Forsyth Park neighbors raise concerns over master planning process

When the Forsyth Park Master Plan was originally announced in late 2020, many in the community believed it would be a general maintenance review of the park, not a redesign of the park and its equipment, according to Ryan Madson, president of the Victorian Neighborhood Association. .

“We were okay with this kind of higher-level thinking about Forsyth Park, which needs cohesive management and strategy to replace the old canopy of live oak trees,” Madson said. “But they haven’t come to the public with those parts of the plan. They still haven’t shown what we think are the most important parts of the plan.”

The Trustees’ Garden Club and its Friends of Forsyth committee recently submitted a final draft of the master plan in a 299-page report. The proposal differs greatly from previous drafts presented to the public last year, plans that have drawn widespread public outcry, especially from those who live near the park, such as Madson.

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These 2021 recommendations included previews of adjusted programming and facilities. For example, one plan showed how a playground would be demolished to make way for picnic tables; in another, a wading pool would be added to the south end of the park next to the basketball courts.

Many of these changes were dropped in the final draft, although the blueprint features several equipment changes. Still, the most detailed aspects of the final plan include dozens of pages on how to protect the tree canopy and its roots, where events can take place, and how stormwater drainage would be mitigated in the park.

Eleanor Rhangos, co-chair of the Friends of Forsyth Committee, which led planning efforts for three years, said the plan has always been presented as comprehensive.

“Rather than just focusing on the design aspect – which is certainly important and where the community was so engaged from day one – it was more comprehensive to include the tree survey, the first topographic survey, the preservation inventory…it’s always been to be a comprehensive plan, she said.

Ask and listen to the community

Decisions on the plans were made by the team of local experts assembled by the Friends of Forsyth, weekend listening sessions at the Forsyth Farmers’ Market, public comment sessions and survey responses of more than 5,000 people.

Madson said the VNA should have played a bigger role and their voices carried more weight than others, due to their proximity to the park.

Visitors enjoy a basketball game at Forsyth Park.

the VNA was included in the early stages along with other neighborhood associations, but felt they should have been involved throughout the project as the neighborhood is anchored by Forsyth Park.

“They are very privileged inner city women with ties, historical and generational ties to money and power,” Madson said, adding that he thought the master plan started as a “fun project.” for the club.

Meb Ryan, Co-Chair of the Trustees Garden Club of Forsyth Friends Committee.

Meb Ryan, co-chair of Forsyth’s planning committee, said the city told them to consider all feedback equally.

“Forsyth Park is everyone’s park, it doesn’t just belong to downtown residents or neighbors who live right around it,” Ryan said. “People come from all over the county area to enjoy Forsyth Park for different reasons, so it was very important to the city that we were able to gather feedback from all over.”

The VNA was first approached about the project in 2016, when around 25 stakeholders were invited to brainstorm the plan by the club. Rhangos said his team has a documented two-page timeline showing how often they engaged the VNA in the process.

ryan madson

Madson also felt that the survey led many people to consider options for the park that should not have been introduced in the first place, such as a pickleball court and the addition of a children’s wading pool.

“They were very dishonest and misleading and not upfront about a lot of the mechanics and the project, including audience participation,” Madson said. “And we were frustrated at every turn.”

The Friends of Forsyth committee sent numerous emails and offered to attend neighborhood association meetings across the city, according to Ryan. The club has met with VNA’s four-person executive staff on several occasions, she added, but not the full membership.

“A number of organizations have asked us to come and talk about the project and they wanted to know more and they want to know what’s going on,” Ryan said, adding that they’ve given presentations to Ardsley Park and downtown neighborhood associations. town.

Madson said the planning process improved once they made their displeasure known.

“But to their credit, we appreciate that they included us in the later stages of public participation and incorporated many of our suggestions into the second draft of the master plan,” he said.

Ryan said the committee listened to their criticisms early on, but was always committed to including the perspective of the entire city, county and region.

Survey results are not representative of the community

Community dissatisfaction after early drafts was not limited to the VNA. Dozens of comments and critiques directed at the Friends of Forsyth committee “clarified community priorities,” Ryan said.

The Forsyth Park Farmer's Market is a popular stop on Saturday mornings.

The initial survey was a guide for how the master plan would be written. It was sent out in the early stages of the public portion of the plan, in early 2021, and received more than 5,000 responses.

Jane Ogle was visited by the Friends of Forsyth committee last year when they asked her company, Custom Fit Center on West Park Avenue, to help with the survey. Ogle said the gym, which also hosts classes in Forsyth Park, has been promoting online and in-person surveys to try to get more participation in the process.

She attended the public listening sessions held throughout the summer and fall of 2021 and feels the planning process was fair and community driven.

“They were eager to get as much input as possible and incorporate as much of the survey respondents’ suggestions as they could,” Ogle said.

Respondents overwhelmingly called for more bathrooms, tree canopy protection, more family events and to meet the need for bike lanes, according to the master plan.

Tennis courts at Forsyth Park.

But the answers don’t fully reflect Savannah as a community.

White people made up 67% of responses, according to the blueprint. Whites make up 55% of the city’s population, according to the 2020 census. And, most respondents live in the 31401 zip code, which includes Forsyth Park. The area is the wealthiest ZIP code in the city where the population has been declining due to the increase in student and rental properties and short-term vacation rentals.

Rhangos said the representative gap in their responses was a concern early on. When they went to the Savannah City Council in December 2020 with the initial survey results, their directive was clear: get more input from communities of color.

“We’ve extended the first phase of community engagement for three months, so we can expand the voices and the truth is, it’s hard,” Rhangos said.

The club distributed hard copies of the surveys, met with city task forces, religious leaders, fraternity leaders at Savannah State University, civic organizations and youth soccer coaches to gather more wide range of comments.

“We’re very comfortable that we did everything we could,” Ryan said.

Visitors gather near the Confederate Law in Forsyth Park.

Safety a major concern

Victoria District resident and local travel writer Erin Clarkson responded to the survey last year and scored tree protection, adding toilets and safety.

“One of my biggest complaints about the current plan is that they plan to add more cameras to the park,” said Clarkson, who lives just south of the park. “Cameras don’t make the park safer.”

Security was the No. 2 issue identified by the community in polls, with more than 900 people saying improved lighting and emergency services were needed.

She added that while cameras help solve crimes, police foot patrols are badly needed to keep park visitors safe.

She referenced an October homicide where Desmond Warren, 33, was shot dead just after sunset in Forsyth Park. The incident was filmed.

“You know what happened? These two suspects went out of the park,” she said.

A visitor skates through Forsyth Park.

The master plan recommends that $122,000 be set aside for security upgrades, with over $3 million earmarked for lighting. Rhangos said the need to replace several broken security cameras was a directive from the City of Savannah. Future plans include the possibility of hiring a park ranger, a law enforcement officer whose only patrol area would be the park.

Plans call for the installation of emergency call boxes, which would assist park patrons should they need to call 911.

“Just having a manager in the park really helps to increase people’s perception and reality of safety,” Rhangos said. “So it was something that came up and was driven by the community.”

Zoe covers growth and its impact on communities in the Savannah area. Find her at [email protected], @zoenicholson_ on Twitter and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.

Louisa R. Loomis