A new castle at Purcell Park? Council hears plan for upgrades, considers other developments

The city council got a glimpse of a potential future for Purcell Park from this rendering of potential ideas for a new play area.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

A vision for revitalizing Purcell Park is starting to take shape, as the Harrisonburg City Council heard a presentation Tuesday about the park’s master plan that has been in the works since last spring. As of yet, there is no timeline set for the updates, which would include an entirely new playground, flooding mitigation, longer walking trails and an outdoor event space. 

If implemented in its entirety, the changes would cost the city more than $17 million over the course of three phases, according to documents adopted by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission in August. First on the drawing board is an overhaul of the Kid’s Castle play area. 

Amol Deshpande, representing LSG Landscape Architecture, one of the project’s consultants, said that 52% of local residents surveyed said they come to the park for the Kid’s Castle. The survey garnered more than 1,000 responses. 

“Children were one of the most important stakeholders in this master planning process,” Deshpande said, so the consultants had students from six elementary and middle schools in the city make drawings “imagining what the new playground should look like.” 

“These responses made it clear that the new playground should have some sort of a castle theme,” Deshpande said. But the new playground would also include trees, flowers, colorful paving, and separate areas to appeal to younger and older children.

One of the biggest considerations for the adults, though, is that “almost the entire park is in a hundred-year floodplain,” and flooding commonly occurs with any hard rain. The master plan’s mitigation strategies include raising the whole playground area a few feet, adding bioretention ponds, and introducing an “ecological park” area with native plants and boardwalks elevated above the floodplain.

Other changes include expanding the fishing pier, adding landscaping to the pond, and moving the two baseball fields that are west of Black’s Run to another part of the city where the fields don’t flood as often, “and the facility is more usable rain or shine.”

Vice-mayor Sal Romero said many in the community enjoy the picnic shelters at Purcell, and asked if any changes would be made to them.

Deshpande said they plan on “definitely adding a lot more capacity,” including a large pergola structure overlooking the pond. 

Another slide from Tuesday’s presentation to the city council shows potential redesigns for other spaces around the park.

Permits for NENA approved …

The council also entertained other plans for private and community development on Tuesday, supporting some and stonewalling another. 

The council unanimously approved two special use permits from the Northeast Neighborhood Association to turn the historic Dallard Newman house into a community building. The association received approval for one of those permits in 2017, but it expired before the group could convert the house to its new purpose – a museum, gathering space and administrative offices. 

This time, the council included in the permit an extension of five years for the association to establish the community building. 

“It’s something that needs to be completed and to tell the history and the stories of the Black community,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. “Congratulations to NENA.”

… But an AirBnB gets put on hold

However, the council took no action on a special use permit for a short-term rental on New York Avenue – the third time the application has made it in front of the council. Originally, this was not the primary residence of its owner, Wesley Smallwood, and he had hoped to use it to host up to 14 guests. 

After the planning commission unanimously denied that application in August 2019, he made a few changes to the application. In the meantime, though, he had been operating an AirBnB there — violating the city’s ordinances. That, along with the application changes, prompted the council members to say last September they wanted the commission to review it again. 

Smallwood made the house his primary residence and dropped the number of guests to 12, but the planning commission again voted against it, as did the council in November. 

On Tuesday, Director of Community Development Adam Fletcher presented a new application from Smallwood limiting the maximum number of guests to eight, which the planning commission had approved four to two. Vice-mayor Sal Romero moved to approve the permit, but the motion did not receive a second. 

Council Member Chris Jones likened eight guests to “adding, really, a micro-hotel to a traditional neighborhood.”

Council Member Richard Baugh, who is participating in the complete overhaul of the zoning code the city has just begun, said that group will be looking at short-term rental regulations as part of that process. To make a decision on this permit, he said, would feel like “putting my thumb on the scale” as they begin that overhaul process.

Romero said he understood his colleagues’ concerns, but “I believe that we provided the parameters for the applicant,” and “both city staff and planning commission believe they’ve met those requirements … the rules have to apply the same.” 

Also in the meeting:

  • The council unanimously agreed to cancel their November 24 and December 22 meetings to observe the holidays. 
  • The council unanimously approved granting 3.4 acres along Route 33 West, near Riven Rock Park, to the state for the Virginia Department of Transportation to make highway safety improvements.
  • City Manager Eric Campbell announced that, as part of a staff appreciation project, local residents can call and leave a voicemail expressing thanks to city employees at 540-217-0720 from October 19-23.

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