HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Town officials are dreaming of water features, vegetable gardens and loads of green space.
They aren’t sure about a tower, though. It might violate one of the original tenets of development on the island: No structures above the tree canopy.
Plans for a multiuse, 103-acre park in the middle of the island are still in the idea stage. Council is reviewing a proposal submitted by the firm MKSK Studios, presented at a May 24 meeting.
The Town Council also needs to agree on a project budget, potentially as much as about $1 million an acre for a first-class park like the one they seek, said MKSK Studios principal Brian Kinzelman.
But he expects his firm’s proposal will come in at less because so much of the site will not be intensively developed.
Town Council allocated $1.7 million for the park in the 2021-22 fiscal year budget. An additional $4 million for the park was included in the 2022-23 spending plan.
Last week’s first peek at the park proposal has been a long time coming.
The town bought the tract, which is a portion of the former Planters Row Golf Course, in 2013 from Heritage Golf Port Royal LLC. For almost a decade, nearby residents walked their dogs or biked around the defunct fairways and ponds.
Town officials had long intended to invest in the area as a community space, but they focused their attention and dollars on other projects first, including a comparable mixed-use park near the beach at Coligny Plaza. Lowcountry Celebration Park opened in 2020 and cost about $14 million for 10 acres.
The new proposed park, which currently goes by the unlovely name “mid-island tract,” is situated close to the island’s heel, about halfway between Islanders Beach Park and the Hilton Head Island Airport.
How the park could affect the mid-island area
It’s not just the old golf course that needs attention, said council member Alex Brown, whose Ward One encompasses the proposed park as well as the surrounding land.
“I’m really excited about what we’re doing in the mid-island area,” Brown said. “I think the park is a good idea, but it’s not the focal point.”
The more important piece is to build community in that part of the island, which historically hasn’t received the same attention as the town’s tourist areas closer to the beaches. For example, most of the grocery stores are concentrated along the sole of the island, easily accessible to oceanfront homes and resorts.
“Ward One is the most diverse area on Hilton Head from a land-use standpoint, from an ethnic standpoint, from an economic standpoint,” Brown said at the May 24 meeting. “Now it’s our opportunity to enhance it.”
About 20 percent of the ward’s residents are Black and 40 percent are Hispanic. The other 40 percent is White. By comparison, 80 percent to 88 percent of the island’s other five wards are White.
Town officials hope that investing in a park will spur private investment and redevelopment nearby, as happened around Lowcountry Celebration Park.
“The hotels, the restaurants, the businesses in that area spent money to bring their private facilities up to a higher standard,” said Jennifer Ray, who leads the Capital Improvements Program. “We believe this part of the island … hasn’t had the same more recent investment.”
In interviews and survey responses, residents identified some of their priorities for the area as “green; close and cozy, and walkable.” Currently, the commercial area is comprised of 1970s-era storefronts with a large parking lot.
Andrew Overbeck, an urban planner who presented at the meeting, asked the audience to imagine instead an area more like Harbour Town on Hilton Head, Old Town Bluffton, or the I’On neighborhood in Mount Pleasant. He hoped the neighborhood would be a place where people wanted to get out of their cars and walk around.
It might even include new housing, which is a topic of great interest on Hilton Head since affordable residences are in short supply.
Brown pointed out the housing crunch pinches not only workers who serve the tourist industry, but also young islanders graduating from high school or college.
“When you get young people that have grown up on Hilton Head … and want to be a part of Hilton Head and our community, but they can’t because we don’t have the housing stock to accommodate them, that’s really disturbing, right? And we can do better,” Brown said.
At the moment, plans for the park are much further along than a vision for the entire area. The proposal under consideration includes a great lawn, plants beds, a playground, an eco park, an open air market, and multiuse trails.