Hidden River Park: A Story of Collaboration, Persistence and Community

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Sunday, October 4, 2015, 7:00 am
Julie Rojewski

The development process behind Hidden River Park serves as an example of what can emerge from a collaboration between a neighborhood and the City of East Lansing.

On a lot at the corner of Mt. Vernon and Moorland Avenues, in the Southeast Marble neighborhood, you will find Hidden River Park. This small city “pocket park” was created by a neighborhood-city partnership in 2008 and features a set of swings, a pair of benches, a large sandbox with jagged climbing boulders and a large assortment of sand toys and small riding toys. If you see one of the many young people playing in the sandbox, or one of many people enjoying the picnic tables, it may seem to be a simple public park, but to the city and neighborhood leaders who played a role in its development, it represents a partnership borne of vision and generosity.

The toys have been donated by neighbors whose children or grandchildren have outgrown them. The landscaping was donated by neighbors who wanted to see flowers blooming at the corner. Two trees and a commemorative plaque were recently donated by the friends and neighbors of Malcolm Johnson, to honor the life of a long-term and beloved member of the SE Marble community. The City Council donated the land to the city park system, and each of the amenities was funded via donations from the SE Marble community with matching City funds.

Many in the community credit SE Marble resident Ginger Ogilvie with spurring the creation of the park. In fall 2006, she had just moved to East Lansing and attended a meeting of the Southeast Marble Community Association (SEMCA), where she heard a resident suggest that the group pursue a “pocket park,” a term used to describe parks which occupy small tracts of land.

Ogilvie loved the idea. “I have always been a big supporter of green space, and sometimes I just needed to get out of the house. I wanted a nice place I could take my then two-year-old son without having to cross a busy street” she said. She tried to reach out to her neighbor to offer to help pursue a park, but after a few months without an answer, she found out the woman had moved to Florida. “I realized that if it was going to happen, it was going to be on me,” Ogilvie said.

In early 2007 she contacted the City to start a conversation, initially seeking support from Tim McCaffrey, Director of East Lansing Parks, Recreation, and Arts. She was referred to Wendy Wilmers Longpre, Assistant Director of Parks, Recreation and the Arts, who proved to be “a great partner,” Ogilvie said. The two women shared a similar vision—created with input from the community—that it remain a “green, peaceful, place. We wanted it be a natural, relaxing place for all ages—for elderly people and young people alike,” said Ogilvie.

Wilmers Longpre echoed the sentiment and was enthusiastic about a park promoting “natural play. The overall idea was that it would be a place for playing in nature, a natural play space with balance beams made from wood, stepping stones created from slices of tree trunk and stone. The master plan is very much built around nature play.”

As the process proceeded, Wilmers Longpre and Ogilvie collected community feedback and drew up plans which permitted a multi-stage development, so that elements could be added as funding became available. Mary Szlachetka, President of SEMCA, recalls this process being “really fun. So many people were involved and willing to help, and the City was really receptive to our ideas during the planning and design process, inviting us to brainstorm ideas, look through equipment books…we always knew the neighbors were really in on it.”

The first task was to secure the land as an official part of the parks system. Wilmers Longpre said she had not even realized that the City owned that particular parcel. That is not surprising, she explained, since “the City owns a lot of parcels of land which are not for public use, such as utility easements,” but that in order to develop the plot into a park, the “City staff would need to determine its value, such as selling it for some other purpose.” In that process, Ogilvie was informed that the EL City Council had recommended selling it back in 2004. It was not clear why the lot was never sold.

Szlachetka recalled someone suggesting the parcel may have been too small to construct a house up to code. Because of that previous Council recommendation, Council would have to agree to reallocate it for a park instead of pursuing its sale. Ogilvie said the process may have benefitted from the economic collapse of 2008: the value of the small corner parcel had gone down to a point where Ogilvie believed the City was more amenable to keeping it for a park, and Council agreed to put the parcel in the park system in early 2008.

Ogilvie was tasked with contacting neighbors and worked closely with Wilmers Longpre to usher the project through the various committees. She was relieved to find little resistance. “Some people on the park planning committee thought that because of the size of our neighborhood we deserved a bigger park with a more central location, but there was no land available for that kind of park,” Ogilvie said. A few neighbors articulated concerns about potential vandalism or illicit activity at night in the park, but the majority of neighbors were supportive of the idea.

What made the process stand out to Wilmers Longpre was how the park emerged as a true grassroots effort: it was “developed under the strong direction of the neighborhood, which raised at least half of the money for its development.” The City matched neighborhood funds to complete the different projects.

That collaboration contributes to a sense of belonging for some. “I think the park is loved even more by the neighborhood because they put so much into it. Everything there is a result of neighborhood interest and involvement,” said Wilmers Longpre.

“It was a long process and at one point I said to myself, ‘I’d really like to have a park in place by the time my son starts middle school,’” Ogilvie said.

In spring of 2008, SE Marble residents Szlachetka, Maggie Schuesler, and Vicki Shafarman hosted a neighborhood-wide garage sale to help fund construction of the park. The sale earned almost $1,500, which the City matched, to install the sand box, climbing boulders, and crushed limestone walking paths. Szlachetka recalled that “once the process really got rolling, the City was very good at listening to us.”

The Park official broke ground in the summer of 2008 with the construction of the sand area and walking paths. After that, “it became clear that that City probably wasn’t going to put any more money into it,” said Ogilvie.

Two years later, SEMCA residents held another community garage sale and raised “around $1,000,” according to Szlachetka, which was matched by the City to fund the two swings. A third sale, in 2012, featured many original pieces of art and antiques, and the proceeds funded a park bench. The City added another bench, and City maintenance crews continue to maintain the park as part of the East Lansing park system.

In fall of 2010, neighbors donated perennials and gathered to plant them around the entrance to the park. Wilmers Longpre is working with the community to add some landscaping along an exposed fence at the north end of the park, but “there is nothing in the works right now” concerning the addition of unrealized play elements illustrated in the master plan. Both Wilmers Longpre and Ogilvie said they would like to see the plan completed in the future.

What about the name? Hidden River Park was the name approved by the City after a public input process facilitated by the neighborhood association, said Wilmers Longpre. It emerged “after a lot of research on the Park: not just the lot, but the land in that entire area” and refers to an invisible topographical feature.

“There had once been a river that ran through that area, but is now underground,” said Wilmers Longpre. According to Szlachetka, the name was proposed by SE Marble resident Gene Kales, who had done research on the geology and topography of the area. It refers to a tributary that runs east-west parallel to Burcham and drains invisibly under the Park and towards the large, forested area that borders Meridian Township less than a mile away. This is the Hidden River from which the park draws its name. The neighbors selected this name via vote, and their recommendation was approved by the City.

Szlachetka said she and some other neighbors have been working hard to fund an educational sign to inform visitors about the unique geography and topography of the area to explain the Park name, but that “it’s not as easy as we thought it would be. We’d like one of those engraved topographical maps, but they are really expensive. We’re working on it, though!”


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