Sunday, July 14, 2013

Carondelet Park

Okay, this is one of my favorite St. Louis parks and probably one of the best known parks in the city.  Forest Park is the obvious first choice, Carondelet or O'Fallon may be second.  Tower Grove is not a city park, otherwise it would be #2 for me.

At 179.71 acres, Carondelet Park ranks as St. Louis' third largest park.  It boasts a beautiful boathouse, a fantastic rec-center and pool, walking paths, tennis courts, ball fields, horseshoe pits, playgrounds, etc.  Most of all, the location is impeccable.  The park just seems to fit in so well in the surrounding neighborhoods of Holly Hills, Carondelet and Boulevard Heights.  Yes, the park abuts the borders of 3 separate neighborhoods.

The boulevards of Holly Hills and Leona that line the north and west sides of the park are simply gorgeous with mature sycamores lining the grassy medians, providing a vista nearly unmatched on the deep south side of the city.  





The homes that line the park are among my favorites.  
















The park defines this area if you ask me.  And oh, has the park changed in the last 10 years.  Some of the commentary in this post will be more informed based on experience as I lived in this part of the city for 9 years.  I truly love this park and hope to do it justice with this post.

This park was established in 1875.  It takes its name from the former city of Carondelet (founded 1767), now a section of south east St. Louis.
Carondelet was originally called Louisburg in honour of King Louis XV of France, and then Prairie a Catalan, after one of the settlers, Louis Catalan. Finally in 1794, it was named Carondelet in honor of Baron Francois Louis Hector de Carondelet, a Fleming appointed the Spanish governor of Louisiana. It has bore other names as well. In its early days it was referred to as Delor's Village, and Vide Poche which means "empty pocket." Judge Wilson Primm suggested this was due to the Carondelet citizens skill at gambling. They would send their Saint Louis neighbors home with empty pockets. (source)
The topography of the park is quite varied in that there are sinkholes, railroad tracks and bridge, hills and valleys.

Where to start?  This park is huge.  Let's go to the east side first.  

The awesome rec-center sits atop a hill overlooking I-55 to the east and mulch pits to the west.  This is one of two relatively new rec-centers built in St. Louis, the other is in O'Fallon Park.  It opened in November, 2009.  I used to be a member here, and can vouch for the fact that it is awesome...not cheap for a middle class family that doesn't qualify for cost breaks, but awesome nonetheless. 







The rec-center is run by the YMCA, and they did a really good job of keeping things clean, well staffed and functional.  There are bike racks on both sides of the rec-center.  They always seem to have bikes parked and this place is very well utilized.  In fact, one of the things you'll notice at this rec-center is the amount of diversity that exists here.  Black, white, Hispanic/Latino...the south side and central city are the only diverse parts of the city and the Carondelet YMCA reflects that diversity.  It's great to see everyone getting along in the pools, basketball courts, yoga rooms and gyms.  A good feel.  Good for St. Louis.

The entry road off of Holly Hills Avenue, just as you cross I-55 from the east was recently paved and it too looks great.  New trees were planted and landscaping around the rec-center looks great. 


There are also 2 softball field in the lower lying area just south of the rec-center...and one of the things you'll hear me say many times in this post is that the park is being USED.  People of all kinds are everywhere throughout the park doing all kinds of different stuff TOGETHER.  I love it.  Notice the dad hitting grounders and fly balls to his kids on the field.



As you head west over the train tracks (still in use), you cross one of my favorite bridges in the deep south side.


If you head over this bridge, to your left is a much used spot for St. Louis people from all over...the mulch pits.  The city has a full blown mulch operation here and makes the mulch available to anyone willing to pick it up...for free.  There are also recycling bins here which before the city starting charging extra for trash service and placing recycling bins in the alleys, people would come from all over to drop their recycling off here.  

 large recycling bins

 rows of various types of mulch used by parks/forestry throughout the city


graffiti on some dumpsters by the mulch pit

There's a small group of homeless guys who hang out under the trees waiting for aluminum cans and offer to help shovel mulch into your vehicle for a small, negotiable fee.  You can see their chairs in the shade of trees where they wait to offer help.


There is a new retaining wall being installed in this section of the park as I write this.  I got word from the Holly Hills Improvement Association that this wall is part of the new Great Rivers Greenway bike/pedestrian trails that will connect the park with the River des Peres Greenway...dubbed the Carondelet Connector.  In my opinion, this ever-expanding system of trails is one of the greatest things to happen to St. Louis and the metro region in the last 25 years.


This extension of the River des Peres Greenway will begin at I-55 and Germania and continue continue north to Carondelet Park.

The project is currently under construction with construction targeted for completion in the fall of 2013.


