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Bike Sharing Stations to Come to National Mall

The National Mall in Washington, D.C. will soon have bike sharing stations. Credit: Mr. T (Flickr Feed).

Last week, Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare celebrated its one millionth ride, just in time for its one year anniversary. The nation’s capital is the first community in North America to offer a government-sponsored bike sharing system. Capital Bikeshare is extremely popular, attracting over 18,000 members in the past year. This milestone warranted a party, so the “1st Birthday Bash,” coinciding with Car Free Day, was held in one of D.C.’s newest waterfront parks, Yards Park.

We’ve written before about bringing bike sharing programs to parks, and the success of Capital Bikeshare has led to plans of 60 additional stations in the District as well as Arlington, VA in the next six months. There are even plans to expand northwards and add stations in Rockville and Shady Grove, MD.

But even more exciting than adding stations to the suburbs, The Washington Post reports the National Park Service is allowing Capital Bikeshare to have stations on the National Mall beginning next year. Hopefully this will be the stepping-stone for opening stations in other national parks, including Anacostia Park and Rock Creek Park, increasing usership to them. The National Park Service is also considering adding bike sharing stations to the numerous other circles, squares, and triangle properties they own throughout the District.

For the 10 million annual visitors to the National Mall, these bright red bicycles cannot come soon enough. Currently the closest bike sharing stations can be up to a half-mile away from the most popular tourist and recreational attractions. Eradicating this “bike-share desert in the heart of the District” could only mean increased usership for locals and tourists alike. And because the National Park Service has goals of promoting increased and safer bicycle usage around the Mall, as indicated in the National Mall Plan, adding more bicycle lanes or trails to this area would go in tandem with bike sharing stations.

Placing bike sharing stations in parks will not only bring additional users to city parks, but help increase connectivity to parks and other recreational destinations throughout the city. Encouraging commuters to bicycle through parks as part of their daily route would increase mental as well as physical health. And with the District Department of Transportation giving away 500 helmets to frequent Capital Bikeshare riders, as well as local hotels lending helmets to tourists, safety will come first too.

Some news from around…

  • The Central Park Conservancy just completed the final phase of the massive overhaul of Central Park that began with the Conservancy’s formation in 1980. Now they’re turning to maintenance and work on trail and drainage improvements. (The New York Times)
  • Georgetown Waterfront Park, a previously barren stretch of land beneath D.C.’s Whitehurst Freeway, opened last week, forming the final link in a stretch of greenways extending along the Potomac River from D.C. to Cumberland, MD and Mount Vernon, VA. (WTOP.com)
  • The success of the High Line has sparked a movement, with many other cities searching for their own reusable elevated  corridors. Meanwhile, a new plan to create a subterranean linear park in New York City has generated a lot of excitment. (The L Magazine)
  • Scores of  cities are considering banning smoking in public parks out of concern for public health. But with the outbreak of wildfires across Texas this summer, Houston has another reason to crack down on smokers in city parks. (My Fox Houston)

Creating and Financing Infill Parks in the Bay Area: Part III

The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence performed a study for the Association of Bay Area Governments, one component of which was identifying examples of how recently completed infill parks were financed. We will be publishing each of the four case studies (see the first here and the second here), with Oakland’s remarkable FROG Park as our third case study.

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The city of Oakland has an impressive amount of parkland. In fact, of the nation’s densely populated cities, it has the most parkland per resident. But the land is unequally distributed: the hills are green but the more populous portions of the city are lacking. This fact was the impetus for the formation of the Friends of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt (FROG), which began an effort to build a community park in the Rockridge neighborhood in 1997.  The story of FROG Park is a paragon of community initiative and drive.

The first effort to create a park failed. When a Department of Motor Vehicles licensing facility underwent renovation, green space advocates suggested converting half its parking lot into a park to mitigate the development impact. Other neighbors, however, protested, fearing the loss of parking, and the FROG proposal was rejected. Though unsuccessful, the group remained determined to find a space for a park, and began researching other nearby sites. They soon discovered an area that combined an underused basketball court and dog park with fenced-off land owned by the Alameda County Flood Control District.

The FROG Park playground during construction by community volunteers. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

The site was complicated, both in shape – it is long and narrow, and passed over by a major highway – and in ownership. But it also offered tremendous potential, with a creek and an already-existing 120-foot-long mural under the highway. The idea for a park gained additional traction when two FROG volunteers came up with a master plan inspired by the idea of building playgrounds – one for toddlers and one for older kids – to serve as anchors on either end of a linear park.

To secure a lease on the site from the city, FROG was required first to deal with a number of liability issues, negotiating with CalTrans for permission to improve the site below California 24, and assuring unfettered passage for the Alameda County Flood Control District to service the creek and its utility area.

