Earlier this year, downtown residents were in an uproar when they learned that plans were afoot to develop a piece of property that's served as a city park since the 1980s. The family that owns the property at the corner of Summerlin Avenue and South Street known as Constitution Green – which is home to a few massive old oak trees, one of which is estimated to be about 175 years old – was considering developing it for apartments. The city said it had attempted to purchase the property from the owners, but an acceptable price could not be reached. Petitions were signed, rallies were held and for months, it seemed like nothing happened.
Then on Friday, Oct. 2, the city suddenly announced that it had reached a tentative plan to rescue the park – and its giant trees – from the wrecking ball. The city would pay the family that owns the park $3.34 million in cash, which would come from the Community Redevelopment Agency funding and turn over a half-acre parcel located just south of downtown (and valued at about $2.5 million) to make up the difference. The deal still must be confirmed by the City Council later this year.
The tone of the press conference announcing the deal was upbeat – City Councilwoman Patty Sheehan, Mayor Buddy Dyer and Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor 4 Eric Rollings gathered under the old oaks and mugged for the cameras.
"It's a great opportunity for the city" to preserve one full block of green space in a densely developed downtown corridor, for less than market value, Sheehan points out. But that doesn't mean that everybody was thrilled by the news.
Political activist Doug Head, who has long attempted to get the city to pay more attention to parks on the city's less desirable west side, points out that Lake Lorna Doone Park, which sits in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl, "is about the same size as Lake Eola, but half of it is used as a parking lot." Nobody, he says, seems to want to save greenspace on the poor side of town.
"Between Colonial Drive and the 407, and OBT and I-4, all of Parramore essentially, the only park you have is Lake Dot, which is tiny," he says. "We prioritize green spaces for the east side, but we neglect them on the west side. It's a tale of two cities."
While Dyer posed for photos with school kids, Sheehan says she'd also heard the complaints, but she says this was a unique opportunity. The city has tried to buy this land in years past but couldn't afford it. Now that the owners are at the table, the city couldn't pass up the opportunity to nab the parkland. And, on Friday at least, she wasn't going to let detractors dampen her spirits about the plan to save Constitution Green.
"Some people are never happy," she says. "If you paved the streets with gold, they'd complain to you about the color."