It's great to see the infrastructure investment in the park, but I have to be kind of selfish or nostalgic and say this puts an end to one of the most popular sledding spots in the deep south side as the bottom slope of this hill is altered.  I took 2/3 of my kids sledding here for the first time, so it's kinda sad to see the kids have to find another spot, because this one was perfect.

Again, a lot of work has been put into Carondelet Park.  A Mater Plan was developed by H3 Studios in 2003 to renovate the park.  Looking through this plan, much has not yet been realized, but some has.  

The most glaring improvement to the park is the walking/jogging/skating/cycling trail that winds through the park.  This is a "build it and they will come" example.  Before this existed, you just didn't see people in the numbers that are there now.  You always see people running, walking, etc on these trails and it provides elements of vibrancy and safety to the park.  There are smooth, paves trails marked down the center to divide for 2 lanes of traffic with curb cuts, benches, trash cans and dog stations along the way.  



So there are joggers/dog walkers/rollerbladers, etc at all times in the park.

Another thing you will see at almost all times are fishermen.  There are a couple lakes that almost always have guys fishing...again a great scene of diversity that only the south side offers.  Bosnian guys, black dudes, old white south siders, Hispanic guys, kids...its awesome.






For what it's worth, I've fished here many times and have NEVER caught a fish.

One key part of the park that has not seen improvements is the "bear pit".  Local legend has it that before the zoo came to Forest Park, there were other options considered for animals.  Fairground Park in the north side and Carondelet on the south side apparently had animals at one time.  Today the bear pits are filled with water from the sinkhole and cattails.  

The Master Plan had ambitious plans.  Recommendations included:

  • Develop a native flowering meadow on the slopes surrounding the Bear Pit to reduce erosion, reduce drainage into the Bear Pit, and to direct pedestrian access to the Bear Pit
  • The existing Bear Pit is not only underutilized but is over grown and not well maintained and as such is a major problem area in the park.  Similarly, many of the sinkhole areas and the area of Glaize Creek are poorly maintained and not visually appealing as well as being perceived as problem areas in the park. If all these conditions were to be improved and the variety of landscapes types included, as suggested by the community, there would be a multitude of sites for year-round outdoor activities as well as opening up opportunities for new and diverse outdoor experiences and events.  I
  • Increase the quantity and quality of amenities in support of passive recreation throughout the park and to provide one unique adventure playground at the Bear Pit.
  • The Bear Pit will be developed as a new adventure playground encircled by two new picnic pavilions and three existing pavilions. In order to ensure visual access to the Bear Pit at all times, the upper wall of the Bear Pit will be removed but the quarry rocks will remain and the surrounding area will be landscaped with low meadow type plantings.

     Open up the area around the bear pit in order to create a safe, well lit, and highly used destination.
     Design the adventure playground using the theme of “bears” acknowledging the local history and folklore of the area.
     Upgrade the existing picnic facilities around the Bear Pit.
     Provide two new picnic facilities that are unique in character.
     Remove overgrown shrub growth and adjacent tree density on the steep slopes surrounding theBearPit and landscape the steep slopes with low native meadow grasses and flowers to prevent soil erosion and access down to the Bear Pit.
     Remove the upper wall of the Bear Pit but preserve the quarry rocks as the edge of the adventure playground.
     Create an adventure playground using naturalized materials in and around the Bear Pit. Adventure playground to be designed to meet all required safety standards andADArequirements
     Use layers of aggregate and a French drainage system to ensure proper drainage of the Bear Pit area.
     Retain existing access road for police and security patrols.  Change material of access road to match the pedestrian pathway system.
     Provide ornamental and feature lighting in the Bear Pit area.
    Nothing has happened to date, and when I was involved in this neighborhood years ago there was much resistance to this idea as well as the idea of a skate park in this part of the park.  Because of course, that would bring crime :)  

    Today the bear pits look as they have for years, abandoned:



    However, other improvements have been made to the park, including painting and cosmetic repairs to the boathouse pavilion and the grand pavilion.  These two fixtures are arguably the centerpieces of the park.

    When I first moved to this part of the city, there is a guy with tremendous energy who drives many of the plantings throughout Holly Hills.  He was a personal inspiration to me in my early urbanist days, and still is.  He is a big part of why the boathouse looks so good today with plantings in the front and lake side hills.  Again proof that proud neighborhoods need proud citizens willing to work hard and do what it takes to make the park a reflection of the neighborhood.  Good work Tim.














    The other ornate, wooden pavilion:



    Continuing on the theme of this park being USED by all kinds of different people, there are competitive bike races throughout the park, which are a blast to watch and bring lots of people and positive activity to the park throughout the warm weather months.

    There are also summer concerts, as there are in most larger parks.  


    The grand wood bandstand burned down recently but a new one was rebuilt.  Sure, not as cool as the older one, but a noble attempt and it is largely wooden.


