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A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons (Part 2)

“The question is: How do you improve access to parks and open space but not trigger this shift in property values and land uses that completely transform a community?”

Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley

My last blog post included a look at Chicago’s new 606 trail and related discussions about gentrification and how the project will impact the neighborhoods it passes through. Beth White, Chicago Director for The Trust for Public Land, a sponsor of the project, says that the overall goal is “to give everyone a walk in the park and connect people to nature, each other, public transit, and bike trails.” She notes that the Bloomingdale Trail will reunite four ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods and that their 80,000 residents, nearly a third of them children, have been separated by the railway since it was built in 1910.

GF1But fears have already set in regarding whether the new trail and park system will be so attractive as to raise property values and displace current residents. With a growing deficit of urban parks and the task of improving the quality at existing parks, cities are looking for ways to manage neighborhood investment and development plans, including parks, in ways that don’t disrupt community cohesiveness with gentrification.

Just about every major city in the country is struggling with gentrification and affordable housing shortages, from Portland, OR to New York City. Other factors like an aging population, increased diversity, and population growth can impact the mission and management policies of city park agencies and make “keeping up” with neighborhood demographic and real estate market pattern shifts hard to do.

Increasing urban density tends to involve the loss of overlooked places like abandoned rail lines, industrial waterfronts and brownfields – often redeveloped for parks and trails – leaving the heretofore unknown neighborhoods surrounding them to deal with all the market-related impacts of this sudden private and public investment.

I took a look at a few cities to see what kinds of approaches they are using to manage what happens when parks collide with market forces.

GF2The Portland Metro region in Oregon has been trying to find ways to link park improvement with permanent investments in affordable housing. Affordable housing advocates are focusing on securing more ongoing, sustainable solutions through the Welcome Home Coalition, a cooperative of 51 organizations working together in an effort to secure a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing. Their goal is also to play a larger role in managing public investments in neighborhoods.

Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, says that as inevitable as this process of “eco-gentrification” might seem, it doesn’t have to be. Wolch and some research collaborators who have tracked the trend recommend an intervention they call “just green enough“—a delicate balance of sustainability and equity. But Wolch’s ideas are controversial and have met with resistance from park advocates who argue that the solution is not to “dumb down” park design, but to build enough housing and to ensure affordability to avoid displacement.

GF3Eleventh Street Bridge Park, in Washington, DC, is still in the planning stages; construction isn’t expected to begin until 2017. Even at this stage, though, the organizers are considering how it will transform the surrounding communities, especially since—like the Bloomingdale Trail—it will connect economically disparate neighborhoods. And so they’ve created an equitable-development task force to guide programs and policies in order to avoid displacement, focusing on affordable housing, workforce development, and small business enterprises.

Many cities around the country are using community benefit agreements to solidify their bargaining ability and control over new investment. A community benefit agreement (CBA) is a contract signed by community groups and developers. Under a CBA, any new investment requires the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community or neighborhood. In exchange, the community groups agree to publicly support the project. CBAs are seen as a way of ensuring real benefit to the neighborhood, especially when public subsidies like tax abatements and other incentives are being offered by the city.

GF4Detroit is looking to become the first city in the country to require that developers invite community members to the table when negotiating megaprojects. The city council is working to pass a new community benefit agreements ordinance; a bill in the state house is trying to block the city’s efforts, which some see as a way of getting around state wage rules.

With the Obama presidential library set to come to either Jackson Park or Washington Park in Chicago, a local group there is seeking help in crafting a proposed CBA to ensure local residents and businesses are not displaced by the possible gentrification that could come with the project. The collective’s seven-point vision for the CBA includes requirements that the library and foundation support the creation of new business, create legal protections against displacement of residents, and create a community impact fund.

Incentive-based zoning is also being used by cities. These zones provide developers with rewards like density bonuses, greater height or floor-area allowances, or parking space reductions in exchange for meeting certain public benefit objectives like affordable housing, transit or parks.  New York City may have pioneered this technique with a 1961 zoning ordinance revision, when it allowed extra floor area to office buildings in return for developers creating public plazas around the base of those buildings.  The downside of incentive zoning is that it will only produce a public benefit if the market can absorb the increased density easily, and that won’t work for every neighborhood.

GF5In California, the legislature has approved the use of Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFD), a new tax-sharing law that Los Angeles River advocates hope to use for creating a recreational corridor along the waterway. The master plan calls for parks and bike paths, wildlife habitat for animals, and the likely neighborhood economic revitalization that will follow the estimated $5.4 billion in development and 18,000 new jobs.

The idea behind the EIFD proposed for the Los Angeles River is that the people who live and own property in the surrounding neighborhoods will benefit through public investment.

Not surprisingly, community engagement is essential to making any of these methods work – and may be part of the reason that the field is ripe with new tools, as some argue that public planning efforts have not resulted in enough community engagement.

The CBA model was created in the late 1990s as a way for the communities most impacted by economic development projects to participate in the planning process. But CBAs – the right idea of bringing existing community members to the table when major neighborhood investment is at stake – are not without controversy. Professional planners argue that there is no way to ensure that the community is truly represented in a CBA, and that it cannot be a substitute for a true engagement effort in local planning.

Four CBAs negotiated in New York have been criticized as lacking strong inclusive community participation and being a means for working outside the city’s comprehensive plan. Other CBAs create problems for cities when privately negotiated agreements conflict with local zoning laws and master plans.

GF6One more tool on the rise for assuring community engagement in a neighborhood planning process – and managing the various public investments in parks and housing – is the public benefit corporation. Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City and the Hemisfair project in San Antonio are two examples of public benefit corporations.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park is a public park run by the nonprofit Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation. The 17-member board of directors is appointed by the city and works closely with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Its mission has been to plan, construct and maintain the park – and to use the construction of housing on a portion of the parkland to sustain the park’s operations.

GF7The public corporation behind Hemisfair in San Antonio works much the same way. The San Antonio City Council set up the nonprofit Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) in 2009 to transform the Hemisfair site into a series of urban parks within a vibrant and walkable neighborhood.  HPARC is run by an 11-member volunteer board of directors approved by the city council. Residential units in various building types, densities, and heights will be constructed at Hemisfair, but never on parkland, and will include mixed-income housing.

Both Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation and Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation are examples of an effort to link parks and other public benefitswith public and private investments in housing in such a way as to preserve or create the kind of mixed-income community that can support the park.

The bottom line in planning for new and revitalized public parks is that in order to ensure that parks are not exclusive, they must be considered as another critical part of a city’s infrastructure, like water, schools and transportation. Cities have to find ways of including and involving community residents in the conversation about neighborhood transition – whether through public benefit corporations, infrastructure districts, and community benefit agreements or planning department-sponsored small area planning discussions. Because cities never want to be the position of saying no to a new park because of the socio-economic impact it might have.

Let’s hope the folks in Chicago working on the 606 make sure that the project serves those who need it the most.

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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