Almost every city in America has a public-private partnership around one or more of its parks. Everyone is doing it, and everyone is asking the same questions about the best way to develop and manage them. It is a tough topic to wrap your head around since every partnership is a slightly different riff on the one they learned from. But the key question appears to be, what does the right agreement look like that keeps public space public?
Seattle is taking a big picture view of where and how they want to use partnerships and working hard on finding the best way to keep public space for the public. “Our approach is going to look different in different parts of the city,” says Christopher Williams, Acting Superintendent for Seattle Parks and Recreation. “For example, in the downtown core Friends of the Central Waterfront are working with us in a guiding position for how the waterfront gets redeveloped.”
Seattle is undertaking a huge restoration on its waterfront with a theme of creating more east-west connections to the water. Transformation of Seattle’s waterfront is made possible by the removal of the failing Alaskan Way Viaduct and replacement of the deteriorating Elliott Bay Seawall. The viaduct is being replaced with a 2-mile underground tunnel and freeing up hundreds of acres. The project is expected to restore the city’s core waterfront.
“A project of this size – a signature park for the city – has made us recognize that there is room for a partner to help us operate the waterfront park,” Williams acknowledges. We are in the process of thinking about what that partnership design might look like. The city will provide some level of funding to operate the waterfront – we will never move away from providing a base level of funding for operations and maintenance – but we can see how Friends of the Central Waterfront might be in a better position to raise funds and pay for enhancements to our basic level of services.”
Maybe conservancies are not right for all of the city but the department acknowledges that there is room for a public-private partnership for the downtown parks. “We see it as a way to create enhancements to the basic model that the city can provide.” The city doesn’t want to micromanage development along the waterfront—but it will partner with the private sector to incentivize certain kinds of infill development to help strengthen the open space core.
In another case, the Seattle Parks Foundation is a long-standing partner to the city. In 2010 Seattle Parks Foundation completed its efforts – including a $20 million capital campaign – to develop 12 acres of green space located in the heart of the city adjacent to Lake Union. The property was identified 100 years ago by the Olmsted firm as ideal for an urban waterfront park.
Similarly the city is working with the Friends of Olmsted Parks. “These are people who love the vision that Olmsted gave us and want a higher level of maintenance for the parks,” Williams explains. “The city doesn’t have enough resources to meet their goal so we are working with them to establish an umbrella association that can fundraise for an enhanced set of services and operations. The effort is intended to enhance what the city provides – not turn over the city’s responsibilities.”
There is no shortage of partnership opportunities with strong advocates for the parks – the kind of constituencies that some cities would love to have – but the city remains adamant that it is committed to keeping the department in the driver’s seat – or, in the words of Deputy Superintendent Eric Friedli, “…we don’t want to rely on trusts and conservancies.”
In a story cited in the recent issue of Parks and Recreation magazine, when neighbors in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Seattle asked if they could hold fundraisers to raise money to reopen a wading pool shuttered due to cuts, Parks officials made a counteroffer. “Our pushback is that we don’t want to privatize our parks and have a rich/poor divide,” says Friedli. “We said, ‘If you raise money to open two wading pools, we’ll open yours and another on the south side of Seattle,’” which is poorer.
“They got it right away, and agreed,” he recalls. “That’s kind of the way Seattle thinks.”
“We’re moving into a space where we’re becoming rigidly flexible in looking at partnerships,” says Williams. “Ten years ago some of the partnerships we are creating now wouldn’t have flown – because residents didn’t understand the limits of the general fund. People are now realizing that government can’t solve all problems. There is an increasing willingness to look at partnerships. There remains some skepticism but also an understanding that something more has to be done. We have the advantage of looking around the country at best practices – and also of having our partners to date talk about success – both are helping us move P3s into a more normal part of our work.”
NEXT WEEK – Seattle Parks and the Downtown Seattle Association: A Smart Marriage
Kathy 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.