A seven-year struggle over the use and redesign of Old North Durham Park, including its beloved soccer field, may have reached a turning point—but many neighborhood residents are still unhappy.

More than 150 people attended last week’s public meeting, hosted by the Durham Parks and Recreation Department, about the park’s future, which includes hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of improvements that could start early next year.

DPR Assistant Director Beth Timson presented the plans, which would “improve the playing field, improve pedestrian access, and replant to replace the trees lost to age and drainage repairs.” She confirmed Old North Durham Park’s value both as “an important social meeting place for the community,” and as downtown Durham’s sole full-size athletic field. (There is a second field in East Durham at the Holton Center.)

As the Indy reported in April, the size of the soccer field lies at the core of the bitter debate. The Durham Coalition for Urban Justice and the Central Park School for Children have clashed over whether the park’s soccer field, which is often used by local residents, should be reduced to make room for nature trails, a butterfly garden and picnic spaces more likely to serve the school’s students. (Update: The City Parks Department noted that neighborhood residents also requested these amenities. However, they were also in the school’s master plan for the park.)

The park is long overdue for repairs. Worn picnic tables are scattered around a solitary set of metal bleachers. When it rains, portions of the 3.5-acre park flood because the storm drains are clogged with leaves. The field is little more than scraggly grass except for a large, rocky bald spot in its center.

And yet, nearly every evening and all through the weekends, the park is alive with the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. They are mostly low-income Latino and African-American residents who come to play soccer in pickup games and community youth leagues. Others congregate at the picnic tables to chat, or to toss Frisbees or to stroll the park with their dogs.

The new repairs will be funded by the sale of Erwin Field Park, which is on Oregon Street in the midst of Duke University’s Central Campus. The university purchased the smaller of two parcels of park for $100,000. The storm water drain repairs will be funded by the city’s storm water division of Public Works. DPR plans to apply for the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Grant to pay for a walking track or a picnic shelter.

The size of the soccer field will depend on both funding and the extent of the storm drain repairs, said DPR Public Affairs Specialist Cynthia Booth. However, the field’s dimensions will meet at least the minimum regulations set by FIFA (the international governing body for soccer) for an adult soccer field, which has an acceptable size range, not a set size. The FIFA standard for a full-size field is 330-by-210 feet. The maximum FIFA size is just 30 feet shorter in length and width.

“It’s not Wembley Stadium,” said deputy city manager Ted Voorhees. “But it’s big enough for adults to play soccer, and certainly big enough for youth soccer.”

The full-size field may seem like a victory for the neighborhood, but El Kilombo and the Durham Coalition for Urban Justice are suspicious of any new plan other than the City Council’s 2005 resolution, which accepted a donation of playground equipment from the Central Park School while affirming that the field “will be renovated with grading, sod, and irrigation.”

“You just need the City Council to keep the directive,” says Vivian Wang, a volunteer at El Kilombo. “Why can’t you just do that?”

Their cynicism is understandable, considering that the park has languished. The city has planned to renovate the field since 2003, when DPR released its 10-year Master Plan. However, funding for repairs was regularly diverted to more urgent budget needs.

Moreover, in 2007, DPR proposed leasing the park to the Central Park School for Children Foundation for the annual sum of $10. The terms of the lease would have allowed the school to “make certain improvements to the Park Property.” And in October 2010, DPR presented a plan to the City Council that borrowed heavily from the school’s “master plan” for the park. That plan slashed the soccer field’s size in favor of a butterfly garden and nature trails.

Anita Keith-Foust has been fighting for the park’s upkeep since 2003. A 50-year resident of the area, she says she has felt hopeful and betrayed by the many promises. She wants the 2005 resolution to be honored before further improvements are considered.

“To me, for it to have been going like this for six years—and we’ve brought it to their [DPR’s] attentionfor them to even entertain the thought of another plan shows that their word is not bond,” she said. “In other words, they can’t be trusted.”

DPR’s proposal will go before the City Council in December. If the City Council approves, DPR and the public works department will start to draw up more specific plans, with repairs beginning early next year.

This story was corrected to show Duke University’s $100,000 purchase was for the smaller of two parcels of Erwin Field Park; the entire park cost $800,000. There was also a clarification about the field size.