Long-Term Planning For the "Great Parks" of the Future

A section of the Japanese Garden, located in Washington Park, a "Great Park" in Seattle. Photo by Paul Randal.

Over at Crosscut, the venerable news organization based in Seattle, chief grumpy barnacle Knute Berger, aka Mossback, has an interesting article: "Seattle needs parks, not just 'parklets'." In true Mossback fashion it's a misty-eyed affair, pining after days gone by and fretting over a future that—*shudder*—looks different than the past.

But for all that, he's still making an important point, I think. In built-up cities throughout the country, we've run out of room for the "Great Parks" and parkways of the Olmsted era—massive regional destinations like New York's Central Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, LA's Griffith Park, Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum, and so on. (I'm aware that the latter two were not designed by Olmsted.) In cities like these, building new Great Parks would require the wholesale destruction of entire communities. There's just not enough open land to build on, so we end up settling for pocket parks and parklets wherever we can shoehorn them in.

So here's my thought: Maybe we should take a page from my private development / non-profit ownership affordable housing idea and start acquiring properties.

Purely for the sake of argument, and because South LA is extremely park-poor, lets say your goal is to build a Great Park adjacent to the Firestone Station along the Metro Blue Line. I've highlighted in green a representative area on the below map. It's about 70 acres, give or take—about 5 or 6 times the size of Grand Park, in downtown LA, and 1/10th the size of New York's Central Park.

(Disclaimer: I am not a park planner and am not suggesting that the above location is an ideal site for a new park. My interest is in demonstrating, at a hypothetical site, how we could get from point A to point B. Determining where the best place to build new Great Parks is, and how they should be built, is a job better left to others.)

A hypothetical "Great Park" area bounded by Firestone Blvd, Graham Ave, E 92nd St, and Hooper Ave, immediately adjacent to Firestone Station on the Metro Blue Line.

We start with a non-profit, created for the purpose of acquiring land for a future Great Park, and a decent bit of money. The non-profit makes an offer to buy every single building in the future Great Park area; some owners will accept, most probably will not. The ones that accept, the non-profit purchases and rents out until they've acquired every parcel in their future Great Park area. In the interim, maybe the former owners get the first crack at renting them, and since the non-profit isn't looking to make a profit on these properties (and wants to build good will), they rent them at a pretty good rate. And all of the homes/units are in the same geographic area, so managing them is relatively easy. 

For all the property owners who don't want to sell, the non-profit essentially waits them out. If some homeowners want to live in their homes until they die, so be it. But once they're gone, or once they're ready to sell, they need to come to a fair agreement with the non-profit. The organization would need to be backstopped by the City's power of eminent domain, which allows them to acquire properties through force of law if necessary, but this is only exercised if the property owner refuses to make a deal with the non-profit. Since eminent domain requires that property owners be compensated with the fair market value of their property, no one gets ripped off. For reasons related to eminent domain, the best site to plan a park would be where most of the land is zoned for single-family housing—that way, once the owners know that their property has been designated as a future park site, they can't drive up the price by entitling it for a more dense use.

Like anyone else buying a home, the non-profit would finance the majority of their purchases with bank loans, and they'd pay those loans back with the rents on their properties. This is a long-term plan—it could take decades to acquire all of the properties—so over time the loans are paid off and the only un-reimbursed public/philanthropic dollars were for the down payments. Perhaps even those are paid off. 

One day, suddenly, you own 70 acres of property. Because you weren't in a rush, and were planning for a far-off future, it didn't cost you much of anything.

Everyone understands that a park will one day be built at this site, so it's no great shock to the residents when they need to move away. And since you've planned for this, they have somewhere to go. Years ago you up-zoned everything within half a mile of the future Great Park, and that zone change was accompanied by affordable housing requirements. So not only do you have thousands of new homes, lots of new jobs, and amenities like grocery stores, retail, and restaurants, you also have quite a few homes that are reserved for low- and moderate-income households. The tenants who have to leave their homes to make way for the park get priority placement in these units.

Building a Great Park is no small feat, especially with all the roadway changes, utility relocations, and building demolitions—it's going to take money. This is where you find use for the state's recently-updated Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District (EIFD) law.* Similar to California's former redevelopment agencies, though on a smaller and more limited scale, the EIFD allows you to collect a share of the growth in property tax revenues on properties within its boundaries. Tax increment, for those familiar with the term. It doesn't raise taxes, it just redirects them to a special purpose. If you set up an EIFD on all the properties that were up-zoned while the property acquisitions were underway, the "increment" being collected is pretty substantial by now. Of course, there are Quimby fees and other funding sources that should also be available for the park.

A map of the Emerald Necklace parks and parkways stretching throughout Boston.

Much like the acquisition-based affordable housing strategy outlined last week, this is a very long-term proposal. It won't get us any Great Parks, or much of anything, next year or even next decade. But it illustrates how taking the long view can minimize the public's expenditures on these kinds of major investments, and how it can allow you to manage the negative consequences that often fall on the backs of individual renters or homeowners. No one is forced out of their homes; at worst they're forced to negotiate a deal with the city when they're ready to sell. No one needs to leave the neighborhood when the park is built, and those who stay will likely end up with an even nicer home when all is said and done, at similar or lesser cost. And it's a rallying point around which new private investments in housing and neighborhood amenities can be made, along with numerous other community benefits.

I realize this is all a bit hare-brained and pie-in-the-sky, and the idea only just struck me as I was reading Mr. Berger's article today, so if I'm being crazy please feel free to let me know in the comments. But I actually think this has some promise. Let's build some parks, eh?

* Only applicable in California, though many states have some form or another of tax-increment financing.