It’s been nearly 10 years since the historic Poe Mill was destroyed by fire in 2003. Only two smokestacks and piles of rubble remained of the 107-year-old mill on the approximately 11-acre site. Several years later, local skateboarders used the ruins to create a makeshift skate park.
The mill site is still vacant, but the beleaguered neighborhood around it has been working toward renewal over the course of several years.
A plan to use the mill building site for a park and open space began in 2009 when, before purchasing the property, the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority (GCRA) partnered with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC) in a voluntary clean-up contract. Removal of metals and carcinogenic polynuclear aromatic compounds (the result of petroleum processing or combustion) found in the soil must be completed before park construction can begin.
Now cleanup for the site may be one step closer. Within the next few weeks, park advocates will learn if they will receive a brownfields cleanup grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said Martin Livingston Jr., GCRA executive director.
GCRA has applied for two grants of $200,000 each to fund cleanup and community outreach. A brownfields grant is designed to help cleanup efforts on land where “the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant,” according to the EPA. Greenville County will add an $80,000 match to the grant. Livingston says the estimated cost for the cleanup is $500,000 and the organization is hoping to make up the difference with donations and reduction of cleanup fees.
Once the site is cleaned up, the community is poised to move ahead with the park. To begin park planning, residents in the surrounding neighborhood organized a neighborhood association. In the fall of 2010, the GCRA, Clemson University’s Landscape Architecture program students, and Clemson’s a.LINE.ments Studio worked with neighborhood residents to develop a design for a park and improvements for the surrounding neighborhood.
About 20 Clemson students used a visual site analysis to create conceptual designs that the community could provide feedback on during three meetings, said Mary Beth McCubbin, director of external projects for Clemson’s Landscape Architecture school. Using the feedback, a graduate student compiled the desired elements and came up with a final design that could be used in applications submitted for federal and state grant funding, she said.
The design process not only provided students with real projects for a real community, McCubbin said, but the input sessions offered an opportunity for neighborhood cohesion. “One of the outcomes is bringing the community together for a common vision. We concentrated on how green space can be a catalyst for change in a community.”
According to the multiphase proposed master plan, the site includes an improved skate park, educational wetlands, walking trails, additional parking, recreational areas, a splash and performance area, a shaded patio, and a history building with a courtyard.
After the site is cleaned up, GCRA can turn over the area to the Greenville County Recreation District. “As soon as the land is ready, we can take it on and turn it into a county park,” said rec district director of community relations Mike Teachey.
A facet of the plan that is already moving forward prior to site cleanup is the creation of neighborhood gateways that identify and beautify the neighborhood. Kwadjo Campbell, president of the Poe Mill Neighborhood Association, said the association will begin preparations for a gateway near Buncombe Road and Shaw Street soon.
“We’re really excited because we’re moving on that aspect this summer,” he said, adding that five other gateways are slated to be built as more funding becomes available.
A group of volunteers took advantage of the recent Poinsett Corridor Day of Service on April 11 to help refurbish a playground between River of Life Outreach Ministries and Poe Baptist Church, Campbell said. The churches didn’t have the money to improve the playground, so the community and other volunteers pitched in to repaint the equipment and plant trees, he said.
“We have a good vision for the community that includes cosmetic development like gateways and infrastructure, along with recreation with the park,” Campbell said. “But we also have an environmental plan to reduce crime in the area. It’s called crime prevention through environmental design.”
Concentrating on improving the blighted area near Buncombe Road and Shaw Street is essential, he added. “That area defines the character of the neighborhood and we want to change that.” The primary issue for residents is safety, he said, and residents are working with the Sheriff’s Department on that issue as neighborhood improvements move forward. “The park is all fine and dandy, but the residents want crime addressed,” he said.
McCubbin said neighbors understand a park by itself won’t create security for a community – but it will spark more interest in that community. “This all came about because the community valued a group of skateboarders who had appropriated the ruins.”