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Neighbors see pros and cons in transforming closed Rio Vista Elementary School into park

Not everyone is satisfied with plans to develop a park at the site of Rio Vista Elementary School, closed since 2009.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Not everyone is satisfied with plans to develop a park at the site of Rio Vista Elementary School, closed since 2009.

ST. PETERSBURG — Rio Vista Elementary School has been shuttered for three years, the once bustling spot a desolate sight.

Now that the city has a lease for the property, though, plans are being developed to raze the boarded-up building and transform the 8-acre site into a park that would have tennis and basketball courts, a playground, fitness zone and walking path, all for about $1.2 million.

Although it sounds lovely, some who live nearby are worried and told the city so at a recent meeting about plans for the parcel, at 8131 Macoma Drive NE.

"We definitely want a green space. We just have a great neighborhood and we don't want noise, more traffic, people parking here," said Paula Timoney, president of the Renaissance Homeowners Association, in an interview.

"We had some concerns about some of the amenities that were being provided, most notably the tennis courts, which would abut some homeowners on Apalachee Circle. The other was the basketball courts. Several of us had concerns about noise and lighting. The other concern was about homelessness. There are some wooded areas. . . . Another concern that some of our neighbors had was drainage and irrigation."

David Hoover, president of the Riviera Bay Civic Association, said he was surprised to hear "opposition to any amenity in the park."

"I think it's the best thing that has happened in this area in 20 years," he said. "I just think it's going to be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. Some people are saying that Fossil Park is only 1 ½ miles away, but that's 1 ½ miles across busy streets."

Rebecca Lazar, president of the Riviera Bay Homeowners Association and mother of two young children, is pleased.

"I would like to have a park that I could walk my children to. We are in favor of it and it will probably bring in some more traffic, but in my opinion, I think it will be more family traffic," she said. "It will definitely look better than a rundown school."

Rio Vista Elementary was one of several elementary schools closed by the Pinellas County School Board in 2009 because of declining state revenue and shrinking enrollment. A few months ago, the board agreed to lease the property to the city for 50 years and at no cost.

Clarence Scott, the city's leisure and community services administrator, said money to transform the property will come from the Weeki Wachee Fund, created when the city sold a 440-acre recreation area along Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County. The fund is designated for parks and recreation beautification and preservation.

Doug Jackson, a neighbor of the proposed park, supports the concept, with reservations. "Maintenance is one, security is another and there's going to be no restroom facilities planned," he said.

"The big thing is it somehow has to be protected from evening intrusion. We've had problems with drug deals going on around the school. And there's been drag racing on 81st (Avenue)."

Late last month, the city invited neighbors to a meeting to get feedback about preliminary plans for the project. Renaissance residents, whose homes share a border with the proposed park, had the most concerns.

"There is a significant difference between those who will use this property and live elsewhere, and those of us who call Renaissance home," they said in an Aug. 6 letter to City Hall.

Roger Crabb, who included his name in the letter, said in an interview that neighbors had not been told about the meeting in a timely manner. "I don't know why that happened, but we got a chance to voice the opinion of the neighborhood and that was a good thing," he said.

"We heard them loud and clear," Scott said.

"I took away from that (meeting) that there are a number of folks who had some concerns in the area of whether the park would end up being an attractive nuisance," Scott said.

"We committed to retaining the fence along Siquita Drive and at least a portion of 81st Avenue, to relocating the proposed tennis courts and to improving the proposed irrigation system. There are no plans for a restroom."

Project manager Steve Ochsner said a modified plan for the park will be presented to the neighborhood at a meeting on Oct. 8. Three picnic shelters and a large pavilion will also be among the amenities, he said. The walking path will connect with the nearby Pinellas Trail and the park will also include a large area of irrigated green space and landscaping trees.

The Riviera Bay Civic Association, which already has adopted a mile of 83rd Avenue, from Fourth Street to the San Martin Bridge, and participates in an annual canal cleanup, has plans to adopt the new park, Hoover said.

Demolition of the old school is likely to take place before the end of the year, with work on the park beginning in the spring, said Raul Quintana, the city's architect.

Scott said no work is being planned for nearby Rio Vista Park, which has no amenities. The new park at the former Rio Vista Elementary School will get a new name.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

. fast facts

Public meeting

Discussion about the proposed park at former Rio Vista Elementary, 7 p.m. Oct. 8, Holy Family Catholic Church, 301 78th Ave. NE, St. Petersburg.

Neighbors see pros and cons in transforming closed Rio Vista Elementary School into park 09/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 5:53pm]

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