The discovery of a 32-year-old deed will stop the conversion of Victory Park into an early learning center planned by Lutheran Services Florida.
The National Park Service bought the city park after Arlington community activist Geraldine “Gerrie” Atkinson pushed for its development. And the federal deed requires that the property remain a park. A planned Therapeutic Early Learning Center will not be allowed to replace it.
Community member Roberta Thomas said she uncovered the deed after a City Council bill was filed last month to allow the park south of Fort Caroline Middle School for the Arts to be sold for the center. The deed clearly states that the property can be used only for recreation since the National Park Service provided part of its purchase price, said another community member, Kay Evans.
“A building on the property would be illegal, let alone unnecessary and unwanted for many reasons,” Evans said it an email to WJCT News. “Geraldine Atkinson, an Arlington resident now deceased, worked hard and long to help acquire this 11-acre tract for all to enjoy. We in the neighborhood want that portion to remain a beautiful open area to enjoy. Open areas are extremely important.”
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After she learned of the deed, City Councilwoman Joyce Morgan halted a final vote on the bill until more research could be done. After she learned last week that the deed’s contents stand, the bill will be withdrawn before its final vote Tuesday, she said.
“In fact, when they went and looked back one more time, just one more time, they found that in fact this park could not be used for anything other than recreational purposes,” Morgan said. “It speaks volumes to the part where we are always saying that government is best when our community is involved. And in this case, it really, really was, and we are so grateful and thankful to them.”
The city’s online listing for Victory Park, at 3781 University Club Blvd., says it is an “active community park” that is “an asset to the surrounding community.” The park has a soccer field, two tennis courts, a quarter-mile paved walking trail, playground equipment, grills, a picnic shelter and restrooms.
Evans said the park exists because of the efforts of retired city library staffer “Gerrie” Atkinson, who died in early 2020 at age 96. A passionate community activist, she fought for more park space in the area, including one at Rogero and Fort Caroline roads that the city renamed “Gerrie’s Park” in her honor.
Fast forward to Valentine’s Day of this year, when City Council received an agreement between the city and Lutheran Services Florida to allow it to build and operate the early learning center at the park site.
The legislation requested emergency passage because U.S. Department of Health and Human Services construction funding had to be approved by March 1. As planned, the center would house eight Head Start classrooms, playgrounds, a therapy room, a multipurpose training and meeting room, indoor STEM exploration space and a clinic.
With Victory Park deed-restricted in perpetuity, it cannot be converted to any other use without approval of the secretary of the interior.
“By law, the Secretary shall approve such conversion only if he finds it to be in accord with the then existing comprehensive statewide outdoor recreation plan and only upon such conditions as he deems necessary to assure the substitution of other recreation properties of a least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location,” the deed says.
Morgan learned of the deed questions before a planned final vote on Feb. 28 and requested that any action be put on hold until Tuesday’s meeting. Fellow Arlington lawmaker Ron Salem also questioned city officials about the deed stating it must remain as a park.”
When we are doing something like this on a property such as that, is there not research done on the property so we can prevent this from happening?” Salem asked. “It appears to me that citizens discovered this versus the government, and that shouldn’t happen.”
Yes, research was done on any park property like this, looking for liens, deeds and other issues, Chief Administrative Office Brian Hughes answered at that meeting.
“I can’t speak to the timeline that someone else found it versus when we did. But there are a number of parks, in particularly on public lands, that as long as 30 or 40 years ago, they took federal grants to set up the initial land or to preserve the land,” he said. “Those quite frankly exist in paper in files. Much of it is not digitized, and this is not the first time it has happened. I share your frustration that we got so far down the line before this was discovered.”
“Head Start needs somewhere to land,” Morgan said. “Head Start has done so much for so many children in my district.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the park is north of Fort Caroline Middle School. It is south of the school.