Monday, July 10, 2017

“A Noble Idea:” The History of Peabody Park (Part Three)

Have you ever wondered how and why UNCG has such a beautiful green space on the northern edge of its campus?  Well, the founding and development of Peabody Park is a fascinating story that reflects UNCG’s overall growth as a center of higher learning and a Greensboro neighbor.  Given the complexity of the story, the Park’s history is being told in three Spartan Story installments.  The third and final installment, July 2017, examines the evolution of the Park over the past twenty-five years.  The blog post will consider competing visions of the Park’s intended use that range from a nature preserve, to a sanctuary for quiet reflection, to an outdoor classroom, to space for physical fitness and education, and to an area for University expansion.

So, we pick up the Peabody Park story at the end of the 20th century.  With the projected growth of the school’s student body in the 1990s, University administrators evaluated the infrastructure that was required to support an expanding campus population.  The University’s assessment of its facilities led to the development of a Master Plan.  The Plan considered such challenges as the building of new dormitories, new classrooms, new parking lots, as well as the renovation of existing buildings to meet changing teaching and learning needs.

Discussions about the future growth (and needs) of the UNCG student body population were reported widely in the school’s student newspaper and in the local Greensboro press.  As one of the few remaining open spaces on campus, school administrators did consider Peabody Park as a possible area of future development.  As planning for the University’s Master Plan advanced, there were several articles published in the local newspaper expressing concern about the possible loss of campus green spaces.
In 1994, the University’s Board of Trustees considered several campus sites for the building of a new School of Music building.  The University’s Chancellor William Moran and his staff had proposed constructing the new music building on Tate Street between the Weatherspoon Art Museum and the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks.  However, the University’s Board of Trustees rejected this proposed building location.  At its February 10, 1994 meeting, the Board proposed to locate the building at the corner of West Market and McIver Streets.  It is in the northeast section of campus.  The Board felt that this location would better showcase the new $23.4 million dollar building and give the University a more visible presence on busy West Market Street.

As news of the decision to locate the School of Music Building in Peabody Park spread, a number of students and faculty expressed some misgivings about this proposed plan.  Their concerns ranged from the possible environmental impact on the wooded area, to access and safety concerns, as well as to upholding the vision of the Park’s founders.  In an effort to address these concerns, the University’s Board of Trustees in December 1994 issued a statement on the location of and planning for the School of Music Building.  In the document, the Board noted that the new music building would become “the anchor to development in the northeast corner of campus.”  The Board also stated that they were confident that this new location was in the best long-term interests of the University.  The Board went on to address two specific concerns that had been raised by UNCG community members.  The first concern was that there might be restrictions on the use and development of the land.  The area is part of a 112 acre tract that was purchased back in 1895.  The University Counsel reviewed the original purchase and concluded that there were “no restrictions in the deed limiting development of the area.”   The second concern was the preservation of the wooded area just west of the proposed Music Building.  In reviewing the school’s archival records, it was concluded that President Charles Duncan McIver’s original vision was to develop a park on a portion of the 112 acre tract.  The Board of Trustees reaffirmed its intention to “develop a safe and useful natural park area.”  The Board also stated that it was in the process of reviewing plans to “enhance” the park area and to retain as many of the mature trees as possible.
For some members of the UNCG community, this statement did not fully address their concerns about campus growth and its impact on Peabody Park.  Indeed, a student group organized and circulated a petition against the proposed site.  The organizers’ central contention was that the development of this fragile and diverse wooded area was environmentally wrong.  Moreover, they argued that it violated a 1901 “agreement” between President McIver and donor George Peabody.   
At a February 1995 Board of Trustees meeting, a number of students staged a peaceful demonstration and temporarily stopped the meeting by holding up signs and beating a drum.  Some students even wore gags to protest the lack of dialog.  The Board Chair informed the students that they had no plans to discuss the building at this particular meeting.  The protesters circled the meeting table and handed out a “statement of protest” to each Board member.  Chancellor Patricia Sullivan asked students to finish passing out their literature so the meeting could continue.  The protestors were invited to stay if they remained quiet.  They were eventually escorted out of the meeting.  Protests against this plan continued into the spring.  In March 1995, the student-run Environmental Awareness Foundation held a rally against the West Market Street project.  On a beautiful spring day, 75 students turned out for the rally.  Student opposition continued with news that a parking deck would be constructed next to the new School of Music building.  At the April 1997 groundbreaking ceremony for the West Market Street project, students from the Environmental Awareness Foundation held a silent protest. 
In an effort to respond to UNCG community concerns about proposed development and support campus dialog, Chancellor Patricia Sullivan formed the Peabody Park Committee in 1997.  The Committee’s charge was to help maintain and restore the Park’s woods.  The Committee played an active role in advocating for the protection of the wooded area as well as supporting educational uses of the Park.  In 2001, members of the UNCG community again raised concerns about the Master Plan and the idea of building a new residence hall in Peabody Park.  This campus-wide discussion of future development helped to elevate a discussion of the environmental richness and diversity of the flora and fauna in the Park.
In 2014, the Research and Instruction in STEM Education network began a discussion of the teaching value of Peabody Park and the idea of introducing wetlands to the campus.  A wetlands exploratory committee was formed to consider the feasibility of such a project.  UNCG faculty and students as well as members of the Peabody Park Committee joined this new group to consider location and possible educational programming for both the UNCG and Greensboro communities.  In 2016, the Wetlands Committee identified two sites in Peabody Park (south of the golf course and a site near Market Street) to serve as wetlands.  In March 2017, the two wetland sites were constructed to improve water quality, address run-off from athletic fields, as well as support biotic diversity with the use of native wetland plants.  The 2017 project both recognizes the importance of green spaces and ensures the long-term health of Peabody Park.  Moreover, it also embraces Charles Duncan McIver’s original vision of an “education park.”

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