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Belle Isle Conservancy: One Step at a Time

Belle Isle, the 985 acre island and city park in the Detroit River – and the crown jewel of Detroit’s park system – is in trouble. It has a backlog of cleanup, restoration, and environmental challenges that would make any park conservancy director’s head swim, including a half-dozen historic structures in need of repair, overgrown walking paths, shoreline erosion, invasive species, and padlocked restrooms.

Belle Isle 1But Michele Hodges, Belle Isle Conservancy’s new and very first President, who began work in January of this year, sees it differently – as do its many online fans that see through the deterioration to its great views of the Detroit skyline, beautiful architectural assets and Olmsted-designed promenades that lead to the water’s edge.  It’s those fans who convinced Michele to take the job.  “Belle Isle has an amazing amount of public support and goodwill.  My job is to harness that,” she said.

Belle Isle 2It’s not like the Conservancy has to begin from scratch. Belle Isle has a long history of private partners supporting the park, starting with the Friends of Belle Isle which was founded in 1972. Joining the effort in 1988, the Belle Isle Botanical Society began raising money for projects to improve the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. In 2004, the Belle Isle Women’s Committee was created and its first project was to upgrade Sunset Point.

The Belle Isle Conservancy was formed in the fall of 2011, through a merger of four existing nonprofits – Friends of Belle Isle, Belle Isle Botanical Society, Belle Isle Women’s Committee and Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium.

Belle Isle 3“It was the quality of leadership that brought these organizations together, with stakeholders who had worked on behalf of the park for more than 40 years,” said Michele.   By 2009 these leaders knew their future was in working as one team in order to be a stronger advocate for the park.  They secured foundation funding, brought in a consultant and worked for almost two years in aligning their missions and looking forward.

“Community engagement with the stakeholders from the start was important to the merger but it has also laid the foundation for moving forward – now people are already engaged with the park,” she added.

The first stakeholder meetings were held in 2009 to see what advocates wanted for the park.  A user survey was conducted in 2010 – all volunteer driven – with 2200 respondents.  By 2010 merger plans were in the works based on the sentiment of users and advocates that one voice would lead to stronger leadership.  The four organizations voted to move forward in January 2011.

Where Do You Begin?

Sarah Earley, chairwoman of the nonprofit Belle Isle Conservancy, was recently quoted in the local paper as saying, “When we talk about what the park needs, you and I could talk forever.”

Not unlike the downtown BIDs I’ve talked to, “clean and safe” is the first priority.  And as Michele sees it, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit.  “Our first job is capacity building and working to support and enhance the work of our 4500 volunteers.  We have a track record of foundation support and through our annual events, raise $400,000.  It’s all right there for us to harness, put a system in place and get started.”  And getting started in this case means focusing on capacity building – hiring someone to manage the volunteer base and “being a master of leverage” in getting staff and volunteers in place for some key projects that don’t spread the organization too thin.

Belle Isle 5
Working with the City

Beyond an MOU that exists for the Conservancy and the city to work together around managing the aquarium there is no written agreement between the two entities.  The aquarium re-opened to the public last September after shutting down in 2005. A $75,000 grant from the state of Michigan to repair the roof and skylights – and a group of 30 volunteers – keeps the aquarium running and open to the public every Saturday.

Currently the city operates and maintains the park.  Michele said they are looking at the Central Park Conservancy model as one potential way for them to work with the city.  But it is premature to say that they will follow that model.  A master plan for the park was updated in 2005 and the Conservancy has begun talks with the planning firm which did the original plan about what is still relevant.  Assessments will be conducted of all the major assets to develop a capital improvements plan.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan has offered to lease Belle Isle. Under the plan, in the works since last summer, the island would become a state park with an entry fee, thus covering the annual $6 million in maintenance and operations costs — funds sorely needed for the beloved landmark, which in recent years has fallen into disrepair.  But for the moment the city council has nixed the idea.

Belle Isle 6“We’ll work with whatever entity is at the table,” says Michele.  We were included in the proposal documents as a go-to entity for the state.  We were advocates for the proposal because we saw it as bringing resources to the table; and we saw the lease as an opportunity manage through the crisis.”

The idea is not dead.  An Emergency Financial Manager appointed by the Governor started this week, so it’s possible that the discussion will be re-ignited and involve all three parties.

Building the Budget and the Board

The Conservancy’s budget is almost $1.5 million, including restricted funds, with $700,000 spent annually for operations.  The city spends another estimated $2-3 million in the park.  For the moment there is no earned income revenue, but the idea is on the table.  So is building on the success of their annual fundraisers like the Grand Prix that runs through the park.

Though racing cars through a park is not a common way to raise funds, in June of this year the Grand Prix will once again take place at Belle Isle.  It’s one of their biggest fundraisers and the Grand Prix directors are very supportive of the park.  The Grand Prix though is just one event of many that take place annually in the park and the Conservancy is looking at ways to manage this distinctive event better and in balance with all the other goals and activities for the park.

The Conservancy stakeholders, many of them now on the board, have a 40-year history of working with the city of Detroit.  Each of the original four organizations has representation on the board.  Three or four representatives from city are voting members of the board; a City Councilman is a voting member of the board.

They are continuing to build out their board.  Their bylaws allow for 35 members and they are currently at 19 or 20.  Michele is a big believer in engagement and getting a truly representative board.  They do much of their business by committee – with committees made up of board members and non-members.

