Northport City Council: As city proposes community center sale, residents offer major protest
By: WVUA 23 News Reporter Chaney Scott
The Northport City Council chambers were packed with incensed residents Monday as city leaders approved exploring the sale of Northport Community Center.
No residents were allowed to speak to the council at the meeting because none had requested to speak before the deadline via the city’s official signup process, but they made their presence known by standing up with signs expressing their disapproval.
“I think developing this space in any retail form is a mistake,” said Jeremy Butler, a resident of Bellwood neighborhood and retired University of Alabama professor. “A building like this is necessary because gathering is important. People need somewhere to go,” said PARA Park Ranger Kevin “KC” Cunningham.
The community center is on Park Street just off Lurleen B. Wallace Blvd behind the tiny Northport Heritage Museum that’s seen as you cross over the bridge from Tuscaloosa into Northport. The property could be sold to Beeker Property Group.
Northport City Council President Jeff Hogg said, if sold, the money used from the purchase will go toward building a bigger and better community center. But the community center itself isn’t the problem. Several neighbors said they worked hard to preserve the park at that location and want to keep it pristine for community gatherings and as green space for future generations.
“We will band together as we did eight years ago to once again stand up for our green space, our park, our community,” said Northport resident Amy Lee Pard. “Our future generations have a right to that land as a shared community resource, and we hope that the council will do their job of representing their constituents and preserving community resources.”
This isn’t the first time Northport has tried to sell the property.
In 2015, Butler said they tried to put a donut shop there. After opposition from Northport citizens and the Friends of Historic Northport, it was withdrawn. That still doesn’t solve the problem of additional noise and traffic that could bother the neighborhood residents. Butler wants more answers.
“It’s a public space that should stay a public space and not be privatized,” Butler sighed. “We’ve been left in the dark. Nothing is known for certain. We have a lot of concerns about the future of this neighborhood.”
“What I’m wondering is that if they do develop this as retail space, where would the entrance for this retail space be? Would it be from Park St. which seems likely?” said Butler. “If that’s the case, it is going to result in a more dangerous situation for people to bring their kids down here to use the playground, for any kind of day camp. It’s already got too much traffic and this would make it even worse.”
District 4 Councilwoman Jamie Dykes attended the International Council of Shopping Centers Conference in Las Vegas. She met with a developer and broker who mentioned Starbucks was eyeing that location.
“I’m sure there are members of city council that see the positive side, but I can’t see any, to be blunt. I like Starbucks, but the trade-off is not worth it for me,” Butler said.
Brianna Blair loves kids. She is a teacher, and enjoys working as the site coordinator for a summer camp held inside the community center. She said camps try to give kids something positive to do during the summer, like cooking, STEM experiments, or playing imaginative games. She thinks this program, which only began Monday, gives kids a chance to make friends. And, she said the building is spacious and in a great location.
“A lot of people like Northport because it is very community centered and focused. It has buildings like this that surround a community and park so we have a place to go. I would hate for this to be taken away,” said Blair.
With the council potentially selling the building for commercial space, Blair isn’t sure if the camp will continue.
“Why is this space being developed when there are so many other vacant lots around Northport that are already in a commercial area that could benefit from this kind of development? Why take a beautiful small little jewel of a park? Why convert this space when other spaces could be more profitable?” said Butler who lives nearby on Bellwood Lane.
“Let me say this: It reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi, Butler said. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging night spot. That seems like what is planned for this space and it’s completely inappropriate for this space. It needs to stay a park and I hope it does stay a park.”
President Hogg said city council will consider granting Beeker Property Group a due diligence period of 180 days to bring a master plan for the site. Selling the property will require a unanimous vote of the city council to sell the property.