The Kennett Trails Alliance (KTA) could not wait for construction to be completed on the first phase of the "Red Clay Park" to continue its hype of the struggling Kennett Greenway.
While KTA and its parent Square Roots Collective (SRC) have previously spared no superlatives in their attempts to sell the multimillion dollar initiative to residents and funders, KTA kicked its campaign into overdrive on January 5th with a "soft opening" party at the Creamery that included a parade of camels as part of a "Three King's Night" theme (a lesser-known element of the story of Christ's birth). Just as in the broader campaign for the Greenway, however, the "Red Clay Park" campaign continues to leave critical questions about the cost of - and the need for - such a park unanswered.
As with the entire Kennett Greenway initiative, KTA has refused to entertain any speculation about the total cost, perhaps because it would shock most residents. The 33,000 square foot "demonstration project" unveiled on January 5th constitutes less than 10% of the total proposed park (whether defined by the total length of trails listed or the total "study area" of 45 acres). Given that this demonstration project is claimed to have cost $1M, we must now revise our estimate from a total cost of $2-5M to at least $5 to 8M. This projection takes into account the fact that, while this pilot included some unique features, it did not address the most expensive elements: the replacement or major rehabilitation of two bridges and one underpass to meet standards, the restoration of a floodplain to start to control the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage downstream from each major storm, and so on. Unless SRC is prepared to make additional commitments, KTA would seek the the remaining $4 to $7M cost from public coffers. But after two years of double digit property taxes to cover Fire/EMS services (and probably more to come), support from the Borough will only come at the cost of other initiatives.
Some will claim that such criticism callously dismisses SRC's donation, which likely constituted a a significant portion of the additional $800+K in funds raised to supplement the $125K in state grants for the demonstration project. But is this just a donation, or could it be viewed as a business investment potentially benefitting many other properties and businesses associated with SRC? SRC has been marketing these efforts as purely philanthropic while KTA's director Christina Norland's has vehemently denied that there are any conflicts of interest with any associated entities.
A review of public records tells a different story, however. There are at least 29 properties within 200 yards of the proposed park owned by 12 different LLCs listed at the address for SRC. The total value of these properties may well now exceed $10M to $15M. Most of the properties acquired by this conglomerate abut directly onto the park. And most also appear have been carefully assembled to create clusters of contiguous properties that offer opportunities for well-heeled developers to cash in on Kennett's cachet. And is it just a coincidence that, just 18 months before KTA began to its marketing campaign to seek a $460K grant for a "transformative park", an SRC developer purchased a 0.8 acre parcel immediately adjacent to the proposed park for $175K (where a church has sat for more than 60 years)? We hope to try to untangle the Square Roots conglomerate and its potentially outside influence on Kennett politics in future blogs.
Another lesson to heed from KTA's aggressive marketing campaign to promote the Chandler Mill sidepath: claims of potential positive impacts are wildly exaggerated while concerns about negative impacts are summarily dismissed. Consider how KTA described the proposed "park" when they first pressed the Borough to apply for $460K in public funds.
The Borough is proposing a transformative urban green space, trail and ecological restoration project in the heart of the community. Currently called “Red Clay Park”, the project re-centers what has been a leftover, forgotten “backyard” space into a key community green space within Kennett Square, as well as creating a new jewel on the overall Greenway. The project vision includes environmental restoration, greenway trail connectivity, and new community programming as equal drivers for this multifaceted space.
And now let's look more closely at KTA's claims.
KTA's claims to "transform" a 45 acre study area for the "park' may well lead residents to grossly overestimate the actual scope and benefit. More than one-half of the study area includes parcels with existing buildings and pavement, with pockets of lawn or streambank. The core area of contiguous greenspace that could perhaps be described as a "park" is about 12 acres, almost all of which lies in a floodplain (contrast this with the 100+ acre Anson B Nixon Park next door). So KTA's $5M-$8M"park" is really just a 3/4 mile section of upgraded trail with a seating and a play area, and with some riparian restoration.
KTA's claims that a 10' wide multi-use path would radically improve travel between points of the Borough.... but the gravel path already in place works perfectly fine for most users and could be upgraded to become fully accessible at minimal cost (especially compared to the $600-$1000 per linear foot for the Greenway). And there is already a network of low-stress roads west of the proposed park that cyclists can use
KTA's claims this will create a "community gathering space", but the actual plans call for steel picnic tables set onto concrete pads in the open sun (all situated in a floodplain), together with rocks placed to allow access to the stream. Contrast the claims that this will be a "jewel" with the multiple gathering spaces (including picnic pavilions and a soon-to-open serenity garden) that already exist in Anson B Nixon Park less than a half-mile away, that already host multiple community gatherings.
While touting its potential environmental impact, KTA has dismissed that fact that the project will (at least) double the area of impervious surface in an existing floodplain, just north of an area that regularly suffers sever damage because of flooding.
Consider the "nature play areas" pushed by designers for the Red Clay Park in glossy banners adjacent to the "park". The "playground" actually consists of a couple of logs from the many trees cut down to make way for the project, laid on a concrete pad and surrounded by mulch from other destroyed trees, all in full sun. Does this really offer a benefit to residents commensurate with the costs, or does it just make for a pretty picture for publicity? Contrast this with the large playground in the adjacent Anson B. Nixon park, situated in a beautifully shaded grove of trees, with restrooms, and a picnic pavilion next door.
Other lessons learned from the Chandler Mill Sidepath section of the proposed Kennett Greenway suggest that KTA may be unable or unwilling to control designers ready to pad projects at public expense. After pressuring Kennett Township to commit to more than $600K in additional design fees requested for the Chandler Mill Section (without even first speaking with all of the residents whose land would be needed), KTA did not push back at another $250K in other fees subsequently tacked on by designers: $90K in "unplanned and belated meetings with landowners whose land was needed for the project, $60K to draft bid documents, and up to $100K to be available for questions during the construction phase..... more than $1M in design and related fees in addition to the $1.5M to build barely a quarter mile of 6' to 8' wide sidepath.
Finally, we want to underscore the potential opportunity cost of SRC's use of lobbyists to relentlessly pursue public funds. Consider the $4M to $7M in funds from State and County coffers likely required to complete the "park", or the tens of millions to complete the Greenway. How long will county and state funders be willing to cover these exorbitant costs, especially when it becomes clear that projects will fall far short of their grandiose claims? If the Borough remains willing to support every SRC or KTA proposal heedless of the cost, it will significantly limit the success of proposals from every other organization in Kennett no matter how great the benefit or how modest the request.