MH councilmen split over potential donation at Gravel Park

Addition of trees and playscape may carry complications, one official says

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 3, 2016


MADISON HEIGHTS — South off 13 Mile Road on Barrington Avenue, about 1 1/2 blocks down on the east side, there’s a quarter-acre plot of land called Gravel Park. It’s little known and seldom used, featuring a limited tree canopy decimated by the emerald ash borer, and no playscape since the prior one was removed and never replaced.

Wishing to inject some life into the place, the Madison Heights Men’s Club has decided to try and improve it. Club members approached the local Lowe’s hardware store and secured a donation of 12 trees to be planted there, plus the mulch and soil. Neighbors around Gravel Park are also interested in privately raising the local match for a state grant that could pay for the purchase and installation of a new playscape.

Mayor Brian Hartwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mark Bliss want to accept these gifts and let the neighbors enhance their local park, but City Councilman Robert Corbett cautions that it’s not so simple.

The discussion has yet to reach the council table — or the Parks and Recreation Commission, for that matter — but it’s already grown into a debate behind the scenes of what’s best for the parks.

The mayor appears exasperated that this is an issue, but Corbett says there’s due process being ignored, as well as feedback from past surveys that shows no citywide interest in Gravel Park. There’s also the possibility that the city may sell Gravel Park for development at some point in the future — an option the city considered under former City Manager Jon Austin during the Great Recession — in which case the charitable gifts from the neighbors, the Men’s Club and Lowe’s may be squandered. 

Corbett makes it clear that he appreciates the neighbors’ intent, and he sees value in pocket parks. But he’s also not sure Gravel Park is worth enhancing when compared to more popular venues like Civic Center Park and Huffman Park.

“There are 30-40 years of history to suggest this park is badly placed. The Gravel family was very generous in donating the property, but it’s kind of oddly located — it’s not central to anything. Gravel Park sits on a buffer between residential and an office block. So we have to ask ourselves: With park resources being a public asset, shouldn’t they be used where they benefit the most people? I support the idea of pocket parks, but I just think Gravel is a bad example since it’s so underutilized, and the public has consistently ignored it for decades,” Corbett said.

“And to me, really, this whole issue isn’t about Gravel Park. We have people here who are responsible to the community for stewardship and maintenance of the park system, for determining its priorities and allocating limited resources. They were completely ignored in this process. And while I absolutely appreciate the Men’s Club’s donation, we have to retain the right to evaluate its appropriateness for the community as a whole.”

The mayor said he feels the situation is being overcomplicated.

“First, the thought to sell Gravel Park (for development) is years old — an outdated policy from the time of the recession. Things have changed,” Hartwell said. “A private group of citizens wants something better from this park. Lowe’s has generously donated 12 shade trees for the Men’s Club to plant at this park. Sure, the city has spending priorities for parks, but it seems ungrateful to refuse a private donation from one of our largest businesses and one of our most active charitable groups.

“When these private residents approached me, demanding something better for their neighborhood and their kids, I thought, OK, we can plant these trees, but let’s respect that future development, so if the city wants to sell that land, the trees won’t have to be uprooted. The plan is to plant them on the western side of the park, which will leave room for houses if need be.”

Corbett notes two potential problems with this line of thinking: One, the park is already seldom used, so the families who have young children to use it now won’t have young children forever — soon the kids will grow up and move on. And two, planting trees on the west side of the park to accommodate possible housing developments only works if the development use is indeed housing. The reality is that Gravel Park could be sold and turned into any number of projects, including those that would require the donated trees to be cut down.

But the mayor feels it’s unlikely the land will ever be sold, especially now that the city’s budget has stabilized. And he feels that it’s better to accept the donation and let the neighbors enhance their neck of the woods, rather than taking the gift and using it elsewhere.

“My parents taught me that if I’m given a gift, I’m gracious and I say thank you; I don’t question the gift and say I want more or I want something different,” Hartwell said. “This is completely private, and these are private people trying to honor future development by planting the trees strategically.”

Bliss, the mayor pro tem, said he supports Hartwell on Gravel Park. While he acknowledges that the citywide parks and recreation survey indicated little to no interest in Gravel Park, he said that since then, the city has gained additional feedback from residents during the talks about Sunset Park, which Madison District Public Schools wanted to convert into housing.

During those talks, the public made it clear it wants two things, Bliss said: a pocket park in every neighborhood, and the ability to reach it without crossing a main road. And for the neighbors who live nearby, Gravel Park could accomplish just that.

“There is now a big push from the families in that neighborhood to be able to have a park with a playscape so they don’t have to cross the main road to go to Civic Center Park,” Bliss said. “There’s a lot of momentum from the neighborhood. So while there is momentum, I think we should capitalize on it. The Men’s Club have offered their time, and the trees are being donated by Lowe’s. It reminds me of the ‘Field of Dreams’ adage: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The least we can do, in my opinion, is help them along.”