Growing up in Virginia-Highland during the 1950s, Paul Burks spent hours at the neighborhood library on the corner of St. Charles Place and Highland Avenue. When his own kids came along in the 1980s, they did the same. But the library eventually came down, and the lot where it stood, along with its concrete parking lot, was a vacant, unattractive corner in an historic neighborhood.
Five years ago, Burks and his neighbors launched a project to reclaim the corner and turn it into a park for the community as well as the many visitors who flock to the restaurants and shops along Highland Avenue. The process was complicated, with hurdles from finding the funds to pay for it to getting it approved through the city’s Urban Design Commission.
A few weeks ago, Burks’ vision blossomed into life as the neighborhood officially opened its newest pocket park with a live band, tables of food, balloons and plenty of picnickers sprawling on the lawn. What they soon learned is that the area is more than just a park; it’s also a rain garden.
“There was cement under the grass from the old parking lot around the library, and the water used to just puddle on the lawn and run into the street,” said Burks. “So we came up with a design that has an area of gravel, soil and sand where the water can percolate.”
The park’s lawn slopes gently so that rainwater flows through two landscaped pipes that drain into the rain garden, where a variety of thirsty reeds, day lilies and other native plants are taking root. Having that design may have helped the neighborhood finance the project.
“We paid $855,000 for the land, and we needed $150,000 to construct the park and the rain garden,” said Pamela Papner, president of the neighborhood civic association. “We started to get the money together in December 2008. We did fundraising and used some of the proceeds from our Summerfest festival.”
Then Burks applied for a loan through a state conservation program that helps communities create green spaces. As part of the application, the neighborhood gave a presentation on how the park could double as a conservation area. He also got the city to back the plan.
“The city was all about it,” said Burks, who heads the Virginia-Highland Conservation League that raises money for civic projects. “That’s just less water they have to treat.”
Because of the neighborhood’s historic status, the plan also had to gain the approval of the Urban Design Commission. The preservation part of the project involved protecting the existing trees, keeping the 100-year-old stone pillars at the corner of the lot and designing a black fence that reflected the stone of the pillars.
With approvals and loan money secured, construction finally started in 2009 and wrapped up with the recent day-in-the-park party. Though it was a time of celebration, Papner was quick to point out that there’s still work to be done to pay off the remaining $6,000 balance.
“Right now, we’re calling it New Highland Park,” she said. “But if we can find a sponsor for that last amount, we’ll happily give them naming rights.”
Each Saturday, we shine a spotlight on a local neighborhood, city or community. To suggest a place for us to visit, e-mail H.M. Cauley at email@example.com or call 404-514-6162.
To learn more about New Highland Park, go to: vahi.org/parks/nhp/