When Palm Coast government wants to do something well–and when it has $8 million to do it–there’s no stopping it.
Nine months after re-opening a re-imagined Holland Park to cheers that have since given way to throngs and ceaseless delight, the city is about to re-open its Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway. A ribbon-cutting and public tours are set for March 23.
From the unrecognizable looks of the center’s vastness and openness, of the versatility of its spaces and the beauty of its expanded and shaded open grounds, it is likely to draw even more cheers than did Holland Park, and become a hub of activities for residents of all ages, from civic meetings to weddings to parties. Eighteen organizations have already lined up to be regular users of the center’s four to five rooms, with more organizations certain to follow.
“It’s heartwarming just to see the city put in the time and to meet the needs of the community and their requests,” said Lauren Johnston during a tour of the facility this morning. “I believe we really needed this facility.” Johnston, a recreation specialist, has been with the city for a decade and will be in charge of the building, including scheduling. She (and many others) have those memories of the very cramped old community center, a building that dated back to 1975, when it belonged to the county. It was 5,800 square feet, serving a population of 10,000. The city’s population has grown eightfold since. The new building is now four times that size. Of the old structure, it preserves only what used to be the 2,000 square-foot room where the city council used to hold its meetings before moving to City Hall at the end of 2015.
The two buildings provide a curious contrast. The 32,000 square-foot City Hall, designed by the architecture firm C.T. Hsu of Orlando (the firm that designed that city’s Amway Center and many government buildings) is architecturally disappointing–a nondescript box that does nothing to relieve the middle-of-nowhereness of its surroundings, let alone give the city it represents a sense of identity it desperately needs.
The community center, designed by VOA Associates, also of Orlando (Oldsmar, Fla.-based Ajax Building Corporation was the contractor), is more interesting as it more successfully plays off the challenges of its setting–between the two arteries of Palm Coast Parkway–while putting its 4.7 acres to effective use, as it had not previously. The risk was that the new building’s T-shaped size, at 18,000 square feet, plus the renovated and expanded play areas and retention ponds, would be out of proportion with the narrow strip of land between the Parkways. But the much larger building claims its space comfortably along inviting sidewalks and ponds on either side, mostly along the westbound lanes of Palm Coast Parkway, while the larger playgrounds make better use of space while preserving the noble canopy of mossy oaks above and making that public park among the more inviting and shaded in the city. The parking lot’s capacity has grown from 64 spaces to 115, but only by stretching parking areas a bit on the north side of the building, where the old basketball court used to be (the court has been pushed further west), and some of the parking spaces include grassy, permeable areas to help with water absorption. So even from the outside the community center reflects the word “community” much more than it does words like “government” or “hall.”
Looking at the center’s facade from the outside, the entrance’s original design offered the only hint of ostentation if the city followed through with the design and added its outsized logo to the entrance, blocking otherwise handsome vaulted windows. The logo was not there this morning, only the modest and appropriate lettering: “COMMUNITY CENTER.” And a city official this afternoon said the city decided against installing the logo, thus preserving the integrity of the facade.
There was no doubt that this was Palm Coast’s community center anyway because a largish “Palm Coast Community Center” sign similar to signs at the entrance of the city or its parks announced the property from a corner to westbound traffic on the parkway.
For those who remember the old community center, which had been an homage to snarls and crowding, stepping into the lobby through the double doors is like taking flight: one’s head immediately goes skyward to see how far the high ceilings go. The lobby alone looks as big as the old center. It’s only the beginning. (The walls were bare this morning but Cindi Lane, the city’s spokesperson, said the high walls will soon be adorned with large images in sound-absorbing frames.) Two people will always be at the front desk, as Peggy Wishneski and Jalen Hancock were this morning.
“It’s a community center so we wanted it to be welcoming,” Lane said. “The design, they’re calling coastal contemporary, and so we did want to reflect our community, which is very much bringing the nature from outside in, and having the colors to be a little bit like the ocean. We actually feel that this facility is going to be a place where tourists and residents will naturally come in, maybe not for any reason. It isn’t so much like a welcome center or a tourism center but we’ll be very much prepared to be that.”
It’s one of the lesser spoken-of details of the $8 million renovation that it has also added to the city’s payroll. The city’s Parks and Recreation division employs 125 to 150 people at peak season between April and September, many of those part-timers, and 65 to 75 people the rest of the year, some 15 of them forming the core administrative ranks.
The largest room is 5,000 square feet, almost the size of the entire old community center. Like all other rooms in the building it’s simple, square, and lined with windows that flood the interior with natural light. The room is large enough to be a skating rink. It adjoins one of the building’s two kitchens, which are set up for catering but not commercial uses: simply put, storage of food yes, cooking, no. The room can’t be subdivided, but the city sees multi uses, and simultaneous uses, for it during the week, depending on the organization renting it.
Among the many organizations that are lining up to use the facility: Turning Point Church, AARP, Tax Aide, Color Me Happy (an adult coloring club), the Republican Club, the Flagler County Tea Party, the Palm Coast Historical Society, and many others. The long-standing bridge club will be using another large room, that one a 3,383 square-foot so-called Waterfront Room at the east end of the building, where the club will meet daily, five days a week, for most of the day, and hold weekend tournaments. They might as well call that room the Bridge Club Room.
“Our goal for this building, especially during business hours, was to provide senior social interactive programs,” Johnston said. “This is a multi-generational facility. While there is a need for specialized individual senior programs, we’re going to be able to provide those as a senior social interaction Monday through Friday.”
In between the two larger rooms is the Exploration Room, a 754-square-foot seminar-like room that can be divided in two, and that will, among other things, be used for elections.
And there’s this: no more intolerably long lines to get a bathroom break. The old center’s bathrooms provided only two women’s stalls and two men’s urinals and a stall. The new bathrooms are more airport-sized: 16 women’s stalls, eight men’s, one family bathroom.
Finally, there’s the one room that hasn’t been demolished and replaced: the old council room, its 2,000 square feet renovated, its ceiling completely opened up to reveal the old wood supporting beams in a nice touch that evokes the now-almost historical nature of the room, and a floor converted to a rubberized surface, making it ideal for the community center’s youth programs (or, again, for the odd council meeting if necessary).
In sum, the old facility was so cramped that with summer camps going on, other activities such as Lunch-n-Lecture had to be suspended for those months, while other programs had to be “minimized,” as Johnston put it. No longer. “We will be able to host summer camp as well as facilitate all of those programs on a year-round basis,” she said. Lunch-n-Lecture will be year-round, as will the new Coffee Series and other club and program activities, without conflicts.
The administrative area at the center of the building, off limits to the general public, is the only space that may not be as roomy. Cindi: “This is one area where I would say we’re going to run out of space sooner” than planned, Lane said. “When we moved in and saw the size of the office space we were like, hmmm, wish we had a little more office space.”
If the worker bees ever feel cramped, one look outside will bring relief, whether at the 143 trees (68 were preserved, 75 were added), the playgrounds for the younger set or the ample walkways that link up with Linear Park’s walkway. And for those playing outside, there’s now bathrooms accessible for park-goers until 10 p.m. Lane compares the center’s amenities, and its public-park features, to Holland Park.
“Once people find the community center it’ll be the same thing, I think this will be a destination park, especially for families with younger kids,” she said.
The city is hosting a grand opening of the center on Friday, center gets its grand opening on March 23 at 5 p.m., with a ribbon-cutting at 5:15 and tours for the public. Tours will continue that Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.