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Nelmar Park - the power of compromise

Nelmar Terrace Park
Nelmar Terrace Park
J. Haviland

Looking like the extension of someone's manicured lawn, only a close inspection of nearby signage would ever tip the casual passerby that Nelmar Park is actually listed on the City of St. Augustine's roster of recreational options. It's only draw would appear to be a pleasant but unremarkable view of Hospital Creek. There is very little about the property or its location that gives any clue to the long and somewhat contentious history it represents. It's this enigmatic existence that sparks curiosity.

The pocket park gets its name not just from the street it anchors- Nelmar Avenue, but also from the subdivision that contains it. Awaiting approval from the National Register of Historical Places to be listed, Nelmar Terrace dates from the early 1900's when it was cut from the existing Raney tract in northern St. Augustine for development. While the neighborhood is full of Colonial Revival architecture and huge, overarching oaks, well-known for its wide and palm-lined streets, the park proper was nothing more than an empty space belonging to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. The school pre-dates any development in the area by thirty years or so, having been established in the late 1880's. By the beginning of this century, the nearby Collins House on the FSDB campus had deteriorated to the point that many of the trustees were convinced it needed to be demolished. Ironically, it seems to be this seemingly insignificant decision that lit a firestorm of controversy.

The character of the Nelmar Terrace neighborhood was and still is critical to the application for historic status. Once the demolition plans were announced, an immediate outcry for restoration of the Collins house were heard. Initial refusal of the FSDB to consider alternatives eventually resulted in a land use dispute in 2001, which simultaneously demanded the removal of security fencing that prevented local residents access to the waterway at the end of Nelmar Avenue. According to Tom Tibbitts of the Nelmar Terrace Neighborhood Association, the original WWI-era design plat acknowledged the school's property boundaries, but had also assumed the creation of a "scenic public space" in the vicinity. The dispute became so acrimonious that it finally had to be decided by the Florida State legislature in 2004, which used a limited act of imminent domain to force the two sides into arbitration. Even though the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind agreed to modify the security fencing, for the next three years the tiny space that is just barely large enough to park two school buses side-by-side was little more than an asphalt-paved city right-of-way extending Nelmar Avenue down to the creek bank.

It was the NTNA who initiated the next stage of the metamorphosis in 2007, beginning with a $2,000 neighborhood grant from the city. The real work would not only lie in the "greenification" of the site, but in building the cooperation and teamwork necessary to get everything accomplished. Nelmar Park would have to literally be built from the ground up. The concrete and asphalt that it was then paved with had to be removed. The existent sewer and water lines had to be rerouted. Soil would have to be back-filled and graded. Everything green and growing would have to be planted. Irrigation would have to be installed. The city would have to be persuaded to construct a new sidewalk with curbing. In short, the original grant money was just the tip of the iceberg. The students and faculty of the FSDB took up the challenge, assisting in the funding of the project with two additional grants. Under the guidance of the Deaf Honors program faculty and with the assistance of the school's Dragon Flower Garden Club, native and ornamental plants were installed, further beautifying the site. By 2010, the pocket park was ready to be acknowledged as a successful cooperative project. As it now stands, Nelmar Park not only embodies the original developer's concept, but is also a testament to the power of compromise.