ST. PETERSBURG — The weeks-long demolition of the closed Rio Vista Elementary School has begun, an initial step toward creating a neighborhood park on the 8-acre property.
Feedback from nearby residents has led to a number of tweaks to the design that will include tennis and basketball courts, a playground, fitness zone and walking path. Some neighbors had raised concerns about noise, the homeless and loiterers.
As a result, neither the tennis nor basketball courts will be lighted and the park at 8131 Macoma Drive NE will have no restrooms.
Paula Timoney, president of the Renaissance Homeowners Association, is more at ease now. Besides noise, her association had been apprehensive about increased traffic and parking in the neighborhood. Renaissance residents, whose homes share a border with the proposed park, had expressed the most anxiety to city leaders.
"I think they have responded to our concerns, so we feel pretty good about it and we're excited about it coming to fruition," Timoney said Monday.
"They moved the basketball courts like we suggested. It's farther away from all the houses."
Steve Ochsner, the city's senior capital project coordinator, said the modified plan for the yet-to-be-named park calls for locating the playground, tennis and basketball courts, and fitness zone in the same general area, away from homes and closer to Macoma Drive.
As well, the park will be illuminated with nonintrusive, Victorian-style lights, typical of some city parks, Ochsner said. Neighbors have also won additional protection.
"There is no access from the Sequita (Drive) side. The fence that's there remains," Ochsner said, adding that additional landscaping will be added to form a buffer zone for neighbors.
Landscaping throughout the park will consist of native plants, which will replace invasive species. Three new picnic shelters are planned, while a large pavilion already on the property will be renovated. The walking path will connect with the nearby Pinellas Trail. There also will be benches throughout the park and what Ochsner describes as "a large, open play lawn."
Money for the new park will come from the Weeki Wachee Fund, created when St. Petersburg sold a 440-acre recreation area along Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County. The fund is designated for parks and recreation beautification and preservation.
The project will cost about $1.6 million, which includes operating expenses for 10 years and demolition of the school, at the cost of $136,000.
Plans are being developed to record the history of the former elementary school.
"It's kind of a work in progress," Ochsner said. "We are going to try to preserve, as best we can, the two most western corners of the building. We have a circular plaza we are going to put there."
Some type of historical documentation also will be included.
According to the former school's website, Rio Vista opened in 1925 with 50 students, a principal and one teacher. The main two-story building was built in 1926, but the school closed in 1934 because of low enrollment. It reopened and closed again for a long period, during which the main building became a hang-out for chickens and goats. The school was eventually remodeled and reopened in 1950.
It closed for good in 2009, one of several elementary schools shut by the Pinellas County School Board because of declining state revenue and shrinking enrollment. The city is leasing the property for 50 years at no cost.
Work on the new park is expected to begin this summer and be finished around November.
David Hoover, president of the Riviera Bay Civic Association, who has supported the project from the beginning, can't wait.
"We're chomping at the bit to use this park," he said.
"I think that it's the best thing that is going to happen in this area in decades. As long as they close it at nights and there are not lighted basketball courts or lighted tennis courts, I think it will be trouble-free. It's much more attractive than a closed, derelict school.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.