Oak Park

Oak Park seeks to elevate parks with new recreation initiative

Parks are important to the city of Oak Park, it’s even in its name. Nestled between Royal Oak and Southfield, the city has over 100 acres of public park space. Oak Park was officially established in 1945 and by the 1950s it was considered one of America’s fastest growing cities. Now, as the city is fast approaching its 80th anniversary it's looking to elevate itself with a new parks and recreation agenda.

In 2022, the city launched the Elevate Oak Park plan in order to reach out to its residents on ways to improve and modernize its parks and recreational offerings. 

The city held 18 meetings with stakeholders, the community, the city council and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee to create a collective picture of the city’s needs. The plan identified residents’ top priority areas for improvement. New walking trails and greenways topped the list, with a new community center and improvement to park restrooms rounding out the top three.

Best, Dewey, Key, Rothstein, and Tyler parks were identified as the top parks in need of improvements. Best Park would gain an elevated boardwalk with ziplines, Dewey would install updates to its courts and have a new fitness challenge course, Key and Tyler would boast new walking loops, and Rothstein Park would have a series of art installations and cultural pieces.

Oak Park city manager Erik Tungate. Photo supplied. Elevate Oak Park is ambitious,” says city manager Erik Tungate, “but it is important to note it is rooted in citizen engagement. The projects and improvements proposed in this initiative have been derived from the wants and needs of our residents.”

The plan includes creating a city-wide trail system and a new city complex with an event hub next to the current community center. Tungate says improving recreational opportunities is about more than fun and games. 

“Parks are important for many reasons, and the one that I think we saw the most during COVID was for mental health purposes. Parks allow for safe, free and relaxing places.”

Another focus of the Elevate Oak Park plan is to increase accessibility at all the parks. The recently completed Nine Mile Connector Park is an example of the city creating a barrier-free recreational zone.

In order to fund these new recreational opportunities, the city has formed a new partnership with Oakland County, and proposed two new millages to fund the  redevelopment for the next 20 years.

Photo by Martha Mejia.

Revitalizing the past

David H. Shepherd Park is a well-known Oak Park landmark. As the city’s largest park it features an array of tennis and basketball courts, an indoor ice rink, two baseball fields and numerous walking trails, all within 57 acres of land.

The park’s two popular features are its play structures (including the famous train) and its large hill over one of the baseball fields which has been a snow sledding destination for years. However, as the park ages, maintenance continues to be an issue.

"I'm always trying not to walk in the cracks," resident Joy Webb says while on a morning walk. "I love this park, it's always neatly kept but it could use some improvements."

Established in 1950, the park’s many facilities have led to a wide range of ongoing maintenance challenges. 

Oak Park Mayor Marian McClellan. Photo supplied.“Our parks have become shabby due to lack of investment,” says Mayor Marian McClellan. “Parks and activities in the parks bring people together at a time of division and loneliness, so they are a critical infrastructure for our city that contributes to the quality of life in Oak Park.”

This has led the city to partner with Oakland County in its Healthy Communities Park and Outdoor Recreation Investment Plan. The plan is a $20 million investment by the county to restore parks in the community. Oak Park will receive $500,000 with most of that funding going towards Shepherd Park.

“This partnership will allow the jewel of Oak Park to maintain its history and pristine natural state while also receiving improvements such as new pavilions, bathrooms and play areas,” says Tungate.

During the Elevate Oak Park’s community engagement period, McClellan says it became clear that there was a hunger in the city for more than just a renewal at Shepherd Park, but a complete revitalization.

“People have asked for a community center like they see in other cities [that include] an indoor pool with amenities, an indoor track allowing seniors to walk in all kinds of weather. Everyone wants these improvements, so we put two propositions on the upcoming ballot to fund them,” says McClellan. 

One of the propositions on the ballot this November is the General Obligation Proposal. The proposal will issue a tax increase of 4 mils to cover the cost of revitalizing the city’s parks and the construction of a new community center adjacent to Shepherd Park.

“Our residents want to see improvements in our parks and our community center. Oak Park is an active and engaged community and our current parks and recreation offerings don’t allow our residents to participate in the programs and activities that they deserve,” says Tungate.

The city estimates that most residents will pay an extra $186 a year. It’s a price Webb says she is willing to pay.

“An indoor pool sounds nice, and it gets cold here so having a place to walk inside during the winter would be nice. I think it’s worth it.”  

Photo by Martha Mejia.

Bringing some extra bark to the parks

One of Oak Park’s recent recreational success stories is the city’s new dog park, Oak Park & Bark. The city held its grand opening on October 15. Located on 21950 Scotia road, the park is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, all year. The fully fenced 1.64 acres are divided into three sections to accommodate dogs of different sizes and temperament. 

“When I first ran for mayor, I was regularly asked for a dog park,” says McClellan. “Three years ago, the Recreation Board formed a committee to investigate the best dog parks around. We took best practices from them, checked with veterinary doctors, and talked to many dog-owning residents.” 

Photo by Martha Mejia.

As two of Oak Park’s dog-owning residents, Ignacio Perez and Catherine Leix say they are thrilled to have the park in the city.

“We came here a few times before the grand opening and really like all the space,” says Perez. “I play kickball and softball, so I frequently use the parks here. It’s great to have something just for the dog though.”

“We really love meeting other dogs and people. I just hope they open the park up to other cities. Like right now, we’re the only ones in the park, it’s great when there are a lot of dogs to play with,” says Leix. 

Leix and Perez say they support the city's Elevate plan but would love to see some additional investment in new storefronts and business redevelopment as well.

“I’m for anything to get people outside and engaged in their community, but I would kill to have the Star Bakery back,” says Leix. 

Tungate cites the park as an example of the city’s commitment to listening and being responsive to its residents' needs. 

“This was a multi-year process that involved input from city staff, residents and city council members. This is a perfect example of city government at work for the people, and the dogs.”

Elevating the future

The second proposition the city is seeking to pass is the Headlee Override Proposal. The proposal will allow the city to authorize a levy of 2.4 mills for 20 years. The city estimates that this will cost the average resident $111 annually. This will help update the parks and community center for the future.

In response to the data and feedback from the Elevate Oak Park plan, the city says its findings make the override necessary to meet the needs of residents.

“We have the second lowest investment in recreation of a dozen nearby cities,” says McClellan.

“Working to secure funding to improve our parks and recreation opportunities is not easy,” says Tungate, “but the Oak Park team is dedicated. Thus far, we have already secured $5.75 million in grant funding for [an] event hub and we continue to look for additional funding.” 

Regardless of the results in November, McClellan and Tungate say the city will remain committed to revitalizing its parks.

“If these pass, we plan to be a regional leader in parks and recreation [and] provide activities that bring us together to have fun and make friends,” says McClellan.

“As we continue to raise up parks and recreation, I am certain, we as a city will continue to rise as well. Public safety, economic development and public works services have long been a priority in the city, and while they will continue to be, it is time for our parks and recreation opportunities to rise to the occasion,” says Tungate.

If residents are interested in sharing their voice, there will be a Q&A session with the city manager Erik Tungate on Nov. 1 at city hall from 1 p.m. - 2 p.m. Following that session, there will be a town hall at the community center from 5  p.m. - 6:30 p.m.

Photo supplied.
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Read more articles by Blake Woodruff.

Blake Woodruff is a feature writer based in Southeast Michigan. He believes the best way to impact is to inform.