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“Freedom’s Fortress” Finally Free to be a National Monument

Earlier this month, President Obama used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia a National Monument. The significance of President Obama’s Proclamation cannot be overstated; it is the first time he has used this authority and Fort Monroe is a unique and historically important military base worth federal protection.

Aerial view of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: Fort Monroe National Park Foundation, Inc.

The Proclamation will ensure preservation of the majority of the buildings within the 570-acre National Historic Landmark District as well as significant landscapes and viewsheds. But only 324 acres, or 57 percent of the 570 acres, was designated a National Monument, leaving the rest of the property to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ideally the entire 570-acre property would best be served as protected parkland.

We’ve written before about the deficit of parkland in the Hampton Roads area and how a new, historic park would have a significant positive impact for the entire region. The opportunity to gain priceless acres of waterfront parkland is especially noteworthy. The National Monument designation includes federal ownership of the parade ground, some buildings, and the beaches, with easements surrounding the entire fortress and moat.

The site has the momentous distinction of being the spot upon which, in 1619, the first Africans destined for the British continental North American colonies landed—the vanguard of an estimated 10–12 million Africans forcibly brought to the colonies and, later, the United States.

Fort Monroe was begun in 1819 and completed in 1834. With a seven-sided shape, walls of stone, ramparts over a mile in circumference, completely surrounded by a water-filled moat, and bristling with huge artillery guns, Fort Monroe was given the nickname “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.” It is the largest fort ever built in the United States.

Map showing the proposed park/monument area of Fort Monroe. Credit: National Park Service.

During the American Civil War, Fort Monroe was one of only a very few strongholds in the South that never fell to the Confederates. Among notable military events that occurred at Fort Monroe was Major General Benjamin Butler’s decision to declare that any slave escaping to Fort Monroe would not be returned but would be kept as “contraband of war.” As word of the novel legal decision spread, thousands of slaves found their way to Fort Monroe, which soon became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.” By the end of the war, thousands of “contraband” were living around the fort. The spot of the first landing of slaves became, after more than 200 years, the spot of their first emancipation.

Fort Monroe continued as an active military base through World Wars I and II. In 1960, the entire post, both inside and outside the moat, was designated a national historic landmark because of its rich military and cultural significance. In 2005, under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, Fort Monroe was ruled surplus by the army and deactivated on September 15, 2011. Although it is no longer an active Army base, the land is still owned by the Army and therefore under federal control. Much of the rest of the base is scheduled to revert to state ownership in January, under control of the Fort Monroe Authority.

Used by 14 presidents since 1906, the Antiquities Act has protected some of the most unique natural and historic features in America, including other urban national properties like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The main difference between a National Monument and a National Park is the way it obtains its status. The President has the authority to declare a National Monument while Congress declares a National Park. Regardless of designation, it will operate like any other unit within the National Park system. There are currently 21 national park units located in Virginia; Fort Monroe will be the 22nd and the 396th nationwide.

For more information on the deficit of parkland in the Hampton Roads region, read our 2008 report Bracing for Change.

Some News from Around…

  • A partnership of agencies in Minneapolis are pushing for a greener downtown, highlighted by the Gateway, a project that would create a center-city park and a connection to the Mississippi River. (Star Tribune)
  • Dog parks have been exploding in popularity over the past several years, but a dog park planned for Hudson River Park in New York sets a new standard, with amenities such as a canine-operated water feature. (DNAinfo.com)
  • Los Angeles unveiled plans to build 50 new pocket parks throughout the city. Ten of the new parks will be on the lots of foreclosed homes, a product of a partnership with the city’s Housing Department. (Los Angeles Daily News)
  • Approved by voters in a 1998 bond election, Austin’s Butler Park, meant to be the city’s own Central Park, is finally headed towards completion. There is, however, continuing debate about how to fund the final phase of the project. (Austin American-Statesman)

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

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. This is the last of the four cases studies we’ve published from the study. (See the first three in Emeryville, Windsor, and Oakland).


When it comes to urban infill projects – and urban infill park systems – in the San Francisco Bay Area, the colossus is Mission Bay. Almost one out of every six acres of the brand new community is slated to become parkland.

Located in east-central San Francisco, along San Francisco Bay and not far from the Financial District, the 303-acre site was a former industrial area, port rail terminal and warehousing center that suffered through decades of decline. Finally, the pendulum swung back, the area’s intrinsic value was recognized, and in 1998 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to establish the Mission Bay North and South Redevelopment Project Areas. It then turned the vast project over to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. The area is eventually scheduled to contain 6,000 residential units, 6 million square feet of commercial space, a hotel, a university campus, retail – and 49 acres of new parkland.

