6. Unexpected Parks in Public Spaces

The demand for public spaces is growing in U.S. central cities and their adjoining older suburbs, putting a greater premium on providing imaginative parks and finding creative financing

Even in good economic times, urban parks are more often neglected than enhanced, ex  panded, or increased in number. Faced with escalating costs for police and education, cities and older suburbs rarely add to their inventory of public spaces and often skimp on their maintenance. But well-maintained parks located in unexpected places are among the essentials of an urban environment that residents and visitors love.

One innovation for creating a public space in one of America’s densest places was to carve temporary “parks” out of pavement unneeded by cars and buses at both Times Square and Herald Square in New York City. These spaces included a protected bike lane and two triangular slivers of landscaped sitting areas; at Times Square, a stadium for performances was built at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue where motor vehicles recently ruled.

Rather than being stuffed into a distant public space, these miniparks were placed last winter where millions of visitors, shoppers, and employees—more than 7,000 pedestrians an hour—tread the most heavily used sidewalks in the country. Uniformed cleaning crews worked to keep the spaces clean, with the cost shared by the parks’ sponsoring business improvement districts (BIDs). With positive public response to the pilot projects, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sanctioned a substantially larger plaza this past summer, shutting down Broadway entirely to cars and buses at the “bow tie” of space created at the city’s most congested intersection.

Another approach to creating an urban park where space is limited can be found at New York City’s new High Line, an abandoned elevated double-track rail line that has been converted into a linear park stretching more than a mile (1.6 km). (See “Urban Green Links,” August 2008, page 108; “High Line Opens,” July, page 21.)

Urban centers rarely have centrally located land that can be readily and inexpensively converted into gathering places for residents, workers, and visitors. In dense places, land costs are high. Popular modern public spaces, however, need not be large: Manhattan’s initial bow tie park covered less than a half acre (0.2 ha). However, they do need to be sites near concentrations of potential users—places that also see the greatest competition among land uses. Fortunately, private real estate interests increasingly recognize the value added by the best of these retreats.

New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg has initiated pedestrian-only areas at Times Square (shown before, at top right, and after, at right, in an artist’s depiction) with the goal of providing more, and better, public space, including two triangular slivers of landscaped sitting areas.

Also, successful gathering places need not always be outdoors. At Manhattan’s World Financial Center, the glass-covered Winter Garden has a light-filled palm tree court for exhibits and concerts, and provides riverside views. On 42nd Street, the Ford Foundation lobby is a vast greenhouse enjoyed even when the street outside is covered with snow.

Not every Winter Garden is successful. The Kimmel Center on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts, created with two concert halls to showcase the city’s resident orchestras, lacks the warmth of the two New York City indoor plazas. In addition to a bleak interior and a lack of foliage, the Kimmel offers little in the way of food or drink and denies passersby a glimpse of its paved interior.

Philadelphia’s tallest structure, the Comcast Building, on the other hand, built to house the Comcast headquarters, has a six-story lobby/park with lifelike Seward Johnson sculptures that mix with crowds, a public market and transit connections below, and seasonal dining on a large outdoor court. An enormous video screen continually shows original presentations that attract and hold crowds. In Manchester, England, after an Irish Republican Army explosion destroyed large segments of the downtown, reconstruction included an amphitheater with a giant video screen that shows soccer and other sporting events to mostly a young audience.

In Madrid, the 1850s Atocha rail center was superseded by a modern transportation complex. The expansive old waiting room was converted into a concourse with a vast tropical garden spreading over 43,000 square feet (4,000 sq m) with shops, cafés, and a nightclub. One unexpected element is the tropical humidity that permeates the sunny, popular, glass-enclosed plaza.

Atlantic City, New Jersey’s business improvement district reached agreements with owners of litter-plagued vacant lots in order to create a half dozen small urban parks kept clean and filled with flowering plants by BID crews. In each lot is a sign indicating that the temporary park is for sale, and giving the name of the agent or owner. With imagination and a little money, blighted blocks were converted into amenities that are good for people and for real estate values.

On the west side of Manhattan, an elevated public park, known as the High Line, has been created atop former railroad tracks built in the 1930s.

Many cities have adapted abandoned rail lines to serve as hiking and biking facilities, such as the Capital Crescent Trail, an urban linear park joining Washington, D.C., with nearby Bethesda, Maryland. Boston, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, have two urban parks created in unused public spaces located above rail lines.

Boston built a continuous park above the Orange Line subway, providing a recreation area for the neighborhoods through which it passes and a landscaped walking/biking transportation link between the South End and downtown. Also in Boston, 19 firms in 1982 formed Friends of Post Office Square in the financial district and donated more than $1 million in initial funding to acquire and demolish an unattractive multistory parking garage. Today, a new below-grade garage provides a platform for one of the city’s most popular green spaces, Post Office Square, a product of a partnership between the non- profit corporation and the city.