    There are other smaller pavilions that can be reserved.  Most have picnic tables and BBQ grills/pits with water sources. 





    The bathrooms were open on the Saturday I was here.



    Another fixture of Carondelet Park is the wood framed Lyle House:
    Originally a Spanish land grant, Carondelet Park was once owned by the Lyle family, Southern sympathizers during the Civil War. Their mansion sits in the park, awaiting a use worthy of its history. Carondelet became a public park in 1875, along with O’Fallon Park, after St. Louisans in north and south St. Louis voiced their outrage over a half-day surrey ride to the proposed Forest Park. (source)
    The property has recently gotten a fresh coat of paint and some nice native grasses and 2 small groves of trees planted to flank the home.








    I've been in here a couple times and it's pretty cool.  It should be used more, but back when I lived here it was mainly used by the old timers in the neighborhood who had a pinochle club.


    There are picnickers throughout the park.  You'll see families all over camped under shade trees with hibachi's, baskets, coolers and blankets chilling and enjoying the serene park.


    The playgrounds were recently upgraded with a kiddie playground, and one for older kids.




    Hungry while you're at the park?  Go get yourself some Gus' pretzels or cotton candy from a street vendor at Leona and Loughborough.  He's been there for years.



    Tennis anyone?  There are 5 courts, recently paved, with lights.

    The awesome mid-century mod bathrooms need to be fixed.


    This part of the park has a beautiful building for the park crew.  The master plan has this being worked on and landscaped to blend with the park and screen the trucks/equipment with trees, etc to blend in a bit better.  I'd really like to see this happen, as the building itself is a work of art.



    How's about some horseshoes?  This is THE best pit in the city (so far that I've seen, anyhow).  There are old timers playing during the weekdays and some guys I spoke to on my visit that play every weekend they can.  They bring shovels to dig out the pits and do the repair to the posts and back boards themselves. Ownership!  I love it.







    There are stone bridges, and other old fixtures to appreciate throughout the park.  




    The dips from the sinkholes and the old and new plantings flow nicely.

    Carondelet Park is a true St. Louis under-appreciated gem.

    9 comments:

    Herbie said...

    Great Rivers Greenway is building a trail parallel to I-55 and the railroad from the River des Peres to Holly Hills Dr. May that be the reason for the retaining wall?

    Carondelet Park Connector

    Mark Groth said...

    ^Herbie, that very well could be. Excellent idea. I bet you're right.

    Anonymous said...

    I'm president of Holly Hills Improvement Association (www.hollyhills.info) and Friends of Carondelet Park (www.facebook.com/pages/Friends-of-Carondelet-Park/207214142675844?ref=hl ).

    Thanks so much for the write up about our wonderful park. I can tell you the retaining wall is in fact part of the River Des Peres trail extension. More info here: http://www.greatriversgreenway.org/projects/river-des-peres-greenway-carondelet-connector.aspx

    In addition, there are discussions currently underway between the parks department, the state and the Audubon Society to develop a bird habitat in the Bear Pit - something more elaborate than what's in Tower Grove, is my understanding, with a board walk and more trees and other bird-friendly plantings.

    Lots of exciting stuff going on in the park!

    Stacy Ross

    Elisabeth Poe said...

    This is my family's park! We really love it.

    You forgot to mention how it is a fairly well known bike racing course. I regularly see the park roads closed for bicycle races. A friend of mine from Washington, MO, knew where are house was located when I said we lived in Carondelet because he had raced the Carondelet park course several times. He made the comment that it is recognized as a very good race course.

    One more thing to add to the positives.

    Thanks for the write up!

    Mark Groth said...

    ^hello Ms. Poe, thanks for reading. I did indeed mention the cycling races...it was a long-winded post, so you may have overlooked it: "Continuing on the theme of this park being USED by all kinds of different people, there are competitive bike races throughout the park, which are a blast to watch and bring lots of people and positive activity to the park throughout the warm weather months"

    Mark Groth said...

    Herbie and Ms. Ross, thanks for the confirmation, I updated the post to include the Carondelet Connector info,.

    Anonymous said...

    Amazing park and neighborhood...great write up. I am excited to see the continued improvements. I would really really really love to see something amazing done with the Lyle house and the crew building. They have such potential.

    Anonymous said...

    Good info on the park. Thanks. Side note...I was a member of the YMCA rec-plex for about a year and a half. Clearly some members are receiving subsidized membership, as you point out, which apparently leaves them feeling empowered to act discourteously to other full-price members. I quit out of frustration.

    Anonymous said...

    Anonymous, one would think that receiving membership help would made someone a little humble or thankful, but evidently not. It is the fault of management if people are acting discourteously to anyone. They should be warned, and then their membership terminated if such behavior continues. If it continues, eventually the RecPlex will find it has no members or full paying members anyway. 9/26/2015