Grand Rapids opens Joe Taylor Park; an oasis for kids in a once-blighted neighborhood

Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS – As she frolicked on the water spray pad at Joe Taylor Park, 9-year-old Jasmine Jones summed up her thoughts on the newly installed amenities.

“This park is the most beautiful park I’ve ever been to,” she said. “You can play here and get wet at the same time and you can have a barbecue here.”

City officials who plan to formally dedicate the inner city park today think it’s pretty special, too.

“For me, personally, this has been a labor of love,” said Jay Steffen, the city’s Parks and Recreation Director. “It’s a project we’ve worked on very hard. It’s taken an effort by almost every department in the city.”

Steve Faber, director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, said the new park is a prototype for their campaign to retro-fit old neighborhoods that have a deficit of green space.

“It really sets a standard I hope we can aspire to for other neighborhoods as well,” Faber said. “It’s a high quality design and it implements a lot of sustainable features.”

Thanks to a gift from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, it’s also one of the few city parks with an endowment for future maintenance.

The co-founder of Amway Corp., whose Dutch immigrant grandfather opened a grocery store and raised seven children in the neighborhood, donated $106,600 to the park project and has pledged $50,000 towards the maintenance endowment.

The 2.2 acre oasis in the middle of the city’s North Baxter neighborhood onced was a blighted and sketchy enclave of drug trafficking, poverty and absentee landlords.

The park has its roots in 1976, when 11 tax-reverted lots were seeded over for a pocket park. In 1992, it was named for Joe Taylor, a city police officer who was killed in the line of duty.

In 2003, city officials decided more than double the size of the park by purchasing four homes that were left in the block east of Diamond Avenue SE between Bemis and Baxter streets.

After tearing down the remaining homes in the block, city officials used the site to build an underground treatment reservoir that treats and drains storm water from a 40-acre segment of the neighborhood.

Once the facility was completed as part of the city’s overhaul of its sewer system, city officials asked neighbors to help design a kid-friendly park that would surrounded by neighborhood homes facing the park.

The amenities they chose included a picnic shelter, playground toys for small kids, seating areas and a water park. The park also includes public restrooms, a “pervious” parking lot that soaks up rainwater, LED security lighting and a system that re-uses water from the water park to irrigate the park’s trees and lawn.

Johnny Jones, a neighborhood resident since 1977 whose home faces the park, said he asked city officials not to install a basketball court that would attract older youth and possible gang activity.

“It’s nice to have the little kids out there,” said Jones as he watched the fun unfold at the spray park.

Harry Campbell, an activity leader for the city’s Recreation Reaps Rewards program, said the new park has been embraced by the neighborhood. “I really think the neighbors are going to take care of this park,” he said.

Campbell said he does not believe gang activity will be a problem given the park’s visibility.

“Since I’ve been here, the youth that people think have been causing problems haven’t been a problem. They respect the park,” he said.

“This is going to be the park of the future,” Campbell said. “A lot of people are going to come here when they find

Besides the gift from the DeVos Foundation, the park was created through a $485,000 grant from city capital improvement bonds and a $100,000 federal Community Development Block Grant.

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