In downtown Hartford, a major rail line built at the edge of the Connecticut River created a significant barrier between residents and the water, made worse by the addition of an interstate highway near the rail/river edge. Under the guidance of Riverfront Recapture, a nonprofit corporation formed in 1981, a park was built on a landscaped platform spanning both the rail and highway rights-of-way, with terraces leading from the commercial center down to the river. Mortenson Riverfront Plaza, designed by architect Robert Brown, now is the site of festivals, weekday summertime lunch breaks, and well-marked paths. The improved environment has triggered $1 billion in added real estate development within walking distance of the park, Riverfront Recapture reports. For the first time, downtown Hartford has the river among its economic assets.

Most parks are planned, created, and maintained with revenue generated by normal municipal taxation—generally property taxes that support capital-improvement bond issues. In the present recession, new municipal obligations of this sort are likely to be resisted, suggesting that other funding sources should be explored for use now or later. Alternatives are available to address the following park needs:

Planning and design. The least costly—but essential—element is the planning process through which designers and users collaborate to identify the location, purpose, and cost of parks, as well as who has responsibility for the facilities and their funding. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, for example, has worked with local foundations to launch park formation in blighted neighborhoods. BIDs may also be used for such financing.

Acquisition and construction. The Hartford’s Mortenson Riverfront Plaza was financed with federal, state, local, corporate, and foundation grants. In Illinois, special districts can be created where assessments on properties expected to increase in value because of a nearby park can be used to finance those parks. Chicago has financed parks using tax increment financing (TIF), a device through which public improvements are financed with bonds paid off from anticipated added tax revenue within a designated district.

Pennsylvania law allows creation of municipal authorities and assessment-financed districts to fund a wide variety of capital improvements, including parks. The state’s assessment-financed neighborhood improvement district law allows nonprofit corporations to finance parks, as does New Jersey’s special improvement district statute. All these are commonly thought of as business improvement districts. New Jersey also offers loans to municipalities to finance parks. Universities can create public places whose principle role is campus amenity, but whose location also makes them available for use by the community.

The interior of the original 1850s Atocha rail station in Spain was transformed into a glass-enclosed concourse plaza with a tropical garden amid shops and cafés.

Sometimes neighborhood groups raise funds from contributions, as well as from public or foundation grants or both, to create parks; examples include Philadelphia’s Louis Kahn Park, Manhattan’s High Line, and Boston’s park at Post Office Square. Redevelopment plans can include public spaces that benefit the private real estate investor as well as recreational users. In Princeton, New Jersey, a popular new park that replaced an unattractive parking lot attracts visitors from the adjacent new library, a restaurant, shopping, offices, and apartments.

Maintenance and programming. Business or special improvement districts are a reliable resource for keeping public spaces in good shape and programmed with engaging activities. Philadelphia’s Clark Park benefits from the care and attention of the University City District. Manhattan’s Bryant Park BID was founded entirely for the purpose of reconstructing and operating this key plaza.

Urban parks can be either destinations, such as Atocha station in Madrid, or linear parks, like the area above Boston’s Orange Line, comprising a mixture of transportation and recreation facilities. While the same elements—nearby food, interesting views, an accessible location—lead to the success of both types of parks, for unexpected parks, special qualities are required for success, especially during adverse economic times. These qualities include the following:

Vision. Unexpected parks exist principally in places where no one earlier saw either a need for them or their potential, as was the case with Manhattan’s public spaces at the Broadway intersections.

Persistence. Creation of Manhattan’s High Line park required the persistence of a group of residents who, despite political and developer opposition, shared a vision of a park in the sky.

Economic benefit. Parks that attract people generally add to real estate values, a benefit comparable to that provided by the presence of a transit station. The High Line, for example, has produced millions in added value to adjacent residential projects.

Relatively low cost. Many unexpected parks use public land or air rights, such as the bowtie spaces in New York City, the Orange Line in Boston, and Hartford’s Mortenson Riverfront Plaza; existing structures, such as the Atocha train station; loaned land, as in Atlantic City; or space with an additional use, such as the Comcast lobby.

Location. Successful unexpected parks must serve concentrations of prospective users. Today’s tough economic times do not justify postponement of creation of these amenities; indeed, they constitute a reason for developing unexpected parks with unexpected financing. Urban parks are essential elements in the competition for economic growth. Today, people want to live, work, study, and spend money in enjoyable places. What could be more convincing than the happy crowds soaking up winter sun and enjoying lunch and a book in the middle of Manhattan’s Broadway? UL

Redevelopment agreements can produce attractive small parks such as this one in the middle of Downtown Bethesda, MD

Even a narrow sidewalk can provide space for useable space.

The Comcast HQ lobby draws a crowd year around with original video presentations

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