Grove residents on board with Laurel Library expansion plans

Many residents of the Grove community are pleased with the plans for the new library on Seventh Street, even if it means losing a portion of the community's historic Emancipation Community Park when construction is completed.

Plans unveiled in February for the 32,000-square-foot library call for an acre of the adjacent Emancipation Community Park to be used for additional library parking spaces. The park, which has a basketball court, playground equipment, benches, tables and athletic field, has gone from 3 acres of land in 1991 to 2 acres now.

Laurel's existing library is one of the county's most heavily used and that usage is expected to increase once the new building is completed, which is why city officials say the parking lot needs to be expanded to take up a portion of the park.

The Rev. Robbie Morganfield doesn't think the loss of an acre of the park is cause for alarm. Morganfield is pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church on Eighth Street, which is across the street from the park and sponsors Emancipation Day, an event that celebrates the end of slavery in this country and is the city's oldest annual festival.

"Making sure the library stays in the community for people's convenience is my greater concern, and it's not being moved," said Morganfield, referring to earlier efforts by some residents to have the new library built off of Main Street on the site of the old Police Department. "People don't want to lose the park and the general information I've heard is that it will be maintained, so I don't see this (loss of an acre of the park) as a major crisis. I'm just one man, but if I had a vote on it, I'd be OK with it."

Cynthia Whitfield, who moved from the Grove last year, but visits her relatives there often and uses the park, said she's fine with the library and park plans as well.

"The community is aware of the plans and I know that as a whole, they feel good about them," Whitfield said. "Even though they (the library's developer) may take an acre of the park, they plan to add many amenities to the park."

Those amenities include maintaining the basketball court and playground equipment; and installing a walkway, green space, bathrooms and a small amphitheater.

"The amphitheater will have a stage and it can be used for Emancipation Day, festivals and entertainment," Laurel Parks and Recreation Director Mike Lhotsky told City Council members at the April 3 work session. "There will be plenty of space for Emancipation Day." The celebration, which has been held for more than 100 years, has included a parade, games, food, live entertainment and large crowds.

According to City Council President Fred Smalls, the amphitheater will be built on the site of a school attended by African Americans during segregation.

"There is a great effort to make sure that the amphitheater reflects that history in its name," Smalls said.

Maintaining current amenities and the proposed new ones are things St. Mark's member Laura Dotson said church members asked officials to include in plans for the library and park in past meetings. This is why she said she is also OK with giving up a portion of the site for an improved park.

"Losing that acre won't hurt a thing because what they plan to do will make the park look a lot better than what's there now," Dotson said.

Upgraded but still historical

Prince George's County officials are in charge of the library project, but the city has authority over Emancipation Community Park. At the April 3 work session, Mayor Craig Moe said before bids are solicited for the project in October, public hearings will be held so residents can express their views on the library's design and proposed changes to the park.

"That is the most important thing, to get public testimony and community input as we move forward," said Moe, who publicly supported the library staying in its current location. "We need open dialogue because it affects Emancipation Park. We want to enhance the park, which has a lot of history and means a lot to the community. It's important."

Moe also told council members that he'd prefer leasing the site to the county where the parking lot will be constructed, "so we can maintain control of the park and land. They will make the enhancements to it."

Those enhancements will also include new signage that includes information on the park's history and its link to the Grove's predominantly African-American community.

"We want an historical park that will have interpretative signs and poles to commemorate the historical significance of the park. We will have new features that stress maintaining Emancipation Park's history," Smalls said. "But there will be significant changes to the park to make it family-oriented and it won't exclude anyone who has enjoyed it in the past. We want to make sure Emancipation Day isn't lost, but no matter what side of the city you're from, you'll enjoy it."

City officials said in addition to funding being included in the Capital Improvements Budget for the library's construction, separate funding to the tune of $117,000 is available for artwork in the park and the library.

Smalls said, "I volunteered to be on the committee working on that to make sure that the decisions on artwork won't be just made by outsiders and to make sure that the artwork will reflect the city."

Smalls predicted that because a lot of thought and effort has gone into the library's construction and the preservation of Emancipation Park, the end product will be pleasing to all residents.

Morganfield agreed.

"In the end, all sides will benefit," Morganfield said. "There will be compromises but it looks like it's going to be a win-win to me. We are keeping the park, getting the new library and although we will lose space in the park, we won't lose the essence of Emancipation Park."

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