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Breakthrough Public Private Partnerships: The Work of New Yorkers for Parks (Part 2)

This post continues from last week on the work of New Yorkers for Parks and public private partnerships, gathered through an interview with outgoing Executive Director Holly Leicht.

 In 2012, NY4P undertook a detailed analysis of the growing number of private park conservancies in New York City, closely scrutinizing the 25 legal agreements between conservancies and the Parks Department.  The result was a set of recommendations to encourage greater consistency, transparency and accountability in public private partnerships.  The report found that partnerships are indeed augmenting the public budget, but that the city needs to do a better job of tracking funds and should require more consistent financial reporting that is made public on the Parks Department’s website.

“There’s no question that these organizations are value added to the parks they’re working in,” Holly told me, “but we also found that there was value added to the whole system since other parks benefit from freed-up public money, but the Parks Department does not quantify this dollar value.  It’s evident private money is making Central Park work, for example, but we have no real data to prove the benefit at the neighborhood park level.” Continue reading

Breakthrough Public-Private Partnerships: The Work of New Yorkers for Parks (Part 1)

Executive Director Holly Leicht’s last day with New Yorkers for Parks was January 10.  She has been appointed by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan to serve as Regional Administrator of HUD Region II, which comprises New York and New Jersey. In her new role, Leicht will be instrumental in carrying out ongoing Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.

Last month I had a chance to talk with Holly about public-private partnerships in New York, the new mayor, and the work of New Yorkers for Parks.  I’m glad I did, as her new job will take her far beyond park boundaries and the work of the more than 100-year old New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P).  Founded in 1908 because there were not enough resources for children’s play in the city, it’s only been within the last two decades that research to substantiate advocacy has become an important part of what they do.

New Yorkers for Parks
Around the time that the Bloomberg administration took office in 2002, the former Parks Council took on its new name and broader mission.  “But,” says Holly, “one issue that has crossed our 100 years is that we are a watchdog on alienation issues – protecting parkland all the way back to the Moses era.  We work to maintain the ‘public’ in public parks.”

Holly arrived at NY4P in 2011 just as NY4P was solidifying its reputation for airtight research and reporting on the city’s parks, essentially creating a database that now supports the efforts of both citizen advocates and elected officials. Continue reading

Park Conservancy Models Part II: Madison Square Park Conservancy and The Civic Center Conservancy

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

Jaume Plensa’s Echo sculpture in Madison Square Park, New York. Credit: Tom Giebel (Flickr Feed)

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

Colorado tribute to Veterans Monument and the City and County Building in Civic Center Park, Denver. Credit: Cliff (Flickr Feed)

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.

From Dumps to Destinations: Converting Landfills to Parks

A tenth 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 from capped landfills.

New parks can be fashioned out of old garbage dumps. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Fresh Kills Park, New York. The soon-to-open park will be New York's largest city park at 2,200 acres, more than double the size of Central Park. Credit: Garrett Ziegler (Flickr Feed).

Balloon Park in Albuquerque, Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, McAlpine Creek Soccer Complex in Charlotte, Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs, Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, and hundreds of others, both famous and obscure, have been created from landfills. And in a few more years New York City’s 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill will have settled in to become that city’s largest park.

Landfill parks go back to at least 1916 (many years before the word “landfill” was coined) when the old Rainier Dump in Seattle was turned into the Rainier Playfield. In 1935 in that same city a more momentous conversion transformed the 62-acre Miller Street Dump into a portion of the now-famous Washington Park Arboretum. The following year, New York City closed the putrid Corona Dumps–famously called the “Valley of Ashes” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby–and began preparing the land for construction of the 1939 World’s Fair. Following World War II, as the volume of trash in America mushroomed, so did the number of landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 3,500 landfills have closed since 1991; the number from earlier years is anyone’s guess.

In an ideal world all trash would be recycled and there would be no landfills. But in a time of severe urban space and resource constraints, closed landfills represent excellent locales for three big reasons: size, location, and cost. A former dump is usually one of the few large, open locations within a dense metro area. There is also the opportunity to correct what may have been a longstanding environmental injustice to the surrounding residents. Finally, there’s a good chance that the landfill–which may be as small as dozens of acres or as large as 1,000 or more–is free or inexpensive to buy or possibly that it even comes with its own supporting funds.

While a capped landfill is not necessarily a park director’s first choice for a parcel of land, it’s impressive and instructive that so many perfectly adequate–or even better than adequate–city parks started out as dumps. Communities from coast to coast have been jumping at the chance to use them. Based on a survey, the Center for City Park Excellence estimates that there may already be as many as 4,500 acres of landfill parks in major U.S. cities.

