of Unity Park’s four state-of-the-art playgrounds, which were designed for children of all ages and abilities. The 30,400-square-foot TD SYNNEX Playground for children ages 5 to 12 is about the size of three-and-a-half tennis courts and features several slides, rope climbing structures, boulder scrambles, balance logs and beams, and two lookout towers modeled after the old Southern Railway Train Station.

The 13,200-square-foot Donovan Playground features equipment designed for children ages 2 to 5 with musical components, natural wood play elements and four bucket swings — two with harnesses. The surface of the toddler play zone is artificial turf with a poured-in-place rubber ribbon pathway circulating through the area. The artificial turf meets both fall safety ratings and Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards. The 9,400-square-foot Ann Watson Trotter Memorial Garden equals the size of two basketball courts and includes swings, several natural play elements, a climbing wall and a storytelling circle. Natural wooden benches are placed strategically throughout.

The play area is highlighted by three large artificial turf-covered hills. The mounds were created with compacted earth, then covered with four inches of shotcrete. The final surface of the mounds was created using drainage matting underneath the artificial turf play surface. The mounds offer lookout towers and six slides, along with climbing ropes and a log “forest” on one mound, allowing children to push and pull themselves to the top. With the artificial turf on all sides, the mounds themselves provide imaginative play opportunities, including group slides and rolls.

Michelin Green, an expansive five-acre green space and part of the park’s green infrastructure, serves as the welcome center’s “front lawn.” Meadowbrook Green, named for the historic Meadowbrook Park, provides seven additional acres of green space and picnic tables and small groves of trees located along the river provide peaceful, shady gathering spots away from the activity at the playgrounds.

Looking Ahead

While the first phase of construction is complete, Unity Park is still a work in progress.

As part of a lead donation from BMW Manufacturing, four acres of urban wetlands located on the park site will be restored and maintained. The project will include the Duke Energy Outdoor Classroom, which will serve as an opportunity to educate the public about the important environmental contribution of wetlands and the need to preserve them.

Additional planned future phases of Unity Park include basketball courts and the historic baseball field located on the site of the former Mayberry Park. An observation tower will be constructed in one of the few locations of high ground, south of the Reedy River. The tower will pay homage to first responders, including police officers, firefighters and military personnel. It will become an accessible, unique vantage point for Unity Park, offering visitors an elevated, panoramic view of the downtown skyline to the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west.

One of the many things that set Unity Park apart is the fact that the project also includes the creation of affordable housing on almost nine acres of land donated by the city. Located on the outskirts of the park in the Southernside neighborhood, the property will eventually feature 500 new units of affordable housing, making it the largest concentration of affordable housing in the city.

Duckett has a photo of a rainbow spanning the river in the park that was taken the day before the park opened. “I think this is what heaven looks like,” she says, pointing to the photo. “This park is about embracing one another and learning from each other, and it’s about a community coming together to create a place where everyone is welcome.”

Tara Eaker is Deputy Director for City of Greenville Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Leslie Fletcher is Public Engagement Manager for City of Greenville Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.