The board is balancing the idea of taking on a major capital project early on with doing “lighter, quicker, cheaper” – identifying things that can happen quickly this summer to show improvement.

The P3 Balance

Each time I look at a P3 partnership for parks in a city I wonder how the issue of private conservancies for parks is taking hold.  Given Detroit’s financial woes and challenges, it’s not surprising to see more partnerships blossoming.  Not just private-public but public-public, too, across jurisdictions.  It may turn out to be the best place to trial and showcase what P3s can do in a city.

“Our first goal is to build social capital.  If you don’t have your social capital, cash doesn’t go as far. More than anything else we need the P3 capital – even more than cash.”  Then, Michele says, you can make decisions together and come to conclusions about the right balance together.  “We’re at a very important stage of our growth; we want to find the model that works for our community and has all of our stakeholders involved.”

Many in the city are talking about the right mix of P3s to make the city work well again.  John Gallagher has a long career covering urban redevelopment for the Detroit Free Press, and a new book out about Detroit that looks at reinvention ideas for the city. In a recent column he talks about that public-private balance, saying, “….perhaps the time has come to stop looking at groups like University Circle Inc. [a community service corporation in Cleveland] as a backstop for weak or nonexistent city services and more as a model for a new way of governing urban places.”

And today, while I spoke with Michele, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced that local business leaders had come up with $8 million to buy the city ambulances and police patrol cars.  The money from leaders within the Downtown Detroit Partnership will get the city 23 new EMS rigs and 100 police cars.

“Working together we can transform our city,” Bing said.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

Park Conservancy Models Part I: Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Detroit 300 Conservancy

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

The Common in Sesquicentennial Park, Buffalo Bayou, Houston. Credit: Jim (Flickr Feed).

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

Campus Martius Park, Detroit. Credit: Detroit 300 Conservancy.

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.

Video: Overview of Shrinking Cities

From the Shrinking Cities project, there’s a great video (without audio) on change in shrinking cities from Detroit to Manchester/Liverpool, UK to Leipzig and the Essen area in Germany. The simulation shows that these regions are spreading out almost as much as they are shrinking. This seems particularly the case with Detroit and Manchester/Liverpool. In the case of the latter, it appears that after years of attempting to restructure, there has been some infilling of abandoned areas. Might be some good ideas there for shrinking U.S. cities, and we’ll try to follow up on that in another post.

more about “Video: Overview of Shrinking Cities“, posted with vodpod

Parks and Natural Areas & the Future of Detroit

Can a new Detroit be grounded on setting aside some of its vacant land as new natural areas? In making a case for what could help bring Detroit back from its current economic doldrums, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution offer some ideas in The New Republic, including one that involves a reinvented public realm:

The new Detroit might be a patchwork of newly dense neighborhoods, large and small urban gardens, art installations, and old factories transformed into adventure parks. The new Detroit could have a park, much like Washington’s Rock Creek Park, centered around a creek on its western edge, and a system of canals from the eastern corner of the city to Belle Isle in the south. The city has already started on the restoration of the Detroit River waterfront, largely bankrolled by private philanthropy. The city has created a new “land bank,” which can take control of vacant and derelict properties and start the process of clearing land, remediating environmental contamination, and figuring out what to do next with the parcel, whether that’s making it into a small park, deeding it to a neighbor to create a well-tended yard, or assembling large tracts of land for redevelopment or permanent green space.

The key would be to not convert too much land over to permanent green space. A balance would have to be found between setting land aside and encouraging reinvestment outside of them. As Kaid Benfield has commented on his blog, giving too much over to agriculture or nature could actually reinforce a fragmented pattern of living.

The city recently rolled out the Dequindre Cut bike trail, has found much success in Campus Martius Park downtown and as the article mentions, is investing in its riverfront. Perhaps these efforts can provide the city some insight into a larger role for parks and natural areas in its future.

Detroit’s Parks Struggle in an Increasingly Spread Out Metro

There’s a sad article in the Detroit News about that city’s 250-acre Eliza Howell Park. The grandson of the benefactor who gave 138 acres of the park to the city is asking that it be given back to the family so that he can develop it into a big box grocery store and homes.

Kenneth Cheyne, the grandson, is suing the city, claiming that it is violating a 1936 deed restriction that says the land be maintained as a park. Because of Detroit’s dire financial condition, it stopped mowing Eliza Howell and 137 other parks this spring. But the park and its loop drive remain open to the public and although there are concerns of crime and disrepair, the space remains important to and used by some community members.

The irony of this situation is that Detroit is a city that has tons of land for development. In fact, according to the American Institute of Architects, 40 square miles of the 139-square-mile city are vacant. If a developer wants to build a grocery store (which the city is in dire need of) and housing there is plenty of space to do so.

This gets to the larger issue of Detroit’s development over the years. People often say the city is shrinking, but that’s only true in population numbers, not development. Metro Detroit is a classic case of sprawl without growth. The decline of the auto industry has not in itself caused the central city’s problems. Those are also due to sprawl from central city flight and the movement of migrants from rural areas to suburbs and exurbs. In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1,849,568. At that time, the metro had a population of 3,219,256. Today, the city has 912,062 people and the metro has 4,425,110. The metro population has grown about 30 percent more than the city has shrunk.

Detroit seems to be slowly turning into one huge suburb. Converting a classic urban park into a strip mall would represent one more step in that direction.

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