Marshall Park Charlotte
Marshall Park at night, photo by James Willamor.

By Taylor Batten, The Charlotte Observer 

Hugh McColl, clad in blue jeans and a Marine Corps baseball cap, stood in the 90-degree sun on Friday and looked out over uptown’s Marshall Park.

The retired bank CEO who helped develop more square footage uptown than anyone in Charlotte history was lamenting that a proposed development known as Brooklyn Village would eliminate most of the 5.5-acre park, one of the few green spaces in Charlotte’s center city.

The prospect upsets him even more because the apartments and condos slated for Marshall Park would do little, in his eyes, to honor Charlotte’s black residents who were forced out of their homes and businesses on that site as part of what was known as “urban renewal” starting in the early 1960s.

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“We’ve never lost the enmity created by urban renewal, which was really urban clearance,” McColl says.

“I’d be stunned that we’d consider doing away with a park that honors Martin Luther King at a time in our country when we are at odds with each other.”

Late in the game

McColl toured Marshall Park and surrounding Second Ward Friday with former Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill, former Duke Power CEO Bill Grigg, architect Murray Whisnant and me. The group wants to mount a last-gasp effort to modify the plans for the site, augmenting the new development by preserving the full park and making other changes.

Mecklenburg County commissioners voted last year to sell 17 acres to BK Partners, which plans to build apartments, condos, shops, restaurants, hotels and office space. The county hopes to make the contract final this fall.

So it’s late in the game. But county commissioners, backed by McColl & Co. and black leaders, could still seek to persuade the developer to include a sizable and more attractive park. Current plans call for just a 1.77-acre park among the buildings.

A checkered history

There are at least two forces at work here. First, green space in the center city doesn’t just grow on trees. The Trust for Public Land ranks Charlotte 97th out of 100 cities for its parks. The county in this case wouldn’t have to ask a developer to create such space. It already exists and the developer would merely have to not pave over it.

Romare Bearden Park and, more recently, First Ward Park, show the value of park space uptown. With tens of thousands of people moving to Charlotte every few years, the need for it will only grow, and our ability to provide it only shrink.

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Marshall Park is a desolate place most days. But that’s not an argument to get rid of it. Besides some sprucing up, it mainly needs people, which new offices and residences around it would provide.

The other element: History and our current national and local racial divide. This land, Brooklyn, was the heart of Charlotte’s black community for generations. “Urban renewal,” as well as the construction of I-77, ripped people from their homes and businesses. They were replaced by barren surface parking lots and sterile buildings.

“In 55 years, this is what we got,” McColl told me Friday. “No plan, no execution, no talent. It’s the one quadrant of our city that looks like it got left in 1965.”

Neill sees the Second Ward redevelopment as a chance to honor Brooklyn’s history and the contribution African-Americans have made to the city. He and McColl don’t think the current proposal includes enough features to do so.

A largely unnoticed statute of Martin Luther King stands in Marshall Park. As America debates Confederate monuments and how to remember sacrifices of the past, Mecklenburg could be using the Second Ward overhaul as an opportunity to heal some of history’s missteps rather than cement them over.

The county is close to sealing a deal. It’s late. But there’s still a chance to do the right thing.

This article was first published by The Charlotte Observer. 

The Charlotte Observer

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