Forsyth Park to change ‘by choice or by chance’

Trustees’ Garden Club explains why a master plan for Forsyth Park is needed
Fountain at Forsyth Park
Fountain at Forsyth Park(Clinton Hinely)
Updated: Apr. 22, 2021 at 5:19 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - For the first time, Savannah’s beloved Forsyth Park will have a comprehensive master plan.

The 32-acre park in the heart of the city is one of the oldest municipal parks in the country, but the planning process hasn’t been without some contention as neighborhood groups try to understand their voice in the process.

That’s led to questions about the planning efforts and the civic group leading it.

Lead investigative reporter Jessica Savage sat down with members of the Trustees’ Garden Club to understand more about their involvement and the two design options for the park.

Typically, city master plans are paid for with taxpayers dollars. They often take months of research and planning to execute, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

In the case of Forsyth Park, the Trustees’ Garden Club took ownership of the master planning process under an agreement approved by the City Council in March 2019.

Club members call the master plan a legacy gift to Savannah.

WTOC met with trustee members in the Fragrant Garden of Forsyth Park - a fenced area with limited access to the public.

It’s a project the Trustees’ Garden Club took on and completed in 1963.

“This actually is the interior of a 1915 dummy fort which was used for military exercise by the Savannah Volunteer Guards,” said Meb Ryan, co-chair of the Trustees’ Garden Club.

In the past six years, the club has mobilized behind an even bigger park project - all 32 acres with the creation of a Forsyth Park master plan. The efforts became a much more public reality in the past few weeks when the group unveiled two park design options

Some have asked why the park needs to change.

“I would say it doesn’t have to change, but it is going to change. It could change as I said before it will by choice or by chance,” Ryan said.

Change has happened through the years at Forsyth Park, according to historical depictions through the years by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

The park has changed not only in size from 10 acres to 32 acres, but in scope, too.

“You will see many changes,” she said. “You will see parking lots in the middle of the park. You’ll see a bandstand that use to be located in the oak alley to the south of the confederate monument.”

More recently, the city added the tennis and basketball courts in the early 1980s.

The trustees interest in paying for a park master plan began by choice back in 2015 when they learned something by chance.

“One thing that we did find out is that this park, no part of the park is in the National Landmark District which includes the Historic district, most of downtown Savannah - which was shocking” Ryan said.

It was shocking because of Forsyth Park’s 180 year old history. It’s older than Central Park, and one of the oldest if not the oldest municipal park in the U.S.

The trustees have started the nomination process with Department of the Interior for a national historic landmark. They formalized their efforts with the city of Savannah to pay for and lead the master planning efforts with a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the City Council in March of 2019.

An important distinction to note: the landmark designation simply recognizes the historical significance of the property.

“It doesn’t say that nothing can change in the park or that trees can be preserved or that historic structures won’t be removed,” Ryan added, which is why the trustees say a master plan is needed.

They group discovered one glaring example as to why during the research and planning process:

“The trees that line the alley the oak alley down the center of the park which is one of the most important historic features of the park are aging out at the same time, they are all the same age,” Ryan said. “So there needs to be a plan in place for that tree replacement so that tree canopy that everyone loves can be preserved for future generations.”

The two design options on display now will change based on public feedback.

Another version of the design will be unveiled this summer with a series of public meetings.

The master plan is expected to be finalized this fall, and then delivered to the Savannah City Council for adoption. The City Council will have the final say about the plan and which projects get done. When it comes to paying for those projects, the cost will fall on city taxpayers. The trustees’ have said they want to help by raising private money to offset public costs.

The public has until April 30th to give feedback on the two design options.

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