Conservancies are private, non-profit, park-benefit organizations that raise money independent of the city and spend it under a plan of action that is mutually agreed upon with the city. Conservancies do not own any parkland nor do they hold easements on it; the land continues to remain in the ownership of the city, and the city retains ultimate authority over everything that happens there.
Park conservancies are an outgrowth of private citizens wanting to do more for public spaces than government can do on its own. Gaining steam across the U.S. over the past three decades, conservancies of varying sizes and models have been established out of concern for parks that government entities had neither the capacity nor the resources to maintain, program or enhance adequately.
This is part one of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies.
Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Buffalo Bayou, Houston
In 1976, after a lawsuit forced Houston to begin a massive upgrade of its sewer system, the water quality slowly began to improve in the city’s streams (known locally as bayous). By 1984 Buffalo Bayou, the city’s main waterway, was clean enough for visionaries to begin thinking of it as a valuable natural resource complete with parks and other waterfront opportunities – and as a node for downtown economic development. Under the leadership of Mayor Kathy Whitmire, a blue-ribbon panel spent two years producing the Buffalo Bayou Task Force Report which outlined a concept for redevelopment as well as a proposal to create a non-profit entity to implement the plan.
Mayor Whitmire then exerted further leadership by stimulating an implementing entity, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a group of civic, environmental, business and governmental representatives, to transform and revitalize 10 miles of Buffalo Bayou into a park system “that joins land and water to become the green heart of Houston.”
The Partnership’s jurisdiction follows Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to the Ship Channel Turning Basin. It includes approximately 250 acres of parkland on either side of the waterway.
The Partnership was created in 1986 to work on a major park project for Houston’s 150th birthday, but for its first nine years it operated as only a volunteer group. In 1995, staff was hired and more projects were initiated, including acquiring easements for a hike and bike trail. The Partnership didn’t intend to purchase large tracts of property but that approach was thwarted when the majority of landowners rejected selling or donating easements in favor of full fee simple sales. BBP had to rethink its strategy and undertake major fundraising. Since its inception, the Partnership has raised and leveraged nearly $150 million for bayou enhancements, including $23 million for Sesquicentennial Park, $4 million for Allen’s Landing, $12 million for Sabine Promenade, and $20 million for land acquisition. Being a property owner has allowed the Partnership to be a significant player in development decisions along the bayou.
Currently, BBP is leading a $55-million park improvement project to transform a 158-acre, 2.3-mile-long city park just west of downtown. The vision is to develop a beautiful, natural green space with vistas of the downtown skyline, user-friendly access points and recreational areas. A strong public-private partnership, including Houston’s Kinder Foundation, Buffalo Bayou Partnership, City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District has been formed to carry out the ambitious project. A Kinder Foundation catalyst gift of $30 million will fund basic park improvements. The Harris County Flood Control District is sponsoring a $5 million flood reduction/eco-system restoration project. The remaining $20 million are being sought by the BBP. Once completed in 2015, the park will be maintained and operated by BBP.
Detroit 300 Conservancy, Campus Martius Park, Detroit
A bright spot in the challenging economic situation in Detroit is Campus Martius, the new center-city park that attracts two million visitors a year and has helped stimulate almost $1 billion in nearby redevelopment. The entity operating Campus Martius is the Detroit 300 Conservancy.
Campus Martius (which means “Field of Mars” or “military ground”) had existed since 1788 but had not had a glorious history, eventually being asphalted over for streetcars and automobiles. In the late 1990s, when Mayor Dennis Archer was casting about for a suitably major project to serve as the centerpiece of the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2001, he selected it for re-creation. Detroit 300, Inc., the non-profit organization leading the celebration, adopted the Campus Martius reconstruction as part of its Legacy Project, and the park opened in 2004.
Only 2.5 acres in size, Campus Martius is a hub of activity with two retractable stages; the Woodward Fountain; waterwalls; monuments; lawns and gardens; a seasonal ice skating rink; a bistro café; seating for more than 3,000 people on walls, benches, steps, and movable chairs; and the “point of origin,” a medallion embedded in the stone walkway that sits over an early 1800s survey marker of Detroit’s coordinate system. Campus Martius plays host to over 200 concerts, events, and festivals each year, including the Motown Winter Blast and the Detroit Jazz Festival, each of which draws more than 100,000 people. The innovative programming, pedestrian accessibility, strong connection to the surrounding neighborhoods, and availability of public transit make Campus Martius a distinct destination and a landmark downtown public space for residents, workers and visitors alike.
Designing and constructing the park cost $20 million. (There was no cost for land acquisition, and all roadway infrastructure expenses were covered by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.) Funding came largely from corporations and the philanthropic community led by The Kresge Foundation.
The major reinvestment around Campus Martius includes street level cafés, retail shops and the new one-million-square-foot world headquarters of the Compuware Corp. (which told the city it would not have relocated if the park had not been built). Other companies are following suit: in 2010, Quicken Loans moved 3,000 employees into the area and has purchased over 2 million square feet of adjacent historic high-rise buildings. Additionally, GalaxE.Solutions announced it would spend $4.2 million to restore part of a nearby building and create 500 jobs over the next four years. Other investments in the area include the restoration of the historic Westin Book Cadillac Hotel and Residences, new restaurants, a CVS Pharmacy, and residential lofts and condos on Woodward Avenue.
“Campus Martius is a huge economic driver of development,” said Detroit 300 Conservancy President Robert Gregory. “The park has transformed a desolate area into a vibrant, active and year-round space with residential, retail, and restaurants along its borders. It’s a great place to be socially, right in the core of the business community.”
In 2010, Campus Martius received the inaugural Urban Land Institute Amanda Burden Urban Open Space Award and was also named one of the “Top Ten Great Public Spaces” by the American Planning Association.