Waterfront Park splash fountain’s time has come

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By Bill Rauch

There’s a surprise in the Southside Park Task Force’s recommendations.

The Task Force found, after considering the views of the 1,100 respondents to its survey, that while Southside Park is not the place for it, that somewhere in northern Beaufort County there should be a splash pad.

I agree!

For the uninitiated a splash pad is the new (and better) descriptor for what used to be called an “interactive fountain.” These are those public places where children love to play on hot days where they can be sprayed with water, but where also they cannot drown because there’s no pool or standing water that is a part of the facility. Accordingly there’s no need for lifeguards, and parents can keep an eye on things while they rest easy nearby but safely out of range of the fun.

In their characteristically gritty way, big cities like New York and Chicago addressed this need long ago with the introduction of “spray caps” that on hot days, firemen screw onto the hose fittings of fire hydrants so that a cool shower of water can, to the delight of the neighborhood’s youngsters, spray out onto the sidewalk before it runs into the gutter and down the storm drain.

Charleston has a very popular — and attractive — version of the splash pad in its Ravenel Waterfront Park which, incidentally, former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who built the park, was always careful to say he had modeled on Beaufort’s Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

But when Beaufort had its chance to build its splash pad, its city council balked.

I was there. Here’s the story.

The site of a proposed splash pad in Beaufort’s Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. Submitted photo.

In the year 2000, Beaufort’s Waterfront Park was washing storm-by-storm into the Beaufort River. Man-sized sinkholes were appearing regularly under the seawall walkway and elsewhere throughout the park, and the City’s Public Works staff, led by Public Works Director Isiah Smalls and City Engineer Lamar Taylor, were regularly fencing off parts of the park until the necessary stop-gap repairs could be made.

The Beaufort City Council didn’t really want to take on the project — and especially to have to find the money to pay for its implementation — but they (we) finally tasked City Manager John McDonough with coming up with a plan to really fix the park.

About half the park is built on fill, and surprisingly the riverside half is built on a concrete shelf that rests on concrete pilings that are sunk into the river bottom. Understanding that, City Manager McDonough knew that fixing the park would call for some major engineering work.

So that’s where McDonough’s efforts began — with the engineers who told him that to actually fix the park, it would have to be closed for more than a year, that it would have to be dug up right down to the shelf and pilings so that the pilings that had cracked or shifted and the parts of the shelf that were giving way to erosion could be made secure for the next generation.

Once the extent of the structural work was truly perceived, it was clear to McDonough that this was the time for a full-fledged park redesign to correct whatever design shortcomings had been revealed by the park’s 25 years of use.

A national search brought to Beaufort from Watertown, Mass., Sasaki Associates, a 75-year-old engineering and design firm that is one of the handful of foremost park designers in the U.S. Sasaki’s planners went all over town speaking to everyone they could find about what was right and wrong with the park. Then they came up with their Master Plan, all of which (all of Phase 1 of which) except one feature is in bricks, mortar and concrete today along the river in downtown Beaufort.

What’s the one missing feature?

You guessed it: the splash pad.

Yes, the 2002 Sasaki Waterfront Park Final Master Plan called for “an active recreation amenity fountain” at the foot of Scott Street where the Beaufort Tricentennial bronze history plaque display sits today just outside the playground’s front gate. The interactive fountain there was to be the capstone of what Sasaki’s planners envisioned as “the children’s end” of the park.

What happened?

Well, there was a group of well-heeled mothers in town in those days who saw it as threatening that their children might play in the fountain with children whose parents were of racial backgrounds that differed from that of the mothers. At the last minute the mothers made the rounds of the five council members.

A vote was taken, the decision was made, and in the end, three of the five members nixed the fountain.

The discussion that preceded the vote was brief, but there was one memorable line uttered by a then-council member (who recently stepped down as mayor). As he cast the swing vote that evening to kill the splash pad, the councilman opined that “Beaufort isn’t a fountain city,” as if it was his objection to the fountain as a objet d’art that caused him to vote as he did.

The Southside Park Task Force, it seems, holds a contrary view. They want a fountain. So too should the present now more kid-friendly City Council if they believe what they say about wanting to attract to Beaufort young professionals, some of whom will undoubtedly be wishing to bring up children here.

The new splash pad should go where it was originally proposed by Sasaki to go, where the Tricentennial historical plaque garden was subsequently placed. And the Tricentennial plaques should be moved down to the marina (for grown-ups) end of the park near the other historical plaques. There is a leafy and contemplative circle of benches there where the historical plaques will fit nicely.

The children of the well-heeled mothers for whom the three council members were so concerned are all grown now.

It is time to right the wrong.

Finally, it warrants noting here that John McDonough who shepherded the Sasaki Master Plan through all the necessary hoops in 2001-2 actually believed in it. Moreover, he saw the future and knew this day would one day come. That is why he ordered that while the park was dug up in 2004-5 that all the underground infrastructure for the splash pad be installed. And so all the necessary pipes are in place already — capped off — waiting patiently for a City Council kid-friendly enough to bring a new summertime joy to the city’s children.

Bill Rauch was the Mayor of Beaufort from 1999 to 2008 and has twice won awards from the S.C. Press Association for his Island News columns. He can be reached at The RauchReport@gmail.com.


Top picture: A Charleston fountain similar to a proposed splash fountain at Beaufort’s Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. Public domain photo.