Mission Creek Sports Courts, the first of many new parks that will be built within Mission Bay. Credit: Ning Deng, Marta Fry Landscape Associates

The first of the new parks to come on line is 3-acre Mission Creek Sports Courts, a facility designed to specifically activate land and water spaces partially under a freeway. Its development cost was approximately $7.2 million, its gestation period was 10 years, and it officially opened to the public in mid-2008.  As is usually the case with redevelopment projects, the story of Mission Creek Sport Courts is complex.

By the 1990s most of the land of Mission Bay was owned either by the City of San Francisco or by Catellus, Inc., a land development company associated with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Under normal circumstances, since the area was uninhabited, the company would have had a relatively free hand to develop the large site more or less as it wished, which might have meant a modest amount of parkland. However, there was a small but historic and vociferous community living in houses that literally floated in Mission Creek itself, and that group pressed for parks.

“We weren’t going to let them move ahead without a significant commitment to parks and recreation in our area,” recalls Corinne Woods, a local resident who formerly worked for the Neighborhood Parks Council. Years earlier, ideas for the Mission Bay area had included a sterile collection of concrete water channels and high-rise towers that residents had rejected. This time was different, said Woods. “I’ve got to say that they really stepped up to the plate.”

A major reason that so much more was done at Mission Bay is because the developer wanted, and was dependent on, special financing from the Redevelopment Agency to fund public infrastructure. The city, the agency and the community therefore had considerable leverage to require that land be dedicated to public parks, affordable housing and other benefits.  Without public financial help, the entire project would not have been feasible.

Basketball courts in front of new residences. Courtesy Mission Bay Development Agency.

“This is the value of public/private partnerships,” explained Kelley Kahn, project manager with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. “We bring powerful public financing tools to the table, the developer brings private land, and together with the community a plan with important public benefits is negotiated.”

Ultimately the redevelopment agency and the master developer (formerly Catellus, now a company called FOCIL-MB) agreed to create 0.45 acres of parkland for every 1.0 net acres of physical development (i.e., acreage not counting streets). This will translate into 41 acres of parks (plus 8 more acres promised within the new campus being built for the University of California at San Francisco). Moreover, under the agreement, the parkland has to be brought on line at a rate equivalent to the development of buildings — that is, park construction cannot be held back while residents are awaited.

Park funding in Mission Bay is provided by way of two sources: from a community facilities district (CFD, also known as a Mello-Roos District), and from tax increment financing – additional tax monies generated because of redevelopment in the area. A CFD is an area where a special property tax on real estate, in addition to the normal property tax, is imposed. The district then sells bonds to finance public improvements and services (which, in addition to parks, could pay for streets, water, sewage and drainage, electricity, schools or police protection.) The tax paid is used to reduce the principal and interest on the bonds.  Similarly, tax increment bonds are issued against future tax increment to pay for parks and other public infrastructure.

The CFD, which runs until the year 2043, and the tax increment financing – a key tool of redevelopment – make all the difference. If it weren’t for the district, Mission Bay (like San Francisco itself at the current time) would not be financially able to create any parks. Moreover, if Mission Creek had contained a large number of small landowners, it is unlikely that they would have voted to spend more of their money by way of a community facilities district. Since Catellus wanted it and was the primary owner, the company was able to make it happen.

Today the park contains courts for basketball, volleyball and tennis, a dog run, a small boat launch for human-powered vessels (kayaks and canoes), a walkway, a bikeway, and a multipurpose lawn. Maintaining and programming the Sports Courts costs about $400,000 per year. A separate community facilities district was formed to fund park maintenance and operations. The cost of this (and other parks) comes to $10,650 per acre for undeveloped land and just over $18,000 per acre for developed land (which is pro-rated by the number of units on each acre). For individual units, the fee generally came to between $150 and $200 in 2010.

Civic Center and Rotary Centennial Selected as Frontline Parks

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two “Frontline Parks” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Civic Center Park
Civic Center is the primary green space in the center of Denver, and as such, it serves as both regional and neighborhood park.  The urban park hosts the Rocky Mountain region’s largest public festivals, political rallies, and public celebrations.  The neo-classical architecture in the park provides the perfect backdrop to one of the city’s largest public art collections.  Surrounded by the City County Building, Colorado State Capitol, Greek Theater, Voorhies Memorial and the McNichols Building (formerly the Carnegie Library), its importance is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places and the Civic Center Historic District, a Denver Landmark District.  The experience is a draw for hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.


