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Benches Can Pay Their Way

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the third and final installment in a series on park benches. Read the previous two posts here and here.

Benches are some of the cheapest park furnishings or landscaping items (even cheaper than trees), but the cost of purchase, installation and maintenance still adds up. Steve Schuckman, superintendent of planning, design, and facilities with the Cincinnati Park Board, says that buying and installing a practical, aesthetically pleasing, and durable bench costs between $1,500 and $2,000. In Kansas City the standard design comes to about $900. The 2002 master plan for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons put the cost of modest benches at $1,200 each.

One way to cover expenses is through an adopt-a-bench program. Flourishing in many cities across the U.S., sponsorships take the shape of a small memorial plaque in return for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of a bench. (Many park agencies or conservancies stipulate that the memorial lasts for either the lifetime of the bench or for a certain number of years, whichever ends first). The cost varies by city and by park, but is generally around $2,000. In Austin, eleven of the city’s parks have already reached their bench donation limit. In New York’s Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy’s program (at $10,000 per bench) has yielded benefactors for over 4,200 of the park’s more than 9,000 benches. Kate O’Brien, development associate for the Broadway Mall Association, calls the Mall’s bench sponsorship program “a really good source of revenue.” Of the 340 benches from 70th Street to 168th Street, 39 are adopted.


A plaque on a bench in Central Park. Photo credit: Flickr user gigi_nyc

Because of the popularity, some programs have had to institute rules. The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy gives wording guidelines, has a character count, and does not allow logos. “This program is a nice way to honor loved ones,” says the conservancy’s Susan Rademacher, “but if we have too many memorial benches, it may detract from the feeling that the park is a common space meant for everyone.”

For O’Brien, seeking bench sponsorships is a joy of her job. She says, “Donors always have a great story about their connection to the park. Something like, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and always drink my coffee on this bench.’” Benches often have an association with an important moment or a special person. There are plaques commemorating births, deaths, marriages, and everything in between, including pets. Beyond helping to fund conservancies or park maintenance, bench sponsorship programs allow people to interact with and form a special, and tangible, connection to a certain park.

As this series of posts has illustrated, benches can be both a joy and a bane for park-goers and parks departments. But it does seem to be clear that when a bench is removed, its park loses more than just a piece of furniture. Maybe Adrian Benepe, senior vice president of The Trust for Public Land and former commissioner of parks for New York City, is correct when he says, “It’s like everything else — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Or maybe it’s more alarming, as put by Tampa Parks Director Greg Bayor: “If you start removing benches then you’re on the way to removing everything else too.”

Right-Sizing Park Stewardship

The Central Park Conservancy manages 843 acres. Prospect Park Alliance partners with the city to oversee 585 acres. And the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy stewards over 1,700 acres with its parks department. On the other hand, Sister Cities Park in Philadelphia is less than five acres, and Republic Square in Austin is less than two acres.

The big parks have large conservancies that focus on the enormity of their job. But many of the smaller downtown parks tend to work in partnership with their neighbors, much more aggressively leveraging their amenities together. In many cases, like Sister Cities Park, a small downtown park is managed not by a parks conservancy but by a Business Improvement District (BID) or a downtown association. In fact, there are a large number of parks not managed by their own conservancy but by downtown associations who have seen the value of parks – the living room of the city – in leveraging a vibrant downtown.

Downtown Missoula

Downtown Missoula

A good example of this is in Missoula, Montana where the Missoula Downtown Association (MDA) manages the riverfront-based Caras Park. In 1986 the Parks Department introduced “Out to Lunch,” a downtown weekly lunchtime festival at Caras Park, featuring musicians and today, over 20 varied food vendors. It became clear after the first year of the program that the Parks and Recreation Department was not well suited to producing large events like Out to Lunch because of limited staff resources. In response, the Missoula Downtown Association took over the program and has produced it for more than 20 years – along with currently 75 other annual events.

“We look at the park in a way that it adds to making the whole downtown successful,” says Melanie Brock, Acting Director at the MDA which began as an extension of a committee that started within the Chamber in the 1970s. They grew and became more ambitious with the success of their weekly “out to lunch” program, taking on not just the park but a whole roster of downtown issues. But the park remains central to what they do.

Caras Park was enhanced and developed by the MDA in four phases over the last 25 years. First, seating and an events ring were created; then, creation of a brick plaza area. Phase three created a formal park entrance and parking lots along the riverfront. The fourth and final phase provided restrooms and storage.

The first tent on the site was purchased from a traveling circus show in the early 1980s. The permanent Caras Park Pavilion was constructed in 1997. That structure cost $600,000 with $280,000 of that cost covered by tax increment financing. More than $300,000 was raised and borrowed by the Missoula Downtown Association to complete the project.

The Partners
Since 1997, the City of Missoula has contracted with the Missoula Downtown Association to manage and lease the facilities for both public and private events. Rental fees pay for park operations. The MDA may take the lead on the park’s management and events, in partnership with the city Parks and Recreation Department, but there are a handful of organizations that work closely on a vision for the downtown that builds on that activity center.

Caras Park

Caras Park

MDA partnered with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) to originally develop the park site and the MRA retains a seat on the Downtown Association board; they are currently in a partnership to raise money to refurbish the park. The Business Improvement District (BID), housed in the MDA offices, also keeps a seat on the MDA board, as does the Missoula Parking Commission and the Missoula Urban Transportation District. “Everybody plays together really well,” says Rod Austin, Director of Operations for the BID.

