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With Orkney Park, Northern Liberties aims to preserve its ‘last wilderness’

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Neighbors have transformed the site into a secluded oasis

More than 50 people showed up on Earth Day to transform this site in Northern Liberties into a park.
Photos by Tony Hochstetler

In his 29-year history as a resident of Northern Liberties, Donald Phillips has mostly seen it all: Comings and goings of families; countless demolitions and subsequent new builds; vacant lot after vacant lot built out.

“When I first moved here, this was a village,” said Phillips. “And we’ve got the feeling we’re losing some of that.”

That’s what made preserving a wooded, historic site hidden away in Northern Liberties so important to Phillips and dozens of other residents.

800 North Orkney Street is a historically-certified cart way consisting of four lots that runs between Reno and Myrtle Streets owned by long-time resident Mitch Deighan and his late partner Mike Anderson. When Deighan recently put the lots on the market, with the potential for it to be redeveloped, Phillips and other residents saw an opportunity to turn it into a green space for the neighborhood.

“We rediscussed the idea with him, and said, ‘What if we can come up with the money and keep it as a wilderness kind of area, where migrating birds can congregate and we could teach kids about nature?’,” Phillips said. “He said he would love to have that happen.”

After all, the bones for making a great little park were already there: The site is enclosed by trees, including a 45-foot-tall cottonwood, the largest in the neighborhood.

“And the place itself is already an eco-system to animals, birds, and hawks,” said Phillips, who is on the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association board. “It’s a real nice place and we want to keep it that way. This neighborhood is very overdeveloped, and all of the open space except for Liberty Lands is disappearing.”

“That’s why we say we’re trying to save our last wilderness,” he added.

It didn’t take long for the community to show its support for the project. At an April 4 neighborhood meeting, all 47 residents who showed up voted in favor of the park project, and by April 22 the same folks—and then some—showed up to transform the site into Orkney Park.

Led by the design efforts of local residents Liz Reed and Janet Finegar, who are also the co-coordinators for Liberty Land park, the group removed debris, cleaned the cobblestone path, and built rock-lined pathways through the wooded site.

“Everyone came out,” said Phillips. “The kind of just raw passion we saw the last couple of weeks over this has been heartwarming.”

The Friends of Orkney Park are still in the process of acquiring the site from the current owner, but the plan is to have the park certified as a bird sanctuary. The 501c3 non-profit group plans to engage the Natural Land Trust and state attorneys to determine the best way to structure and move forward with the project.

“In this day and age, we can’t count on the federal government to improve our qualify of life—we have to do it ourselves,” said Phillips, who said he has become more involved in local politics in recent years. “It just shows that you can really have an impact at a local level. Not that this is a political endeavor, but it’s just great to get people involved.”