No pat answer 

Patton Park on the Detroit-Dearborn border is about to get a facelift. Though southwest Detroit residents are thrilled that more than $10 million is to be spent renovating the park recreation center, other plans are snagged in debate.

On the west end of the 93-acre park sit massive mounds of soil, dug up last fall for sewer improvements. Some neighbors want to see the soil used to create a sled hill. Existing park facilities include numerous baseball diamonds, soccer fields, swings and picnic areas.

A sled hill is what the water department, which is in charge of the sewer system upgrades, proposed last September to save the city removal and landfill costs.

“We thought it was a win-win all the way around,” says Erin Irwin, president of the Patton Park Advisory Council, which is made up of area residents and gives input on park improvements. Irwin says the board is very supportive of the sled hill.

“I’m in favor of it,” says board member Kevin Davis, who agreed to recruit kids from a neighborhood youth league he heads to keep the hill litter-free.

But the city — specifically Detroit Recreation director Charlie Beckham — has shelved the idea, at least for now.

“We are willing to look at it for next year,” he says.

For now, he is focused on the $10 million renovation of Patton Park’s recreation center, which begins next month and will close the center for a year. The city is trying to obtain an additional $10 million for park-wide upgrades over the next several years, he says.

Beckham also is reviewing a plan from the Dearborn nonprofit group ACCESS (Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services), which wants to build a sports and learning facility, which would feature a large indoor soccer field in the spot proposed for the sled hill.

But he is not keen on the location.

“We don’t want it on the west end,” says Beckham. “We want it near the recreation center. We want synergy.”

Irwin also would like to see the soccer facility near the recreation center. But some board members are apprehensive.

“I’m not for the indoor soccer field,” says 36-year-old Amanda Torrez, who has lived in southwest Detroit all her life and has two children who grew up using the park. Torrez, who helps out with the community recreation league, fears that Detroit kids will not have access to the privately owned facility.

Beckham has the same concern, but says ACCESS has assured him that Detroiters will have complete use of the facility.

“One of the main aims of the project is to bring these two communities together,” says Hassan Jaber, ACCESS associate executive director, referring to largely Arab east Dearborn and largely Hispanic and African-American southwest Detroit. “They have been neighbors for so many years and there have been so many common experiences. We want to continue to build on that history and we want this site to be a point where the two communities come together, especially the younger people … and immigrant communities.”

The hill

Detroit and surrounding communities are federally mandated to overhaul their water treatment and sewage systems. The billion-dollar project includes Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), which are designed to keep untreated waste out of the Detroit River and other tributaries.

Roughly 160,000 cubic yards of soil has been dug up to make room for a CSO for Baby Creek, which runs through Patton Park.

According to the water department, about half of the soil will be used as backfill; around 70,000 cubic yards have been hauled to a landfill for disposal at a cost of $17 a cubic yard. The remaining dirt sits in the park.

Irwin and other board members met with the Detroit City Council in February to discuss the sled hill. He says council members were “overwhelmingly” in favor of the project.

Though Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Ken Cockrel Jr. supports the sled hill, he is not optimistic.

He says Beckham told the council earlier this year that the hill “raises liability and would have to be staffed.”

But the councilman says other city parks — such as Balduck and River Rouge — have sledding hills that are not supervised.

Cockrel says Beckham also told the council that the hill does not fit in with the master plan for Patton Park improvements drawn up about two years ago. Those include reconfiguring baseball diamonds and soccer fields and adding a walking path, pond and other amenities.

“It is a very highly used park; on summer weekends we can have as many as 3,000 people there, and the hill could interfere,” says Beckham.

Irwin says Beckham told the board in February the sled hill can’t go forward because the soil is tainted.

“This is contrary to the water and sewerage folks, who had the soil tested and determined there were no contaminants,” he says.

Testing Engineers & Consultants, a Detroit-based company, tested the soil. According to its October 2003 report, which the water department provided Metro Times, the soil contains low levels of natural contaminants.

“They are all natural contaminants and are not deemed hazardous,” says George Ellenwood, Water and Sewerage Department spokesperson. He says the contaminants are below critical levels set by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

The soil is “nothing you would want to use in a residential setting, but for a park it’s fine,” says Ellenwood.

Beckham laughs at the water department’s claim.

“That is what a park is — it is in the middle of a residential area. We would have kids riding up the hill,” he says. “The report says it is contaminated, but not hazardous” and must be put in a special landfill. “Why subject the residents of Detroit to the dirt?” asks Beckham. “Even if we are going to look at a sledding hill — and we are willing to do that for next year — but it will be with other dirt, not dirt out of that hole.”

The field

The indoor soccer field further complicates the park’s future. In 2002 ACCESS proposed building the $5 million to $7 million facility.

Theresa Dominguez, a Patton Park advisory council member, does not want to see Detroit give up green space for the indoor field, which would sit on about 7 acres.

“Why not have it in a Dearborn park?” asks Dominguez.

Jaber says that would defeat the objective.

“The whole aim is to build a facility that the community at large can use and benefit from,” he says. “If this was not our mission, we could build this any other place.”

To allay fears, Jaber says the group would make the deal legally contingent on Detroit residents having full access to the facility.

ACCESS has been meeting with Beckham monthly about the project. The group also met with the law department and City Council members, says Jaber.

“People are kind of keen on the idea if they are sure they can use it,” says Cockrel, who is undecided about the soccer field. “It’s something I’m open to, but a lot of questions have to be answered first.”

It is not clear when the city will make a decision.

“We are a bit concerned because the process has taken too much time, and we also understand there are some competing proposals for this.”

Jaber says ACCESS has raised about $16 million for an endowment for the facility. ACCESS plans to come up with $2 million more.

“Our focus at the time is to make sure that we are successful in finishing the capital campaign by June,” he says. Part of the funds will be for upkeep.

ACCESS would own and operate the facility and lease the land from the city for a symbolic amount, says Jaber.

Beckham says he is undecided about the soccer facility. But he plans to get community input on the proposal.

ACCESS also plans to meet with Dearborn and Detroit residents.

“We really haven’t done expansive outreach in the community,” says Jaber. “The reason we haven’t done it yet is we don’t know what the city response will be. We didn’t want to start things before we know we will get the piece of land.”

And what if the residents reject plans for an indoor soccer field? Jaber doesn’t want to consider this possibility. For now, he says, “We will engage the community and put plans forward, and we will see.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at 313-202-8015 or amullen@metrotimes.com

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