Lincoln Park District offers "ideas” for the future of city parks to the City Council

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[March 12, 2020] 

On Tuesday evening at the Lincoln City Council Committee of the Whole the first order of business was to hear from Abigail O’Brien, Executive Director of the Lincoln Park District concerning a request for the city to deed over some of its city parks to the park district. This is an ongoing discussion between the city and park district that was introduced several weeks ago.

Former LPD director John Andrews had brought the request to the city first, saying that the park district had the opportunity to apply for park improvement grants to make the city parks better. However, the park district could only use the money on property that it owned. He said that the city has not done a great deal to improve our parks and he didn’t see them doing anything in the future because of budget constraints. The park district on the other hand, could do a great deal to make the parks better if it won the grant awards.

O’Brien offered a slideshow presentation of the parks the LPD is interested in. Those parks include Ray White Park, Postville Park, Melrose and Allison Parks.

O’Brien was careful to explain that what she was bringing to the council were only ideas. She said that a visualization of the parks in their current state and ideas of what could be done would help the council understand what the park district would like to see happen at the various parks in the city.

She added that at this point in time, there were no guarantees that any of these ideas would be brought to fruition. Steve Parrott asked her to explain her comment further. She said that there were many factors in play around these projects. First of course, is that the LPD must own the properties. Secondly, the grant application would need to be approved and awarded. Finally she said that the LPD is working on its Master Plan and in doing so is conducting a public survey of the needs and wants of the community. She said that the outcomes of that survey will help the LPD focus on the future and prioritize future improvement projects.

O’Brien started her presentation with Ray White Park. She noted that currently the park does have a pavilion as well as playground equipment and a basketball hoop. She noted that the basketball hoop is a hoop only, no court to play on.

She said there is room at the park for a full size basketball court and that would benefit the community in that area. She said also on the wish list for Ray White would be more park benches and beautification of the park.

O’Brien added that the basketball court and beautification would be the two main priorities at Ray White, but playground equipment could be upgraded as well.

At Melrose Park, she showed that there was plenty of room there for a possible splash pad play area.

Moving on to Postville Park, O’Brien noted that the playground area does have ramp access for wheelchairs. It needs wheelchair accessible playground equipment though. She said this park would be a good place to put an ADA accessible playground for the community.

Allison Park, O’Brien said, is quite large with plenty of room for pickleball courts. She said that pickleball is quite popular at the LPD Recreational Center and the center does have indoor courts, but there are none out in the community.

In all the parks she said that there was a need for new signage, new pathways, benches, park rules signage and beautification.

There were other ideas for the parks that could be implemented as well, including a lot for Sand Volleyball, amphitheaters, dog park areas and Ninja Warrior Courses, a popular activity for teens. None of these ideas have been assigned to any specific park.

During the discussion time with the council, City Treasurer Chuck Conzo asked about the current condition of Memorial Park. Memorial Park is under the LPD jurisdiction and is located on the edge of town near the Elks Golf Course.


Conzo said that the park is in “obvious disrepair.” He wondered if the LPD was doing anything about the issues at the park. O’Brien said the LPD is currently focusing on nature at Memorial Park and is working to restore pollinator growth.

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Tracy Welch asked if O’Brien has talked to her board about the concerns the city has voiced in the past. She affirmed that she had.

The first concern had been what if the city gave the parks to the district and the district did nothing with them? O’Brien said that the board was okay with including a failsafe in the agreement wherein if the LPD did not provide improvements to the parks within 5 years, they would default on the ownership agreement.

The sticky point on that issue would be the city’s definition of “improvements.” She said that her board would want the city to put into writing what it considered to be adequate improvements to the parks to be in compliance with the agreement.

The next issue was that of raising the property tax levy to maintain the parks. O’Brien noted that she had spoken with Parrott about this because there was a question in the survey about increasing property tax. She said the LPD had hired a third party to conduct the survey and the third party had included the tax question.

She remained firm in her previous comments that the LPD had no plans to increase its tax levy based on the acquisition of the city parks.

Another concern of the city is that the LPD might decide to sell the properties. The city wants the properties to revert back to city ownership if the park district decides not to maintain ownership. O’Brien said that if was extremely difficult for any park district to sell property and not something the LPD was looking to do. She said selling of the property would be a multi-step process that would even include a voting referendum asking the publics permission.

Ron Keller noted that there were several good ideas presented, but he wondered how the park district would prioritize the projects. O’Brien said that was a good question and that the district would probably not be able to do everything at once. She said prioritizing the projects would be based on the outcomes of the Master Plan and survey.

The LPD would also have to consider the money awarded by the grants. She said the LPD will be required to add matching funds to the grants and until they know if they are awarded and how much, they really can’t say for sure how much work will be completed in the near future.

Keller asked if the park district was preparing for the matching funds. O’Brien said it is and that the Master Plan is going to include set aside funds in the annual budget for grant matches.

Sam Downs noted that there is a lot of weight being put on the outcome of the survey. He said though that the public has been asking for ADA playgrounds for a while.

O’Brien said yes it has. She said the question is on the survey and that the input of the community on that question and others does matter to the board and will impact future plans.

City Street Superintendent Walt Landers asked if the park district had ADA rules it had to comply with. For example, do they have to provide ADA access to any park they improve? This is common in the street department. If a sidewalk is to be replaced, the city is required by law to make that sidewalk ADA accessible.

O’Brien said that the LPD must include ADA access on new projects, but she is unaware that they must do so when upgrading existing parks. She added that she would certainly look into that question and make sure everyone knows what is required.

Conzo noted that there are historical aspects at Postville Park, the polling place cabin as well as the marker for the old civil war soldier statue remains that are buried at the park. He wondered if the park district would maintain those historical landmarks. O’Brien said it certainly would. The LPD respects the history in the park and will not do anything to take away from that.

Kevin Bateman noted that Postville Park could be a challenge all by itself because no one is certain who owns that park. The park was created when the city of Postville was in existence. Because the city of Lincoln absorbed Postville in the 1800s, tracing the ownership of the park has been nearly impossible.

City Attorney John Hoblit said he was working on that issue and it is presenting itself as quite a challenge. He added that in addition to that particular challenge, he must research all the parks and find out how the city acquired them and if there were ownership restrictions placed on the properties by the donor or seller of the property.

Those are questions that must be answered before the city makes any commitment to the park district.

O’Brien said in regard to the timeline, her goal was to maintain open, transparent communication with the city and to keep the project moving forward with the hopes of being able to do something that will make the parks better and improve quality of life for citizens.

The city included no action items regarding the parks in the next voting agenda. There is still a great deal of work and research to be done before the aldermen can make a well informed decision.

It is expected that this topic will continue to be discussed at council committee of the whole meetings in the future.

[Nila Smith]

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