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Council OKs $19 million Town Common plan

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Architect with MHAworks Albi McLawhorn discusses plans of the potential development of the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church Commemorative Tower with council members Thursday evening.

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Shannon Keith

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Greenville City Council on Thursday agreed to move forward on a long-term, $19 million plan for the development of the Town Common that includes a civic center, a living shoreline and a memorial bell tower.

The City Council unanimously approved a plan for the Town Common Phase 2 Design and Development project. Representatives from Rhodeside & Harwell Inc., a landscape architecture firm in Alexandria, Va., presented the council with the design concepts during Thursday’s meeting.

The project is part of the Town Common Master Plan, the city’s long-term plan for the development of the 25-acre park. RHI presented the council with design alternatives for the Town Common Phase 1 Design and Development in April.

Earlier this year, the city and design consultants from RHI held a series of public-input meetings where residents could provide suggestions for potential Town Common improvements and the city’s overall plan for the park. RHI based the Phase 1 and Phase 2 schematic design alternatives on input from the meetings.

“I think the work we are presenting tonight will be transformative,” RHI’s Elliot Rhodeside said. “Greenville is a great city and it deserves a great park ... we designed this park to be great.”

The design concepts presented Thursday included:

• A reconfigured parking concept along First Street to provide additional spaces;

• A kiosk for kayak and canoe rentals;

• Plans to relocate the park’s amphitheater to provide seating for 3,000-5,000 people;

• Public restroom facilities;

• Retail/vendor space along First Street;

• An interactive fountain that could be used as an ice skating rink during the winter;

• A 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot civic/community building with a catering/staging kitchen that could accommodate up to 300 people for events.

The design concepts also included plans to create a “living shoreline” along the Tar River. The current bulkhead, walkway and chain-link fence along the river would be removed, and the park’s land would gradually be graded to where it meets the water’s edge, Ron Sessoms, an urban designer with RHI, said.

“We wanted to draw on the history of the city and its tie to the river,” Sessoms said. ”We wanted to give people an opportunity to access the river in ways that do not currently exist ... people will be able to get out there and have a different experience at the river.”

Design alternatives for a Town Common memorial marking Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church’s original location on First and Greene streets also were discussed Thursday.

The church, founded about 1867, was first called the African Baptist Church and is one of the city’s oldest congregations. Members changed the church’s name to Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church in the 1880s. In 1917, a large brick church was completed at the corner of First and Greene streets.

As a result of the Shore Drive urban renewal project in the late 1960s, the church building was sold to the city’s Redevelopment Commission, and the congregation was forced to move to Eighth Street in 1968. In 1969, the old church building was destroyed by an arsonist.

Members of the congregation for years have advocated for the creation of a memorial to the church at the site. The church has been on Hooker Road since the 1990s.

Albi McLawhorn from Greenville-based architectural firm MHAworks discussed the designs that were based on input from members of the church’s congregation.

“People wanted the tower to have a sense of familiarity ... we heard that loud and clear,” McLawhorn said. “The importance of that church to the community that once was there needed to be incorporated into the design.”

Several council members commented on the bell tower design at Thursday’s meeting.

“We don’t have a landmark in this city,” District 3 Councilman McLean Godley said. “When people think of Greenville, they think of ECU ... and that’s great because we love our university. But that tower could be something iconic that pays tribute to the past.”

“People will come from all over to see this,” Mayor Allen Thomas said. “A catalyst like this could really set things off at the Town Common.”

Rhodeside said the estimated construction costs to implement the whole Town Common design plan would be about $19 million.

“There are a number of ways that the city could look at financing,” Rhodeside said. “There are a number of public-private partnerships opportunities here and the plan could also be implemented in stages.” 

The council approved the designs submitted by RHI and will begin discussing which parts of the park’s master plan the city will implement first.

“I know some of the things here are a wish list,” Thomas said. “But this gives us a roadmap to go on.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the council voted unanimously to amend its contract for services with Uptown Greenville, a private, nonprofit organization chartered with revitalizing the city’s center.

Since 2010, the city and Uptown Greenville have agreed upon an annual program of activities to be carried out by the organization in an effort to market, support, retain and recruit businesses in the downtown district.

In 2010, the city authorized $25,000 annually for the services provided by Uptown Greenville. In 2012, the amount was increased to $50,000 a year. The organization also receives $25,000 a year from both Vidant Health and East Carolina University.

The remainder of Uptown Greenville’s $500,000 annual budget comes from hosting downtown events as well as endorsements from key stakeholder institutions and residents.

In addition to working with city staff to promote development, Uptown Greenville organizes more than 65 events a year, including the annual PirateFest, Freeboot Fridays, the Uptown Umbrella Market, Fall Festival, Greenville Grooves and the BMX festival.

“This downtown has changed so much during the past few years,” Godley said. “This organization has played a major role in that.”

During its Sept. 8 meeting, the City Council agreed to amend the contract to include additional funding for the organization.

“Return on investment is crucial,” District 5 Councilman P.J. Connelly said during the Sept. 8 meeting. “It’s incredible what you guys do with the budget you have ... I would like to look at getting additional funding for Uptown Greenville.”

The City Council on Thursday authorized the contract to be increased to $100,000 annually. The increased budget will allow the organization to provide additional services each year and assist the city with implementing several new initiatives in the downtown district.

“We needed to amend this contract because of the return this city has seen on its investment,” Thomas said. “Any organization that creates this type of excitement needs more public funds.” 

Contact Shannon Keith at skeith@reflector.com and 329-9579.

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