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Free park proposed for vacant lot on Water Avenue

A coalition of organizations wants to turn the vacant lot on Water Avenue in front of the St. James Hotel into a park at no expense to the city.

“It would only be a temporary thing. It would not be permanent. It would only be there until Selma decides if there is a business that wants to occupy that space here in Selma,” said Mayor George Evans.

George Needham, a member of The Historic Preservation Society, explained the organization has some money left from several years of festivals on Water Avenue and is willing to put in a temporary park for free. The Dallas County Arts Alliance also has joined in on the project. Needham pointed to New York, which has myriad vacant lots because buildings become unstable and are razed, similar to what happened on Water Avenue in Selma. Singer and actress Bette Middler started the New York Restoration Project in 1995 after she saw parks and open spaces in need of cleanup and restoration.

“She has saved between 80 and 140 sites like this in both Manhattan and Brooklyn,” Needham said. “They’re really quite interesting and they’re varied from community gardens to parks and band shells. They’re really nice and keep the city from looking like a bomb scare place.”

The plan for the park, which the groups call Phoenix Park, is a large sheet of paper with some sketches. In the center is a gazebo to allow people to sit and rest while in the park. The gazebo could serve also as a bandstand for local groups to entertain. A red brick path circles the band stand and along the way are drawings of plants, including boxwood hedges and Japanese maples. The plans show a red brick fence on the front linked by a day gate. Day gates also are planned for the right and the left extremes of the brick wall. A new wall is suggested for the backside of the lot with another day gate.

The plan becomes a bit futuristic, turning older buildings on either side — the Pilcher Building and the Sherman Powell Building — into homes with loft apartments decorated with murals. The Ammons Building at the back hosts a snack bar in the plans.

“The historic society and the Arts Alliance would not be involved in whatever businesses showed up,” Needham said of the plans. “With a nice park in the middle, it would be something to allow those owners … to make their property look better or have shops in there and make an attraction for Water Avenue.”

While the park’s construction is free, the work wouldn’t be completed all at once because it’s a substantial amount of money, Needham said without going into the cost of such a project. Instead, the two groups plan to break down the project in phases. First would come the planting of grass and putting in the infrastructure, such as water for the park, electricity for the lights and perhaps the brick for the walkway.

The plan calls also for roofs on the two buildings to the right and left of the park, the Pilcher and Sherman Powell buildings. Columns for those roofs are mostly available, Needham explained. The original columns from the old building that once stood on the site exist. The historical society has bought 15-20 columns that were originally on Water Avenue.

“The plan is to have murals along to represent what the old buildings looked like,” Needham said. “So it’s kind of a low-cost adaptive thing that would look pretty.”

The Selma City Council received the information from the two groups, but has not taken any action. If the council chooses to proceed with the project, then the historic society and Arts Alliance would come back with specifics.

Council member Bennie Ruth Crenshaw has raised the issue of liability with structures on city property. “I don’t see anything in writing, so what you would want to do is come back with something in writing so we can see the logistics of all of this,” she said.

Evans said the group would come back with specifics later and that city attorney Jimmy Nunn would draw up a month-to-month agreement with the two entities because the city does not know when someone might purchase the property. The liability issue would be included in the contract, the mayor said.

Once someone or a business decides to buy the property, the city would give notice to the historic preservation organization and Arts Alliance. To clear the site would likely take 30-65 days, the mayor said.