By early 2000, it became clear that FROG would be able to secure the cobbled-together park site, and fundraising began in earnest.  By working with Oakland Vice Mayor Jane Brunner, FROG positioned itself to legally receive funding from city bond measures. (Later, Brunner also provided her entire $125,000 annual discretionary allotment to the park as a challenge grant.) Oakland’s Measure DD (the Trust for Clean Water and Safe Parks) provided $140,000. California Proposition 12 (the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000) supplied $493,000. They also manage to snag $60,000 for a tot lot under Measure I (the Oakland General Obligation Bonds for Parks) — and then, with the help of Friends of Oakland Parks, an amazing additional $400,000 of interest money on unspent Measure I funds.

Private fundraising followed in 2000, consisting of a mail campaign, monthly articles in the local newspaper, direct solicitations of businesses, a reception and a silent auction, generating well over $200,000, along with a critical $350,000 worth of volunteer labor and tools.

The park was built in two phases (with a third and final phase still to come). Phase I consisted of improved access to Temescal Creek (most of which flows below in an underground pipe), the construction of two playgrounds, the restoration of the 1972 mural (by the original artist along with students from a local arts college) and Phase II, completed in 2006, yielded paths, basketball hoops, swings and a water fountain, and the public art element: a series of obelisks equipped with small telescopes aimed at brass castings of animals that inhabit the landscape. (There is also a reproduction of the castings on a table so that the visually impaired can feel the sculptures.). The final addition will be a solar-powered restroom, as the park has only a porta-potty for 10 years, funded by FROG.

Total costs for Phases I and II totaled only $2.87 million, partly because FROG mobilized the entire community to help — 1,300 volunteers showed up over 10 days to construct the playgrounds under the direction of Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, New York. (FROG volunteers also prepared three meals a day for the volunteer workers and offered free child care during the entire period.)

The design of FROG Park incorporates land owned by the Alameda Couny Flood Control District. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

FROG now works to sustain community involvement, which remains the backbone of the park. All maintenance besides grass cutting and trash removal (done by the city), such as creek cleaning and refinishing the wooden play structures, is done by neighbors on semiannual work days. A local high school sends its entire freshman class each year to work on replanting the native garden.

The park is a seven-minute walk from the nearest BART station, and park co-founder Theresa Nelson reports that many park visitors arrive on public transit. The weekend farmer’s market, held in the DMV parking lot, brings in “probably a thousand people, from kids splashing in the creek and sailing boats to older couples walking to the market,” according to Nelson. FROG has also worked with the developers of two adjacent infill developments to extend the park into their properties. Realtors have begun to pitch the park in advertisements, and surrounding properties seem to have benefited: while Rockridge property values have generally remained stable since the park was constructed, Nelson estimates an average home near the park has increased in value by about $150,000.

Creating Parkland via Rail Trails

A ninth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by converting abandoned railroad corridors into rail trails.

In 1963 famed Morton Arboretum naturalist May Theilgaard Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. “We are human beings,” she wrote. “We walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.” Her visionary and poetic letter led to the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path and marked the beginning of the rails-to-trails movement.

Until the interstate highway program in the 1950s, the world’s best-engineered rights-of-way were railroad corridors. Hills and cliffs were excavated, valleys filled, curves softened, tunnels dug, bridges built, all to provide routes of exquisitely smooth gentleness with little or no cross-traffic. They were also extraordinarily well routed from, to, and through the centers of activity–cities. Today, 130,000 miles of these marvelous linear connections have been abandoned. Already, 1,500 segments totaling 15,000 miles have been turned into trails for biking, skiing, skating, running, and walking. Most are rural but the urban ones almost invariably become the spines of city biking networks that also include on-road bike lanes and other feeder-collector routes. Rail trails have become focal points for nonmotorized transportation and recreation in Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Indianapolis; Dallas; Cincinnati; Spokane; Milwaukee; St. Petersburg; Albany, New York; Arlington, Virginia; Barrington, Rhode Island; and scores of other cities and towns. And there are still abandoned corridors available for conversion into trails.

The Stone Arch Bridge portion of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail going towards Minneapolis. Credit: Brian Monberg, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Minneapolis shows the multiple types of rail trails and their power to affect a city’s park, recreation, and transportation systems. Most dramatic is the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi, built by railroad baron James J. Hill for his Great Northern route to Seattle. Opened in 1883, it was in rail service until 1978. Rescued from demolition, the bridge was refurbished for non-motorized use through a variety of federal, state, and local funds and ultimately turned over to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Today it is the keystone of the bicycle/pedestrian network in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A few blocks away is the Midtown Greenway, created from a former Milwaukee Road track that maintained separation from traffic by being sunk in a box-shaped trench below street level. The 5.5-mile trail today serves several thousand bicyclists, runners, and skaters per day; in the future it will also host an extension of the light-rail system on a parallel track in the same trench. The corridor was bought for $10 million by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Trail engineering and construction, which cost $25 million, was paid from a variety of local, regional, state, and federal sources. Annual maintenance, which includes lighting and snow plowing, comes to about $500,000 a year.

