This is part two of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies. Read part one here.
Madison Square Park Conservancy, Madison Square Park, New York
Madison Square Park was officially dedicated in 1847. In 1870, soon after the creation of New York City’s first Department of Public Parks, the 6.2-acre park was re-landscaped with well-defined walkways and open lawns to capture both formal and pastoral elements. In the late 19th century, the neighborhood surrounding Madison Square Park was one of Manhattan’s most elite, flourishing as a bustling commercial district with fashionable residences and hotels. But by the 1990’s, despite its prominent location and cultural significance, the park had fallen into disrepair with cracked and broken asphalt, eroded lawns, decaying monuments, visual clutter, insufficient lighting, and confusing signage.
In response, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation asked the City Parks Foundation to take the lead in organizing a revitalization campaign in 1999. The “Campaign for the New Madison Square Park” led to restoration in 2000-2001 and the creation of a “Friends” group in 2002.
The renovation restored elements of the original 19th century design, and the park now features lush green lawns, colorful flowering shrubs and plants, World’s Fair-style benches, a restored fountain, a contemporary reflecting pool, new gateways, new paving, and ornamental lighting. Another major accomplishment included the reinstallation of the 1920s-era Eternal Light Star (commemorating the end of World War I) with financial support from ConEdison, New York City Parks and Recreation, and Sentry Lighting. Additional amenities in the park include six statues/monuments, a playground (with a Playground Associate during the summer), Star of Hope, a temporary outdoor art installation, and the Shake Shack food stand.
The “Friends” group was renamed the Madison Square Park Conservancy in 2004 to move from general advocacy for the park to more long-term care and maintenance. In addition to its annual budget, the Conservancy has raised over $10 million for capital improvements and for a permanent fund to support park maintenance. (Any surplus revenues from operations go into the capital budget.) Donor companies have included Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, New York Life Insurance Company, Credit Suisse First Boston, Rudin Management, and Union Square Hospitality Group.
The Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, financed and built by the Conservancy for $750,000 in 2004 (and operated by a third-party) was an instant success and is one of the highlights of current restaurant concessions in New York City parks. It usually features long lines of customers waiting for frozen custard, shakes, concretes, Shack burgers, Chicago hotdogs, and “shroom burgers.”
A dense mix of office buildings, retail establishments and restaurants border Madison Square Park. Restoration has also spurred new residential development, including approximately twenty luxury condominium buildings in the surrounding area over the past five years, with two more coming in 2012-13. New hotels have also opened in the neighborhood.
A Business Improvement District surrounds Madison Square Park Conservancy, but there is no formal connection to the Conservancy. There is more business retail than residential development surrounding the park, so visitation counts fluctuate throughout the year. After two surveys of users last summer, the Conservancy estimates 1.25 million visitors during peak months (May through September).
The Civic Center Conservancy, Civic Center, Denver
Civic Center Park fills the grand space between Denver’s two most important civic buildings – Denver’s City and County Building and the Colorado State Capitol. Accented with tree groves, its structures include the Greek Theater and its Colonnade of Civic Benefactors, the Voorhies Memorial and adjacent “Seal Pond,” a historic balustrade wall and historic Carnegie Library turned municipal building. With the Pioneer Monument nearby, the park itself contains three bronze sculptures: “Broncho Buster,” “On the War Trail,” and the Columbus Monument. It has an illustrious history, including designs by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., but in recent decades the 12-acre park was largely empty, lacking amenities, programming, and connectivity. With the City’s operational and capital budgets shrinking, there was a backlog of deferred maintenance.
In response, a group of private citizens passionate about revitalizing Civic Center Park – including Elaine Asarch (founding Conservancy board chair and current board member), Dennis Humphries (architect and recent chair of Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission), Chris Frampton (current board chair and local real estate developer) and others – founded the Civic Center Conservancy in 2004. “We wanted to reintroduce people to this historic urban oasis and engage the community in its future,” said Conservancy Executive Director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, who came to the job from the Denver Mayor’s office in 2009.
The Conservancy partners with the City and County of Denver to restore, enhance, and activate Civic Center Park, with efforts focusing on four key areas: advocacy around design/infrastructure/policy; events and programming to activate the space; marketing and public engagement; and fundraising for capital improvements/activities/initiatives to support Civic Center’s ongoing revitalization.
Some major accomplishments of the Conservancy include advocating for Civic Center’s inclusion in the 2007 Better Denver bond initiative (which voters approved, resulting in almost $9.5 million for restoration), and providing input into the 2009 design guidelines for the park.
In its quest to elevate and sustain Civic Center as the vibrant cultural and community hub its founders envisioned more than a century ago, the Conservancy hosts a variety of arts and cultural programs, including the twice-weekly summer Civic Center EATS Outdoor Café (with 20+ food trucks, bistro-style seating and live music), an annual Independence Eve Celebration (featuring a free Colorado Symphony concert and a fireworks/light display that attracted more than 100,000 people in its second year and was broadcast live throughout Colorado), and a new Bike-In Movie Series on summer evenings. With these new programs, combined with longstanding annual festivals and general traffic resulting from the surrounding cultural and civic attractions, the park attracts over a million visitors a year.