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‘They’ve completely neglected it.’ Southeast Raleigh waits for Chavis Park upgrades.

Lonnette Williams wonders if she’ll ever see the promised renovations at John Chavis Memorial Park.

She can rattle off the dates of community meetings she’s attended over the past decade advocating for improvements to the historical park.

And she can name longtime Chavis Park neighbors who died waiting for them to happen.

The Raleigh City Council approved a plan to improve the park in 2014. That same year voters backed a $91.7 million bond, which included money for the park.

But the plans have faced delays and, as a result, construction costs have risen.

Over one member’s objections, the council recently voted to move forward despite the costs now running more than $3 million over budget.

Construction could start later this year or in early 2020 and take two years to complete.

Williams, the president of the South Park-East Raleigh Neighborhood Association, applauded the city’s decision to move forward.

“You caused the high costs in construction,” she told city leaders. “You didn’t do you job when you should have. Why should the community be denied a quality park and be faced with a reduced plan because staff didn’t do their job? That is the bottom line.”

Williams remembers Chavis in its heyday.

In the segregated South, it was the park for black people in Raleigh, and its large pool drew people from across the Southeast. The pool, carousel and children’s train attracted families year after year.

When the city’s parks were desegregated, Williams said, the city began pulling the amenities out of Chavis.

“They’ve completely neglected it,” she said. “There’s no question about it. You can look at it. Before we got started there was nothing. They had taken things away from us. They took the train from us. They took away the concession stands. The public restrooms. The water fountain. They took everything away.”

James Daniels, out walking on the track recently, has gone to Chavis since he was a kid and said he wishes the city would hurry and reopen the pool, closed now for its third summer.

“It’s the closest pool we’ve got except for Pullen and apartments,” he said.

A long conversation

In the mid-2000s, neighbors and community members asked for renovations to the park. It was the a start of a long conversation.

The plans in 2014 call for a two-story community center, a renovated playground area, new gym and a central plaza that could host festivals, concerts and a splash pad in the summer.

When the construction bids came in over budget — all except for the lowest, which was disqualified for errors — the city staff recommended rebidding the project. That process could have included “value engineering,” or scaling back some planned features.

But city leaders instead moved forward with a bid of $18 million — $3.6 million over budget.

The council should have waited six weeks to rebid the project, said council member Dickie Thompson, who called the decision irresponsible, given park needs across the city.

“I just think that was a colossal waste of taxpayer’s money,” he said. “And it was an election year, knee-jerk reaction.”

The municipal election is Oct. 8 and all of the council seats are up. Thompson is not seeking re-election.

If the council did wait, the project could have been scaled down, said council member Nicole Stewart.

“We’re not just spending that money for a six-week delay,” she told Thompson. “It is to make sure we give Chavis its due as a project that has long been ignored and long left behind. And I think we owe it to the community, but I hear you.”

‘Not awesome’

Back at Chavis, Shannon Bass watched her three children play on the metal playground equipment. She’d planned to meet her sister and walk to nearby Transfer Food Hall.

“It is subpar,” she said. “My kids just said I wish they didn’t have sand. We like the rubber mulch, the soft stuff like they’ve got at Pullen.”

She pointed toward the “million dollar houses” just a few blocks away.

“(Chavis) is going to be the place where people go soon,” she said. “I’m just curious as to what they are going to do. It’s not our first time here, but, I mean obviously (the park) is not awesome.”

James Fawole was out walking on the track at Chavis — “I’m getting my beach body ready. It’s like a lake body right now, but we’re getting there.” — and said he remembers running the track while in high school. The delays don’t surprise him.

“Everything in Southeast Raleigh takes longer,” he said.

Fawole supports the renovations if it will help the community, but he hopes people still feel like they belong when it’s all done.

“It’s been here forever,” he said. “It will be good to see it get a fresh face, but, hopefully, the same people who have been here are still as welcome here when they do these renovations.”

Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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