The Shrinking Park
Utila’s only public park – rescued from disuse or a wasted opportunity?

August 1st, 2004
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v2-10-News-Utila Public ParkThe judging of esthetical quality of an architectural project is subjective. What some like, others find offensive and inappropriate. Despite the fact that Utila doesn’t have a city architect, or a city development plan, the island is making efforts at improving its appearance and quality of life for its citizens and visitors.

Marley Howell, 30, Utila’s vice mayor in charge of island beautification has no budget and has to work solely through individual donations. Following a major island cleanup in 2002, the department undertook its second major project – the task of creating a public park in the heart of the town.

Three decades ago, Utila’s public park was much larger. Over time it was sold piece-by-piece by previous municipal governments. The view of the water is now gone, and the park is surrounded by buildings and the main street.

Over the last several years, the park that once served as a children’s playground slowly fell into disrepair. Plans were made for improvements and the 2002 Utila Carnival Committee organized the donation of bricks and timber poles for the construction of a new park. As the materials lay in wait for the construction to begin, piece-by-piece they became damaged.

This all changed as work on the 30′ by 50′ space began in April. The two designers of the park were Marley Howell and Jim Engel, a local businessman. They looked up gazebo and park designs on the internet. “I didn’t want something too fancy. We wanted a feeling of a botanical garden,” said Howell.

The hope is that as the landscaping grows, the park will become more shaded. For now, the only shade is provided by the un-insulated zinc roof on the gazebo. As the park was designed primarily for older Utilans, with no place for children, the park sits empty. The neighbors have yet to embrace the space.

Dolores Discua, manager of Loli’s Boutique, still has to visit the park even though her business sits directly across it, but says, “It’s better than before.”

Not everyone feels the park is an improvement, seeing the project’s design as a wasted opportunity to create a high quality, inventive space in the town’s principal public space. “These [planters] are like cellblocks of rocks with palm tree prisoners,” said Neil Keller, an artist and author of several creative and unusual architectural designs on the island.

Keller had received a verbal go-ahead from Utila’s Mayor Alton Cooper to do a park design, if the artist was able to raise the funds for the project himself. There was no timeline with the offer and, working independently, Howell finished the project in May.

“Why should I sacrifice the vision for the park if I raised the money for it,” said Howell, who raised $12,000 in materials and labor. The major donor for the project was businessman Jim Engel, who’s two businesses adjoin the park and are directly affected by its appearance.

“I saw my park more like a maze of curves, with a gazebo with triple layers of blue and white glass,” said Keller. “These bricks are not meant to be walked on. They should be used on vertical surfaces, for planters.”

“Since he [Keller] hasn’t put pen to paper, this [creating a park with his vision] would be a very scary undertaking,” said Howell.

Using diving insurance income, Utila Municipality plans to reimburse 75%-80% of the money raised in park construction.

Thinking of future need for public spaces, the current municipal administration had one-and-a-half acres of private land donated by local developers and businessmen: Jim Marx, Shelby McNab and Patrik Flynn.

As Utilans and tourists develop their own opinion about the island’s municipal park, Utila enjoys the largest urban park on the Bay Islands. The space is three times as large as the park in Coxen Hole, Roatan. “We have done the best we can with what we have,” said Mayor Cooper. “It’s going to be a nice garden in the middle of crowded houses.” [/private]

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