A couple of miles north, a different set of tracks has been converted into the Cedar Lake Park and Trail. This isn’t a rail-to-trail, it’s a rail-with-trail. When the Burlington Northern Railroad decided to divest itself of an underutilized freight yard, it kept one track for through service and sold the rest to the Park Board. The Board erected a fence and converted the wide industrial facility into a model nature habitat with three meandering, parallel treadways–two one-way paths for cyclists and skaters, and one soft-surface path for walkers and runners. With an extraordinary amount of community support, volunteerism, and sweat-equity, the 48-acre project cost only $3.5 million to acquire and develop, and it was finished in a record six years.

Six years is a record? Well, yes. Creating a rail trail, candidly, is not easy. The land ownership issues are confusing. Legal and regulatory complexities stretch from the local level to the state capital to Washington, D.C. A review of years-to-complete-a-trail validates the difficulty: for the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C., eleven years from conception to ribbon-cutting; for the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg, fifteen years; for the Minuteman Trail in Arlington, Massachusetts, eighteen years; for the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C., twenty-two years and (as of this writing) counting.

But the final results justify the heartache: These are truly “million-dollar trails.” Other than on a former railroad track, it is simply not possible in an existing built-up community to create a new pathway that is long, straight, wide, continuous, sheathed in vegetation, and almost entirely separated from traffic. And the annual usership numbers reveal the pent-up desire lines: 2 million on the Minuteman Trail outside of Boston; 3 million on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail outside of Washington, D.C.; 1.7 million on the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail; 1.1 million on the East Bay Bicycle Path outside of Providence, Rhode Island; and 1 million on the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C.

Many park directors initially shy away from taking on the challenge of a rail-trail. This is a serious mistake. In addition to all the connectivity and usership values, rail trails often have ecological and historical values very much in keeping with an urban park system’s mission. With corridor widths of 60 to 100 feet, or even more in the West, they frequently harbor interesting, unusual, and rare plant species on their margins, as well as having bridges, tunnels, and stations. Moreover, trails are so popular that they have radically increased the support base for virtually every park agency that has ever taken one on.

The reality is that creating one of these trails is so tough that it virtually requires a partnership between a park department (or sometimes a public works or transportation department) and the private sector (usually a citizen group, sometimes a foundation or corporation). The financial and legal issues are too much for a group of volunteers to handle alone, while the political issues are too intense for a government agency without citizen support. Some of these conversions are so difficult that a national organization, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, formed specifically to provide technical, legal, financial, and political assistance to communities around the country. The Trust for Public Land is another national organization that has been unusually active with creating urban rail trails.

More than that, trail advocates are fierce in their commitment to these facilities–many see them literally as “do or die” opportunities. In Seattle, when the Post-Intelligencer newspaper reported that the Burlington Northern Railroad had secretly sold off a piece of track that had been slated for a continuation of the Burke-Gilman Trail, cyclists were so outraged that they chained their bikes across the entranceway of Burlington Northern’s Seattle headquarters and began a vehement protest that stayed on the front pages for two months. (The railroad, which had sold the land to an out-of-state tycoon for a place to dock his yacht, found a way to rescind the deal and the corridor is now the trail extension.)

The Capital Crescent Trail as it enters Bethesda, Maryland, 7 miles from its starting point in Washington, D.C. Credit: Barbara Richey, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

In Washington, D.C., when the National Park Service was unable to get a quick congressional appropriation to save the Georgetown Branch from being developed by CSX Railroad into a string of million-dollar homes through a national park, land developer Kingdon Gould III loaned $12 million of his own money and held the land for a year until Congress acted. (The corridor is today the Capital Crescent Trail, centerpiece of what will eventually be a 20-mile “bicycle beltway” within the nation’s capital.)

The latest innovation is the overhead or trestle trail. Influenced by the creation in Paris, France, of the Promenade Plantée (“Planted Walkway”), activists in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis have all discovered abandoned rail trestles and launched campaigns to bring them back as trails. First to open, in 2009, was New York’s High Line, a sensational tour de force in the now-chic former meatpacking district. The walkway (which from day one was so crowded with pedestrians that bicycles were not permitted) includes sophisticated plantings, architectural landscaping reminiscent of railroad tracks, artistic benches and chaise longues, a viewing gallery with picture window overlooking 10th Avenue traffic, a large wall of glass panes dyed every hue of the Hudson River, food carts, seating areas, and more.

A bit less upscale but considerably longer and designed for cyclists as well as walkers, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is expected to open in segments as funds for the $45-million conversion are found. The Bloomingdale Trail should serve recreational cyclists as well as purposeful commuters since one day it could join an interconnected trailway linking all the way from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. St. Louis’s Iron Horse Trestle will also prove helpful to cyclists, runners, and walkers of all stripes since it passes over busy Interstate 70 and leads toward the popular Riverfront Trail along the Mississippi River.

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