Mount Trashmore, Virginia Beach. The city's highest point and its largest non-wetland park was constructed in 1974 over an 800-foot-high mound of municipal refuse, and became the best known of the nation's early landfill parks. Credit: Backus Aerial.

In Portland, Oregon, the park department is getting a free 25-acre park. All closure and conversion costs for Cully Park were paid by the solid waste department, which built up a reserve for exactly that purpose by charging a per-ton fee on garbage disposed there. (The park department coordinates closely in habitat development and vegetation management.) In Virginia Beach, where Mount Trashmore required multiple fixes over the decades, the original 1974 capping and the 1986 recapping were paid for by the public works department; the 2003 recapping–hopefully the last–was financed by the park department through its capital improvement budget. In Fresno, California, the landfill isn’t even being officially transferred over; the public utilities department will own it in perpetuity but will sign a management agreement with the parks and recreation department.

Frankly, a cheap purchase price is important because preparation costs can be significant. Depending on the age and contents of the landfill, the amount of groundwater or soil contamination, and the planned recreational use, construction costs have ranged from $500,000 for a 2-acre site to $30 million for a regional park of more than 100 acres. Expenses depend on such factors as topography, availability of materials, cover design, and much more. A calculation by the Center for City Park Excellence puts the average at around $300,000 per acre. Financial responsibility for these and other costs may lie solely with the park developer or be shared by the landfill owner/operator.

The construction of municipal solid waste landfills has been regulated since 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today an owner/operator must install a 24-inch earthen cover within six months of closure to minimize water infiltration and erosion. The cover usually also has a gas venting layer and a stone or synthetic biotic layer to keep out burrowing animals. The EPA requires groundwater monitoring and leachate collection for thirty years after the landfill is closed.

Technically, the two big challenges to using a former landfill are gas production and ground settlement. Landfill gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, are created when buried waste decomposes. Methane may be released for thirty or more years after closure, and EPA requires gas collection systems. (In parks built on pre-1991 landfills there were occasional stories of picnickers being stunned to see a column of flame surrounding a barbeque grill.) Happily, methane collected from landfills can be sold by park departments to generate revenue. In Portland, Oregon, St. Johns Landfill, a former disposal site within the 2,000-acre Smith-Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, earns more than $100,000 a year from methane that is piped 2 miles to heat the lime kiln of a cement company. The revenue helps pay for closure operations as the site transitions from landfill to park.

Settlement is a bit tougher. Like cereal in a box, municipal landfills gradually slump as much as 20 percent over a two- or three-decade period. That much settlement would cause foundations to break and sink, utility and irrigation pipes to burst, roads and paths to crack and heave, light poles to tilt, and sports fields to crumple. Obviously, if the ultimate reuse of a landfill is as a natural wild land, none of this matters. But most recreational reuses require the construction of at least trails if not fields and buildings of various types. Fortunately, waste sits only in “cells” in certain areas of a landfill, and park facilities can be safely constructed over undisturbed areas, leaving the settling sections to support grass and shrubbery. Therefore, structural foundations can be protected through detailed research and careful planning; the key is to know exactly where the waste is. At New York’s Fresh Kills only about 45 percent of the land area was actually used for waste disposal.

Despite the many successful individual examples, there is not yet a seamless landfills-to-parks movement in the United States. Numerous challenges remain–technological, political, and legal–all of which drive up costs. Back when land was more easily available, the impediments were generally not worth taking on. Now in many cases they are. With a three-pronged effort to design safer waste dumps, to work more closely with community activists, and to ensure protection from legal liabilities, cities will be able to gain much new parkland from abandoned landfills.

For more information about landfill parks, read an article published in Places journal here.

Visions of Closing Roads and Creating Parks

A previous post highlighted a few cities that closed roads through parks to increase pedestrian and non-motorized use. We’ve recently learned about a proposal to temporarily close streets to traffic during weekends and holidays in Buenos Aires and bring in portable playground equipment and benches to turn these roads into parks. A video of this concept is below:

The “Plaza Movil Street Park” was one of three winners of the Philips Livable Cities Award, a global initiative designed to generate innovative, meaningful and achievable ideas to improve the health and wellbeing of city-dwellers across the world. The creator of the Plaza Movil Street Park received a grant of €25,000 to help translate his concept into reality.

Also worth viewing is the video of one of the five finalists, who brings a plan a little closer to home. The “Design Your Own Park Competition” in Binghamton, NY would turn neglected, urban spaces into parks by having neighborhood residents and groups submit designs in a contest, with the winning vision ultimately created and maintained as a public park.

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