The Charlotte Observer ran a fine editorial Sunday about the groundbreaking ceremonies for Romare Bearden Park. The 5.4-acre urban park is scheduled to be ready in about 18 months, although Center City Partners (CCP) is hoping to find a way for it to be finished in time for the Democratic National Convention next summer. CCP’s wishes for the park, however, bring up a sore spot, to which the Observer’s editorial alluded. Namely, if hadn’t been for current CCP honcho Michael Smith, we’d be looking at an even larger, already finished urban park. You know, the one we voted for.
Some background: Mecklenburg voters approved a bond issue in 2004 for the purpose of building an urban park on about eight acres in Third Ward. The bond specifically prohibited spending any of the money on a new baseball stadium. That, however, was before the uptown wheeler-dealers — specifically, Michael Smith — set up a complex land swap among the city, the county and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with the express purpose of getting around the bond’s no-stadium terms.
County commissioners — which, rumor has it, represent all the people rather than just the ones near the Square — rushed to do the uptown boosters’ bidding. They spent $200,000 on a study that — bet you can’t guess — said the park should be moved. The study, as intended, gave commissioners all the butt cover they needed to rubber-stamp Smith’s plan, while handing over uptown land worth $10 million to the Charlotte Knights minor league team. In doing so, the county commission also significantly reduced the size of the proposed urban park approved by county voters. The result, as the Observer’s editorial put it, is a "Knights stadium planned for Third Ward, with the urban park shoved to a patch more than a third smaller than the original.” There are strong economic as well as esthetic reasons for not building the stadium in the proposed location, which the daily paper also covered, but which I'm not going into here.
I have two points to make.
The first, as I’ve written about before, is the galling nature of the eminently unelected Michael Smith’s role in all this. While recently pushing for the now-shrunken Bearden Park to be finished on time for the Dems’ big show, Smith noted, “Urban parks are the building blocks of great urban places.” Too bad Smith didn’t think that way when he was busy cobbling together those land swaps in 2005, since it was his efforts that effectively wrecked the county’s original, voter-approved plans for a larger park. Now that Smith & Co. are jacked up to the max over DemCon ’12, they’re suddenly in a hurry to build a partial version of the large park that we would probably already be enjoying if Smith’s 2005 deal hadn’t ruined it, albeit with help from the county commission.
My second point is: What took the Observer’s editorial pages department so long to tell its readers what had happened to the voters’ larger park? Waiting until the smaller park’s groundbreaking to point out that the original plan called for a bigger park brings to mind the saying about shutting the barn door after the horses have left. I know the daily’s editorial pages regime has changed since the days of Michael Smith’s land swaps, and that the former editorial pages crew chief was probably less likely to criticize uptown boosters’ plans; but the current gang in that department had enough time to push the county to revive the plan which the county’s citizens thought we were voting for.