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February 13, 2014

Pumping the brakes on Colston Park in Jeffersonville

Council members ask for more research before selling to developer

JEFFERSONVILLE — In the midst of the city’s riverside metamorphosis, empty land near the shore can be as precious as gemstones.

One of these jewels located just north of West Market Street in downtown Jeffersonville is Colston Park, a retired softball field that developers are clamoring to build upon.

“Now is the time to develop Colston Park along Mulberry [Street],” Mayor Mike Moore said in his state of the city address Feb. 4. “The Parks Department no longer utilizes the park. Keeping the land vacant isn’t the best. It’s prime real estate for private development.”

Moore’s call to action has been a long-standing one — the development of Colston Park has been on Moore’s wish list for two years, since the beginning of his term as mayor, and is one of Moore’s five “Pathway 2 Progress” projects.

“It’s a golden opportunity for developers,” he said. “It’s 30 feet from” the Big Four Pedestrian bridge and Big Four Landing park.

However, progress on the park’s transformation has remained mostly stagnant, delayed by an in-depth archaeological excavation on a Civil War-era gravesite and by an inability for some council members — who also sit on the parks authority — and the mayor to see eye-to-eye.

Moore said what he believes to be stall tactics are a way for some city council members to carry on with former mayor Tom Galligan’s dream.

“It’s been no secret that some of the council members are pushing for the canal,” he said.

Colston Park is part of a contiguous half-mile property the parks department owns for defunct canal route plans pushed by Galligan that never came to pass.

Moore said he thinks the parks authority is holding onto the property instead of deeding it to the redevelopment commission because some council members still want to see the canal become a reality.

“I think it’s time to move on and quit holding onto something the majority of people in Jeff don’t want,” he said.

However, these same council members claim that this is not the case.

City Council President Dennis Julius said they are “absolutely not” saving Colston Park for the sole purpose of building the canal. He did say that he may be in favor of the canal as one of many options for the space, though solid plans disappeared when Galligan’s last term ended in 2011.

“Now that the canal is off the table, what is the plan? There really is no plan,” Julius said, who announced in June his bid for Jeffersonville mayor in 2015. “What we don’t want to do is spot-develop and have that park sitting in the middle of something.”

Julius said the council needs to back up and re-evaluate the space in terms of what needs to be done before developers can starting building on it.

ROADBLOCKS AND HEAD-BUTTS

The park historically has been host to city-run softball leagues, which now play at the new Vissing Park that opened in June. Colston Park’s purpose shifted in 2011 from a sports area to a hotspot for development when Galligan’s planners announced the park and surrounding blocks as a future bookend to the canal, and the park itself to host new hotels and possibly a convention center.

However, when canal plans were dashed, Colston’s future was left in doubt. Since then, ideas for the space have ranged from home to an electronic billboard, and most recently, a brownstone mixed-use building called Rose Hill Commons.

Parks authority members have declined handing over the deed to the redevelopment commission so that experts could conduct a multiphase study of the land.

The city hired Corn Island Archaeology LLC to investigate a Civil War-era gravesite located in the park to ensure there were no remains underground and determine whether the land should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Excavators tested about 1.7 acres of the park, 10 percent of which had to be dug by hand.

In January, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources OK’d the area for development after Corn Archaeology completed its study, as long as projects did not exceed the space investigated by experts.

Jeffersonville City Council members unanimously approved at their second January meeting to hold a joint workshop between the redevelopment and parks boards Feb. 18 to discuss Colston Park’s luminous future.

“I left the meeting that night feeling like we accomplished something,” Moore said.

However, just three days later, the meeting was canceled. In an email, Attorney Scott Lewis said the cancellation was made because he would be unable to attend the meeting and that the matter should first be dealt with in an executive session.

Julius said he was under the impression that Moore had talked to ARC Construction about a possible development plan but later found out things weren’t as finalized, which was another reason the meeting was canceled.

“I don’t think we really had anything to discuss,” Julius said. “We were under the impression that ARC Construction was ready to pull the trigger on the plan.”

City Councilman Mike Smith said another reason the meeting got put off — at least for the time being — is that it wouldn’t make sense to speak about parks matters in a city council environment because the members’ role shift.

“It’s an altogether different makeup,” Smith said.

He also said Moore’s theory that council members are stalling so that the area can be used for a canal is untrue.

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said.

A few members of city council met in a private session on the first day of Moore’s vacation in Florida last week to speak with ARC Construction.

“I don’t understand why they don’t have these conversations in public meetings,” Moore said. “I think it adds an air of suspicion.”

However, Julius and Smith confirmed the session was held as a more informational meeting. ARC has bought the former Rose Hill school — which is right next door to Colston Park — and mentioned it would be interested in developing on the park as well. ARC is planning a multiuse mix of residential and business for the Rose Hill building.

Moore said that at least four developers have approached the city with interest in making use of Colston, including White Reach and Schuler-Bauer. Now that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has cleared the spot, Moore is eager to move forward.

“I am tired of sitting on vacant property,” he said.

Julius said a number of factors need to be considered before handing over the space, including a drainage plan.

“I don’t care if it’s the canal, I don’t care if it’s a college campus down there,” he said. “We need a plan that’s going to address those flooding issues.”

He also said the city needs to take into account the future of the surrounding blocks so that Colston Park — whatever it becomes — is a seamless part of the threadwork.

“We need to back up ... it’s a big footprint,” Julius said. “We just need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. We’re not ready to just give the park up without a little bit of a plan for the overall area.”

Both council members agreed speaking with developers just yet may be jumping the gun.

“I think there’s some research that needs to be done,” Smith said. “I’m trying to be smart and I’m just trying to think what’s best for this park and what’s best for these neighbors.”

Carol Stenbro, owner of Market Street Inn flanking the south end of Colston Park, said she thinks any new business would be positive for the area.

“The area is growing, and I think if people recognize the downtown area of Jeffersonville is a great place to relocate, I think it’s a great thing,” said Stenbro, who said that more business in the area would definitely attract more customers to her Bed and Breakfast.

One thing that everyone agrees with is that a request for proposal needs to be put out so that developers can bid on the property. However, only the redevelopment commission would be able to have the flexibility to decide exactly what happens with the park after sold, whereas the parks authority only has the wherewithal to sell it and not control its fate afterward.

“There are a number of decisions that we as a parks authority just have not sat down and hammered out,” Smith said. “I think the property has value. My theory is, it’s not on fire — what’s the hurry?”

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