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Seattle Parks and the Downtown Seattle Association: A Smart Marriage (Part 3 of 3)

This year the City Parks Alliance was one of the hosts to the International Downtown Association’s World Congress in New York.  The theme, “People/Places/Partnerships,” focused on how leaders across the globe are transforming buildings, places and streets through design, redevelopment, place management and distinctive programming.  City Parks Alliance added a focus on downtown parks by organizing tours.

I’ve talked about downtown associations before – and business improvement districts (BIDs) – and their increasing willingness to take on parks to help enliven and beautify downtowns.  BIDs exist in almost every one of the top 50 largest cities in the United States. BIDs, mostly financed by taxes on property owners in a given district, are increasingly including public spaces and parks in their mission.

Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) is no different.  It has been in existence since 1953 and in the late 1990s, the leadership formed a BID to help them carry out their mission.  With six hundred residential and business members they include parks in their mission.  “We care about the parks because our policy and advocacy agenda focuses on the health and vitality of public spaces – parks, plazas and sidewalks,” says Jon Scholes, DSA’s Vice President for Advocacy and Economic Development.

DSA recently helped the city create a new children’s play space at a downtown park that the city says never would have happened without them.

SeattleBlog3“Seattle has had huge residential growth in the last few years and a big transformation in the type of downtown we have,” says Scholes.  “DSA created a Residents Council about two years ago to have a link between their board and the increasing number of downtown residents. The Chair of the Council has a seat on the board.  They engage in advocacy on their own and sometimes have different priorities than DSA, but their engagement with decision makers is important to showing a constituency for the downtown and our public spaces.”

“We work with the city on a project by project basis.  We have no formal role around managing or maintaining the parks – that role belongs to the city – but we work with them on events and park investments,” says Scholes. “In the case of the Westlake playground we went to the Parks and Recreation Department and they agreed there was a need but no funding in their budget for the project so DSA went out to find funding and in kind support.”

When DSA turned over the Westlake Park playground to the city, the city treated it as a pilot project with a review period after two years to see how the partnership works.

SeattleBlog4DSA has no regular maintenance responsibilities in any of the parks.  Unlike BIDS in many other cities, the Parks and Recreation Department still takes lead.  “Up until now many of the downtown park functions have been siloed within the Parks Department and other city departments.  Now the Parks Department is creating a division for downtown parks to focus on their unique challenges to manage, maintain, program and provide security.”

As the city reshapes its management around downtown parks, so DSA is rethinking its role with parks.  “Our relationship with parks has mainly been around programming,” says Scholes.  “But we would like to see other services enhanced, and many parks need redesign.  We want to help champion a conversation and a look at a bigger role for the private sector.”

In the last several months both the city and the DSA have been exploring new P3s yet to be defined; possibly a conservancy or some other model to increase the role of the private sector with downtown parks.  Scholes says, “In the past there has been some pushback on the idea of a conservancy for Westlake.  Conversations now are more open.  The new waterfront park is being planned with the removal of the Alaskan Viaduct and there is recognition that new resources are needed to have quality management and operations of that space.  There is time now to learn lessons and shape a new strategy for when the waterfront park is completed.”

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.

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