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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).

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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.

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