BRADENTON -- Bailey O'Brien, 10, was getting over a serious illness last month when she overheard her grandparents talking about the city's decision to relocate Glazier-Gates Park where Bailey has learned to navigate playground equipment from the "little kids" area to the more intimidating "big kids" playground for most of her life.
In a letter meant for the Bradenton City Council, Bailey summed up her disappointment that her park would not be the same by drawing an unhappy face with its tongue sticking out at those for whom the letter was meant.
"Hi, I am not happy that you are taking down my park," she writes. "It is not nice to take down a public park. I have gone to that park my whole life. ... You just can't destroy such an amazing park. Why do you want to destroy it? What has it ever done to you?"
Bailey goes on to say she is disappointed and expressed hope her letter would set the city council straight.
The park in the 1000 block of Manatee Avenue East will be shifted north along the Manatee River as part of a land-swap deal giving the city access to an eventual expansion of Riverwalk and make room for a 521-unit Villages at Riverwalk rental complex.
Phase 1 of the construction is slated for the existing park site where century-old oak trees spread massive branches into the sky, creating a moss-covered canopy for generations of children at play.
On Oct. 14, the city council reached what it called a difficult decision in finalizing the approval of a special area plan that gives the development a green light and ensures the existing Glazier-Gates Park, named for the founding fathers of the old Manatee Village, will be relocated.
Tentative plans call for the park to be split in two with one pocket park with playground equipment moved to the middle of the new development. The second area will be a passive, open park encompassing acreage along Riverside Drive East.
Councilman Bemis Smith managed to slow the process after it all began hastily with a last-minute agenda item added to a meeting last year, but he said his goal was never to keep the park in its present site.
"I was never one to say we have to keep Glazier-Gates Park," Smith said at a council workshop Wednesday. "I wanted to make sure we got a fair return for the park and not get locked down into one image, but try and look at what's going to do the most for both improving the park and the neighborhood dollar for dollar."
Smith successfully lobbied to have the developer chip in an extra $500,000 for improvements at the historic Mineral Springs Park. City officials have argued all along the Mineral Springs area has historical significance, not Glazier-Gates Park.
"Keep an open mind as this plays out," said Smith. "We have a goal of achieving an improved area where citizens also get a comparable return."
The developer, Atlanta-based Hatfield Development Co., will pay for the new park's construction as well as repair all existing playground equipment. The city will have the authority to control the new design and has pledged resident will be pleased with the new park.
"There have been lots of work, lots of discussion and lots of thought to ensure that when this development is done, the park system is a fabulous park system and the historical nature of all that's around is respectfully displayed," said City Clerk Carl Callahan.
Callahan said the city invested more than $10 million into its park system in the past several years, although $6 million was for the construction of Riverwalk and $3 million was devoted to Norma Lloyd Park on 13th Avenue East. The city also invested money into Love Park and the Park at Olde Westfield and is planning the John and Rebecca Neal Park in the Historic Ware's Creek Neighborhood.
"We spend a lot of money on our parks," said Callahan. "We'll create a very nice project."
Councilmember Patrick Roff said it's important to remember what the neighborhood around the park used to be like with nearby shootings. Smith said there were also issues with prostitution and drug dealing.
"We have a real opportunity here," said Roff. "This is neighborhood revitalization."
The opposition, including the Stone Soup Community Unit group, which hired Cape Coral attorney Ralf Brookes to mount a legal challenge to the city decision, states they were never against the development. The common theme amongst protesters is the developer has every right to develop the land they purchased, but a public park belongs to the people who pay for it, and is not a tool to be used by elected officials.
Much work remains before two-, three- and four-story buildings begin to rise. As part of the final approval, the developer must first do the improvements at Mineral Springs Park and construct the new park city officials have indicated will retain the Glazier-Gates name. An engineering design is underway and a construction timetable is not yet finalized.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.