August 4, 2008

Plan for a Norfolk Playground Finds Critics, Skeptics

By Harry Minium, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Aug. 4--NORFOLK -- It's the kind of amenity most neighborhoods would welcome.

A private group will partner with an apartment building owner and the city to build a playground in a single day later this month in Denby Park.

It will include swings and slides for children in a community where they now play in parking lots.

Yet the park has been a neighborhood controversy with some residents, including many members of the Oakdale Farms/Denby Park Civic League, saying they don't want it.

"There's so much crime here," said R.J. Luce, who lives a block away from the vacant land where the playground will be built, at 352 San Antonio Blvd.

"I'm afraid it will become a magnet for the wrong people. I'm worried one of the children is going to get shot."

Jody Fife, a mother of two who lives in a house across San Antonio Boulevard from the playground area, said children shouldn't be punished because of bad elements in the neighborhood.

"If you're going to take back your neighborhood, you have to try something," she said.

Denby Park is one of three neighborhoods, along with Monticello Village and Oakdale Farms, in the Wards Corner area that the city is seeking to revitalize.

For nearly a decade now, Denby Park residents have asked the city to revitalize their community in much the same way Norfolk has done in Ocean View, Church Street and other areas, where dozens of apartments were demolished to reduce density.

A redevelopment plan for Wards Corner, approved by the City Council in 2004, called for demolition of some apartments and the addition of a hotel to the area. So far, none has been torn down.

"We're not asking that they take all of them down," Luce said. "We're just asking for some breathing room."

City Manager Regina V.K. Williams said for the time being, the city won't use its power of eminent domain to take private property. The apartments are troublesome, she said, but apartment building owners have the right to own property.

"And there's the human element," Williams said. "These people have to have a place to live. We can't displace people without a place for them to go."

In the meantime, city officials say they are taking other steps to redevelop Wards Corner. Besides the park, Assistant City Manager Marcus Jones said the city has earmarked nearly $16 million in the last five years for the area.

More than $6 million went toward the purchase of the Jewish Community Center, just south of Wards Corner, which was transformed into a comprehensive recreation center.

Denby Park was also one of three neighborhoods placed in Project Focus, an anti-crime initiative begun last fall. Under the program, police patrols have been increased and crime has been reduced. Code enforcement has picked up and a new city rental inspection program is under way. Soon surveillance cameras will also be installed, Williams said.

The city is forming a partnership with the owner of three apartment buildings that surround the playground, in what officials hope will be a model for other landlord-city agreements.

William C. McKnew has agreed to construct a fence behind the apartments to provide additional security and to screen applicants for his apartments. He is also donating an apartment for community use.

The area also has a new Wal-Mart, and S.L. Nusbaum Realty is building a $15 million apartment complex, one that neighbors welcome, on the site of a former mobile home park.

City officials say they are trying to attract investors to rebuild other parts of the neighborhood.

Louis Eisenberg, who owned a restaurant in Wards Corner for two decades, said he understands why Denby Park residents are skeptical.

"But they've got to put some trust that the city is genuinely trying to help," he said. "I've seen more involvement by the city in the last two or three years than I did in 21 years with my restaurant."

City Councilwoman Daun S. Hester, who represents Denby Park, said police will strive to make sure the playground is safe for children.

Officials are hoping to increase enthusiasm for the playground project. Last month, they put out a plea to lure 100 volunteers to help build the playground. So far, fewer than 30 volunteers -- including Mayor Paul Fraim -- have signed up for the Aug. 21 event.

"I understand their fears," Hester said. "But this is just one piece of what we're doing there. This is just the beginning."

Harry Minium, (757) 446-2371, [email protected]


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