In 2009, they jointly paid for a master plan that lays out a development plan for the downtown, including the park, for the next 20 years – along with 57 businesses, individuals and organizations that contributed financially to the creation of the plan.

“Anyone can rent the facility,” says Brock. “For large events we created a Caras Park Committee run out of Parks and Recreation that includes all the key neighborhood councils.” The committee meets annually to review the events schedule – in particular the extraordinary events, events likely to attract more than a few thousand people. They work out a schedule, deal with issues like noise, go over rules and develop a plan for the year.”

Caras Park

Caras Park

“People recognize this park as a pretty dynamically run place. We work together on almost everything. There is complete synergy in our downtown. We have something unique in Missoula – how everyone works together. We’re pretty fortunate to have such a compatible team,” says Brock.

Almost all successful downtown vitality strategies require the community to make the downtown more pedestrian-friendly, give the downtown a strong sense of place and program it with activity that invites visitation every day of the week. But how to do that is the question. All plans fail without a management strategy – what one blogger in talking about smart growth implementation calls, “…the software of the process: the personal leadership role of staff, advocates and elected officials.”

Missoula takes this idea of a team approach to its best incarnation – they provide a way to integrate the park into the planning and programming of downtown housing, commercial activity, transportation and infrastructure. The park becomes one more venue – and a public one – for getting people into the city. Then they invite downtown leaders who are investing in the downtown to be part of the park’s governance and management.

This idea of integrating a public park into the fabric of downtown is not a new one. Hundreds of downtown parks and plazas can be spotted across the country. But many are littered, homes for the homeless and have long since lost their visionary beginnings. So what keeps a park from turning into a no-man’s land? Generally, a failure to provide resources and a plan for governance and management after the ribbon gets cut.

Last week the City Parks Blog provided a link to a story about plans to revive Republic Plaza in downtown Austin. “What is there now has a ‘leftover’ feeling to it; it was not designed for the intense use that the park sees today,” said Marty Stump, a project management supervisor in the parks department.

“Downtown parks are highly coveted event spaces, but they are underutilized as daily public spaces,” said Melissa Barry, arts and parks director at the Downtown Austin Alliance, which represents downtown property owners.

It sounds like Austin now has a vision for the park that involves programming it both for events and as an everyday place for residents and downtown workers. Parks advocates say they expect Republic Square to become more popular as the downtown grows with new condo, hotel and retail projects in the works. Hopefully, the  new downtown plan will make management of the park clear including who will be taking the responsibility for ensuring the outcomes in this new place-making vision?

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.

Combining Volunteering and Programming

Ben Kweller plays for clean-up volunteers

Ben Kweller plays for clean-up volunteers

The Austin Parks Foundation just hosted an event that combined volunteering and concert programming. Through a partnership with CliffBar, REI and Keep Austin Beautiful, volunteers showed up to clean up the Barton Creek Greenway and then were treated to a concert by nationally known Austin artist Ben Kweller. (Cliff’s Greenotes program helps artists become more environmentally responsible – Kweller participates in the program.)  Describes the Foundation’s blog:

95 volunteers turned out to the Zilker Park Polo Fields Picnic Area to sign-in, grab trash bags and then clean-up portions of the Barton Creek greenbelt from a number of trailheads including Zilker, Spyglass, Loop 360, and Twin Falls/Gaines Creek.  Over 80 bags of trash, 1 tire, quite a few hubcabs, several signs on poles and two shopping carts were included in the haul.  Then folks enjoyed an hour long concert by Ben Kweller.

What a great way to make volunteering an actual programmed event that cleans the parks while programming them, too.

Trend: Large Music Festivals in City Parks

Zilker Park, Austin, Tex.

In recent years, city parks have become home to several music festivals featuring such bands as Radiohead, Cat Power, Kings of Leon, The Roots, Atmosphere and other mostly indie groups. The Bonnaroo and Coachella festivals, set in rural areas, have catered to this genre for quite a few years, but recently more of them have sprouted in the middle of population centers — and parks are a natural, open location for the events, that can draw thousands. Chicago has hosted the indie-music website Pitchfork’s festival in Union Park and the larger Lollapalooza in Grant Park. There’s Outside Lands in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Jersey City hosted the All Points West Festival in Liberty State Park, and concluding just this past Sept. 26 to 28 was the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival in Austin’s 350-acre Zilker Park.

Austin360 picks up on the events’ financial contribution to city parks, and the benefits of them to bands:

The successes of ACL Fest and Lollapalooza — each earmark part of the proceeds to the respective parks departments overseeing the events — inspired the City of San Francisco in August to allow the Outside Lands Festival, a concert by another promoter, to operate after dark at Golden Gate Park for the first time. C3 Presents pays the Austin Parks Department more than $200,000 a year and has pledged an additional $2.5 million for park improvements over the next seven to 10 years. C3 pays the Chicago’s Parkways Foundation $1 million a year for the use of Grant Park for Lollapalooza.

While cash-strapped city parks departments have warmed to the festival format, so have the artists. Because CD sales have declined in recent years, acts have to hit the road to make money. Festivals can also provide great exposure. At a panel at the Americana Music Association conference in Nashville last week focusing on the flurry of festivals, C3 partner Charlie Walker said “every band playing ACL this year will sell more tickets the next time they come through town.”

Whether the trend lasts is not known, and the events do essentially take away use from the general public for a couple days. But in some cities it presents an opportunity, if wanted, to draw some money and attention to city parks.