Northeast Community Center's outdoor phase is on schedule and slated to open this spring. Above, a crew smooths out the cement walking trail at 9th and Van Brunt. Leslie Collins


By Leslie Collins
Northeast News
January 18, 2012

It may be years before Northeast sees a community center, but one facet of the project is well on its way.

Although 9th Street and Van Brunt has been referred to as the future site of the Northeast Community Center, Mark McHenry said it’s more appropriate to call the site a park.

“There’s a plan for one there, but we’re not building a community center there right now,” said McHenry, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “First and foremost, we’re improving the property.”

The 12-acre property used to house the headquarters of the Area Transportation Authority as well as its street cars, McHenry said. When ATA ceased using the land, the intersection became an eyesore, he said.

The outdoor phase to construct several soccer fields and other amenities on site nearly stalled indefinitely when unforeseen challenges arose.

First District City Council member and former Indian Mound Neighborhood Association President Scott Wagner said a city-hired contractor failed to discover soil issues when conducting an environmental study.

“Especially with this particular phase (outdoor phase), you’re not digging very deep. You’re not doing anything to a great degree that will disturb the ground,” Wagner said. “It should be a fairly easy exercise to figure out if you’ll have immediate environmental problems.”

The Parks and Recreation Department discovered the issue when excavating the property during the latter part of summer last year.

“There were unstable soil conditions below ground,” McHenry explained. “Usually when you go into a site, there’s solid, firm material you can build on.”

Instead, the city discovered land comprised of slag material dating back to when ATA housed its vehicles on site.

“It (slag) doesn’t stay stable. It’s like trying to build on loose material like marbles. They tend to roll against each other,” McHenry explained.

Re-mediating the site cost the city in excess of $1 million, McHenry said.

“It was a challenge for us. There’s no question about it,” McHenry said.

Together, 3rd District City Council members Jermaine Reed and Melba Curls scraped together Public Improvements Advisory Committee (PIAC) funding to continue the project, Wagner said.

“We all came together to figure out what would be the best solutions to resolve them (site issues) in a timely manner,” Reed said. “We basically put our heads together to find out where some funding was to prevent anything else from happening to this site.”

Reed and other city officials wanted to ensure the youth in Northeast had a place to call their own and use for recreational purposes, Reed said.

As for the contractor that failed to find the slag, the city is investigating the “errors and omissions” portion of the engineering contract and hoping to sue.

Community center challenges

Building a community center comes with several challenges, Wagner said.

“It’s going to be a much harder bite to take because of the cost and to be able to offer everything this community has asked for, which included aquatics – one of the biggest cost drivers in building that building,” Wagner said.

Building the community center alone will cost an estimated $15 million, he said.

“From a city standpoint, there’s no simple way to finance that,” Wagner said. “But we’re going to keep looking for creative ways to do that.”

Funding will likely come from city dollars and private partners, he said.

Although federal funds aren’t currently available, the city is remaining diligent by making the building site “shovel ready,” he said.

Asked why the city skipped Northeast when building its community centers, Wagner said it’s a cost issue and that other deserving parts of the city also lack a community center.

Using an existing building in Northeast isn’t the answer, either, he said. Rehabbing a building can quickly equal or exceed the cost of building new.

“The reality is, on average, the cost recovery for a community center is about 28 percent, so these generally are heavily subsidized facilities,” he said. “The issue always goes back to it’s not just about a building. It’s also about how you maintain and operate the building because that’s where your additional cost comes from and if you don’t have a good answer as to how you can operate, maintain and staff a building, then you kind of stop there.”

Timeline for outdoor phase

Drive by 9th and Van Brunt and it’s evident that progress is being made.

Amenities will include an all-weather sports turf for tournament play on the larger soccer field, two practice soccer fields, a walking trail, parking lot, concession stand with restrooms and an amphitheater for community events. In addition, there’s stadium lights and decorative light posts along the walking trail, a sound and visual barrier along the railroad tracks and water management on site to keep the soccer fields dry.

“It’s coming along pretty well. We’re hoping to have it open by May,” McHenry said. “At the end of the day, you end up with a pretty good product out there. It’s taking 12 acres in the Northeast and turning it from a liability into an asset.”