Irvine, Calif., doesn’t quite rank as one of America’s leading cities, but with a population over 200,000, it’s no lightweight. When the U.S. Marine Corps closed its 1,347 acre base in Irvine in 1994, public officials saw an opportunity to create the next great urban park, one that would rival San Francisco’s Griffith Park, San Diego’s Balboa Park or even New York’s Central Park.
The vision was certainly grand. There would a man-made canyon, lakes, orchards, meandering pathways, athletic fields, rivers, forests and botanical gardens. To pay for it all, the city would tap $1.4 billion from taxes collected from housing and commercial development to be built on surplus land surrounding the park.
But the housing crisis slowed down plans. Then, in 2012, the state legislature decided to get rid of redevelopment agencies, which meant any development funds were no longer Irvine’s to invest in the park. Still, the city managed to spend $200 million on what is dubbed the Orange County Great Park, but an investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that “less than one fifth of the money went towards park construction” and only 200 of the more than 1,300 acres has been developed.
No longer able to tap development funds, the city is working on ways to partner with a developer to allow more homes to be built in exchange for money to help fund park construction. The plan is complicated and it involves trading more public land for private use, but In June 2012, the city announced plans to develop 30 more acres of dormant land into park at a cost of $22.8 million, according to the Times.
Irvine’s experience is a cautionary tale. People love parks, but building a new urban park is expensive. Meanwhile, as cities continue to reel from shrinking revenue, they have cut their park budgets. In 2010, spending fell 2.7 percent, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. These cutbacks have occurred, despite the fact that the largest cities spend modestly on parks overall, just an average of $80 per resident, according to a report by the Trust for Public Land. Cities say they can’t afford to take on new parks, even though they have such high value at a low cost per capita.
It’s why so many cities rely heavily on public-private partnerships to build today’s urban parks. One of best known examples is the High Line, a former elevated railway on New York City’s West Side that has been transformed into a linear park and has become a top draw for visitors as well as for nearby commercial and residential development. The High Line cost $153 million in public and private money to build and has generated $2 billion in new development according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but the city contributes very little to its upkeep, which costs $9 million annually, according to the New York Observer. Private contributions make up the difference.
That model has come under intense scrutiny lately, thanks in part to Hurricane Sandy. When the storm swept across the New York region, it inundated Hudson River Park, 550 acres of greenery and recreation fields that line New York City’s riverfront. In particular, the storm made a mess of Pier 40, a portion of the park that has everything from parking spaces and ball fields, to a kayak launch and a trapeze school.
Repair costs could run as high as $125 million. An advocate for the Hudson River Park and the pier section in particular is Douglas Durst, who also happens to be a developer. He has been pushing for more immediate repairs, at a cost of $44 million, to be paid for by transforming some of the public space into private use. Not surprisingly, his proposal has become controversial, according to an article in the Observer. The irony is that the Hudson River Park is considered one of the first urban parks developed along the public-private model, and was championed by Gov. George Pataki in 1998.
As public funding for urban parks continues to shrivel, reliance on commercial support and fund-raising has only grown. “It’s a controversial arrangement, since it can often mean that what was once public space must now be given over, at least in part, to private interests,” writes Matt Chaban for the Observer. “But many supporters of the model, especial in this age of fiscal austerity, argue that without such arrangements, the parks would never get built at all. Those privatizers are winning for now.”
Maybe not. One solution to the public-private park dilemma is taking place in Chicago and runs somewhat counter to the public-private model. Since 1993, the city has added 99 acres to its park system, 150 acres to its school campus park network, a 183-acre prairie open space preserve and two miles of private owned but publicly accessible riverfront promenade. The funding is public, paid for by a portion of the city’s property tax, according to a report, “The Excellent City Park System,” written by Peter Harnick, who is an expert on urban parks. “The guaranteed source of revenue not only shields the Park District from city council politics and cutbacks, it also enables the agency to issue bonds since lenders know that repayment is guaranteed from tax revenue.”
As Harnick’s report points out, urban parks are a huge draw and offer significant benefits, both to residents who want and need access to open space, but also to developers who know that today’s urban tenants love to live and work near parks. Maybe it’s time to take a step back from the vagaries of the public-private model, make fewer accommodations for private development as a trade-off and return to the classic model of public funding for public parks. Chicago seems to have rediscovered the approach, and let’s not forget: It’s how Central Park, the poster child for America’s urban parks, was originally built.
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