2017-07-07 / Front Page

Once vacant lot to be enhanced with playground

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Kate Lewis, president of South Portland Land Trust, and Sharon Newman, a past president of Congregation Bet Ha’am, stand at the Westbrook Street entrance to Sawyer Park, where the city will build a $55,000 playground, using funds from a reserve account managed by the land trust, almost all of which was given by members of the Jewish temple. (Duke Harrington photo) Kate Lewis, president of South Portland Land Trust, and Sharon Newman, a past president of Congregation Bet Ha’am, stand at the Westbrook Street entrance to Sawyer Park, where the city will build a $55,000 playground, using funds from a reserve account managed by the land trust, almost all of which was given by members of the Jewish temple. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Almost a quarter century after an adjacent elementary school closed, children are once again being encouraged to come and play in the space now known as Sawyer Park.

On Wednesday, July 5, South Portland Land Trust President Kate Lewis was scheduled to present city officials with a check for $55,886 to be used to build a 2,100-squarefoot playground area in the park that, for many years, was little more than a vacant lot. The money comes from a fund of nearly $100,000 raised “almost entirely,” Lewis said, by members of Congregation Bet Ha’am, the Jewish temple located next to Sawyer Park.

According to Kevin Adams, the city’s director of parks and recreation, the city council is expected to vote to accept the funds and playground plans at its next meeting, Monday, July 10, at which time they will vote on a sole source contract to O’Brien and Sons of Medfield, Massachusetts to install the playscape. If given the green light by the council, the new playground should be ready for children by September, Adams said.

“It’s going to be a great amenity for Sawyer Park and that area of the city,” Adams said. “Green space is very valuable in that area and this is really going to enhance the entrance to the city on the east end. Hopefully, this park has become and will continue to be something that catches people’s eye as they come into the city, and not just the vacant lot that it seemed to be for so many years.”

In many ways installation of hard plastic slides and climbing equipment in the park at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets is about more that just creating a safe area for children and others to be healthy and active in Maine’s fourth largest city. The installation promises to bring with it a sea change in how the city treats a spot that, for many years, it actively ignored.

In 2013, the city council was busy fending off local ire over a proposal to lease the park for development of a Dunkin’ Donuts. At a December council meeting that year, then city manager Jim Gailey declared the park site essentially useless.

“Staff does not see a lot of value in this 2.33 acres,” he said at the time. “Maintenance of this parcel exceeds what the use is. It’s a very dangerous park because it’s bounded by two busy roads.”

Although the lot had once been home to playgrounds and ball fields for the adjacent Alice E. Sawyer Elementary School, that changed after the school closed in 1993. For a time afterward, the fire department continued to maintain a winter skating rink in the park, but that, too, soon went away. By the time the city suggested the site to a Dunkin’ developer as a consolation prize for zoning away its plans to build on the site of the former St. John’s church nearby, many city councilors were publicly dismissing the site as “vacant lot” that was “not used by anybody.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball game played there,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said at the time.

“We are deficient in open space on the west end of the community, but I never considered that an ideal park site,” said Tom Blake, then a member of the council.

But perception of the area has shifted in recent years, particularly in light of a $15.6 million citywide sewer upgrade project that resulted in a transformed Main Street, rebuilt when the road was filled back in with an eye toward creating an old-fashioned neighborhood feel, rather than a high-speed drive-by.

“I think this neighborhood was really overdue,” said Sharon Newman, a past president of Bet Ha’am.

“I’m really glad South Portland is finally giving this area some love,” she said on Monday, while touring the site. “I live at the other end of South Portland, and when I drive by here now, it just makes me smile, because it’s completely transformed the look of the neighborhood. The residents here deserve it.”

The city abandoned the Dunkin’ deal, largely on the objection of Bet Ha’am, which then had a 10-year right of first refusal to the park property obtained after buying the adjacent former school building in 2005, following more than a decade of renting the space.

After that, the park was used as a staging area for construction crews during the year-long sewer project in the area. That’s when the land trust stepped in to assure the park would remain open space after the work crews pulled out.

“Because the park was identified in the city’s 2001 open space plan, we assumed that it was permanently protected. But, clearly, we found out that it wasn’t,” Lewis said.

Rather than risk a second attempt to lease the site for development once Bet Ha’am’s right-of-refusal expired, the land trust worked a deal with the site to put what was then officially named Sawyer Park into a conservation easement, with maintenance to be undertaken by the trust. Lewis and her crew then went to work creating a fund to care for the park in perpetuity, an account to which Bet Ha’am members readily contributed.

“I think this is a model example of a really good public and private partnership between a number of entities in the city of South Portland with lots of community input, creating something that is really good for the community,” Lewis said.

“We are totally thrilled,” Newman said. “This was always the dream when we acquired our property, that this space next door would be a green space and a playground for little kids. So, this is exactly what we would have done had we been able to do it all by ourselves.”

The new playground will be very similar to two other O’Brien projects in the city, Adams said, pointing to equipment installed last year in DiPietro Park, at the corner of Pillsbury and Davis streets, off Cottage Road, and two years before that at the Wainwright Athletic Complex off Highland Avenue. The new playground at Sawyer Park, located at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets, will be “about in the middle” of the DiPietro and Wainwright sites in size, Adams said.

Although some councilors argued Sawyer Park was unused by the public prior to 2013 because of its unappealing location, Lewis and Newman both take a build-it-and-they-will-come stance.

“When you have an unimproved, very uninviting space, very few people are going to use it,” Newman said. “But now that there is going to be a nice environment and a playscape, I would expect that the people in the neighborhood with discover the resource.”

“The use of playgrounds all across this city is at a very high level, I can tell you from personal experience as a mother,” Lewis said. “But I can also say, having met with a lot of the residents in this particular community, there are a lot of children in this neighborhood. So, we feel confident it will be used.”

“I imagine when we have something really nice here, it will become a magnet,” Newman agreed.

According to Adams, the city maintains the park, cutting grass and doing other light work, and the land trust foots the bill for time and equipment out of the fund creating, for the most part, by Bet Ha’am congregants. Going forward, Lewis said, the land trust hopes to solicit additional donations to the fund from residents citywide. That money will be used not only to maintain the park, but possibly to add additional capital improvements, be it more trees, a gazebo bandstand, or even a return of the ice rink. But what happens next, she said, will be up to residents.

“We really want to listen to the community to find out what they want for this space, if anything. They may want it left alone,” Lewis said. “There are a multitude of possibilities looking into the future. This playground could be just the first step.”

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