After working with residents and other stakeholders, organizers of a two-day charrette on St. Thomas said Friday that their best chance at revitalizing the Hospital Ground area lies with the creation of plans that “recapture the heart” of the neighborhood.
In the last few years, planning sessions known as charrettes have been sponsored by various community organizations to give residents a chance to work together on master design plans for revitalization of areas ranging from Long Path/Garden Street to Market Square.
While those projects are still in various phases, this week’s series of sessions officially kicked off the process for Hospital Ground residents, who said the area, now a hot spot for guns and drugs, was once a center for sports and recreation.
“In discussions over the past few days, we’ve listened to a lot of stories from residents who remembered in their childhoods going to the community center, swimming in the bay, then coming home, changing and going right back out to play sports,” said Costal Systems International principal Harvey Sasso, who has been leading the charrette.
“We met people that have played baseball in the stadium, when there was no fence so people waved at them as they played, and all that was part of the community fabric that shaped their life and their future,” Sasso said.
Speaking to residents Friday in a wrap up meeting where preliminary designs and group recommendations were unveiled and discussed, Sasso said that based on those stories from residents, what came out of the meeting wasn’t really about revamping the stadium or other parts of the neighborhood. Instead, he said what he got from residents was the need to “restore the heartbeat of the community” so that everyone in it feels comfortable, safe and hopeful.
“It’s already a great community but we can make it better by creating opportunities for the youth and future generations,” he added.
Sasso and other organizers spoke about residents’ recommendations to expand the Lionel Roberts Stadium, switching home plate from the southeastern to the southwestern corner and reworking the dimensions of the facility so that, if one side expands on to the road, it becomes a regulation-size baseball stadium.
Sasso said the recommendations came from groups of “avid baseball players” that attended the charrette and spoke about the sun being in batters’ eyes.
The existing Winston Raymo Recreation Center would also be expanded, but instead of building onto the existing facility, residents recommended using the Human Services complex in the back, which they said could move to or near the Schneider Regional Medical Center.
Working the more historical Health Department buildings into the plan would also help “blend” any new facilities in with the old ones, Sasso added.
“In looking at how we can expand the center, residents said that it would be important to expand it with youth programs and start looking at more of a sports complex, while also getting into vocational and educational opportunities,” he said. “And it’s not about building another school; it’s about building a place that kids can get excited about, where they can interact and be mentored and do sports, and that becomes a place for children for the future.”
Little League baseball coach Steve Parris said after the meeting that the concept of restructuring the stadium was “great,” but that he was also interested to see what the end result would be.
“I’m optimistic that they are going to make some real changes when they do the reconfiguration of the Lionel Roberts Stadium and hopefully it will meet the needs of the baseball community,” Parris said. “And my optimism comes because this is the initial planning stage and it all looks great, but we all need to continue to work together to make sure this is what comes forth in the final stage.”
Another resident of the neighborhood, former District Police Chief Dwayne DeGraff added that putting money into the long-term project is also good, but not without changing the “mentality” of residents in the area.
“It’s an ideal area for revitalization,” DeGraff said about the Hospital Ground neighborhood. “But we have to change the mindset. Right now, crime is flourishing because it is allowed to flourish and if we revitalize the area then there has to be something else for, say those guys on the street corner, to do.”
“If we’re revitalizing, then maybe they can be a part of it, maybe we can offer them jobs, but if we don’t, and we put all of this money in and still have a crime issue, than the purpose of this was missed,” DeGraff said.
During the meeting, Sasso shared the same sentiments, saying that the purpose of the revitalization was to make life better for everyone in the community.
“These issues that you are all so passionate about – the issues with guns and drugs – dealing with that starts with restoring the community and providing opportunities,” he said. “We want to bring back the heartbeat of the community so that everyone can really feel it and be part of it.”