Civic Center

In 2005, a comprehensive master plan was adopted for the park, which recommended the formation of a non-profit organization, the Civic Center Conservancy.  The public-private partnership has grown significantly through passionate volunteerism to restore, enhance and activate Denver’s historic Civic Center.  In 2007, the Better Denver Bond invested $9.5 million in the complete rehabilitation of the park’s historic structures.

Rotary Centennial Park
Long Beach’s Rotary Centennial Park has been called a “ribbon of green” due to the contrast of its colorful landscaping and art elements against the monotones of apartments that surround it. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rotary International in 2005, the Long Beach Rotary Club raised $100,000 to help design and construct a 1.2-acre park at Pacific Coast Highway and Junipero Avenue. This city-owned undeveloped land along the former Pacific Electric right-of-way is surrounded by a densely developed area with nearly 80 percent of the residents living in apartments with no backyards.


Before & After

Long Beach Rotary involved the public and stakeholders throughout the design process.  Community input was translated into plans that incorporated a solar system theme with art installations of planets, a sundial sculpture, benches, turf, trees, playground equipment, and a shade shelter. These creative elements have made Rotary Centennial Park one of the most unique and inviting parks in the city and a welcome addition to a park-poor neighborhood.  The Rotary’s involvement didn’t stop with the park’s creation.  Every month since the park opening, Long Beach Rotarians have held work parties to help clean, repair and maintain the park.

Frontline Parks is generously supported by DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

The Nation’s Mayors Seek President’s Continued Support for Land and Water Conservation Fund

50 mayors across the country urged President Obama this week to support federal funding of urban parks and green space as a strategy for creating jobs and driving economic development. Mayors from Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and smaller cities like Bozeman, Montana, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, sent a letter requesting the administration’s continued support for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the nation’s premier tool for protecting open space in urban and rural communities nationwide without the use of taxpayer dollars. The City Parks Alliance met with senior White House officials this week to deliver the letter and discuss the importance of LWCF funding to America’s urban communities and economies.

The letter notes the significant economic impact these venues have had on local economics:

“Outdoor recreation activities contribute $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supporting 6.5 million jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation. New investments in parks could quickly create an added 100,000 to 200,000 positions—jobs based largely in communities and, thus, hard to outsource.”

The President’s proposed FY2012 budget recommends full funding for LWCF, including $200 million for matching grants to states and communities. The LWCF does not rely on taxpayer dollars, but rather on a very small percentage of fees paid by companies conducting offshore oil and gas production. Congress must appropriate the funds every year to parks. However, nearly every year since 1965—when the LWCF was created—lawmakers have largely diverted the funds to other, non-related purposes.

The mayors’ letter came just a week after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar identified many renowned urban parks as places to create and protect in the final 50-State America’s Great Outdoors Report—a compilation of public feedback and strategic conversations with the nation’s governors and diverse stakeholders about locally-driven conservation opportunities. City parks in Cleveland, Detroit, Hampton, Va., Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were among the projects highlighted in the report representing “a 21st Century approach to conservation that is designed by and accomplished in partnership with the American people.” Research shows that urban parks help to drive tourism, raise property values, and help communities to thrive. A new study of Chicago’s Millennium Park, for example, concludes that the cultural, environmental, educational and economic benefits to the city quadrupled the value of the public-private investment in the space.

“Cities are the engines that drive the nation’s economy,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, an independent, nationwide organization dedicated to urban parks. “Parks and green space are critical to helping our cities become healthier and more vibrant places to live and work, and the leadership of the president and Congress is critical to keeping this engine running.”

For 45 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a crucial source of support to conserve open space and water resources, while also funding new parks, trails, and recreational facilities in urban and rural communities.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund continues to be an essential tool to meet the increasing demand for livable communities in cities all across this country,” said Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock. “In Denver, we value our great opens spaces and recreational facilities. These investments are as much economic investments for the city as they are quality of life investments for our residents. I applaud the President for his commitment and proudly sign the letter encouraging his continued support.”

President Obama acknowledged the importance of urban parks and open space and his support for the Fund when he released the America’s Great Outdoors report, saying:

“They help spur the economy. They create jobs by putting more Americans back to work in tourism and recreation. …They help Americans stay healthier by making it easier to spend time outside. And they’ll help carry forth our legacy as a people who don’t just make decisions based on short-term gains of any one group but on what’s best for the entire nation in the long run.”

The mayors, along with the City Parks Alliance, believe Congress should provide consistent funding for LWCF and not divert these funds for other purposes—a sentiment echoed by nine in 10 Americans, according to recent national polling.

You can read a copy of the mayors’ letter and a list of signees here.