No Walk in the Park: Revitalizing Public Spaces

No Walk in the Park: Revitalizing Public Spaces

Brian Groth

Contributing Writer

Downtowns across the US are seeing renewed interest in the lifestyle and opportunities they offer in contrast to their suburban counterparts. Largely among millennials and empty-nesters, people are exchanging their lawns, shopping malls, and cars for parks, main streets, and a good pair of shoes. In parallel to this market shift, downtown public spaces are being revived from deteriorated remnants of an earlier age to drivers of economic development and improved quality of life. While a steady stream of emerging data illuminates the economic benefits received by the entire community with revitalized public spaces, implementation of such projects is not as straightforward as standard redevelopment projects. Their value is not realized by a singular entity, but instead by the community-at-large. As such, successful public spaces depend on cooperation and consensus among public, private, and philanthropic interests.

Once the most dangerous park in New York during the 70’s and 80’s, Bryant Park now serves as an international model of urban revitalization, responsible for creating billions of dollars in real estate value since its reopening in 1992. Its transformation and continued management is owed to the Bryant Park Corporation, a self-sustaining non-profit organization founded by Dan Biederman. Following this project, Biederman established Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, a firm specializing in placemaking and public spaces around the world.

So where do public space initiatives start?

“We see three different reasons that public space initiatives arise: a problem needs to be solved, a public perception of a problem, or where spaces are merely underutilized,” says Benjamin Donsky, BRV’s Vice President.

Problems in need of a solution might be physical hazards or crime-related danger. Physical dangers are sometimes a result of a lack of flexibility or staffing in the public sector, where anything beyond basic maintenance is not often a priority, if on the budgetary radar at all. Troubled public spaces may also be nodes of crime, drug-use, and/or homeless encampments. These were all attributes of Bryant Park prior to its revitalization.

“Perception of danger can have the same effect as real danger,” Donsky says. In otherwise safe areas, deferred maintenance and other forms of neglect can be symbols of apathy that fuel negative perceptions. Donsky recalls Military Park in Newark, NJ as an example of a public space crippled by negative perceptions. Newark is often thought of as a dangerous place, and although it shares the problems that many mid-sized cities face, downtown is much safer than its image. Redevelopment of Military Park changed it into a pleasant, walkable amenity in downtown, and the inclusion of a restaurant helped turned peoples’ thinking of downtown. Donsky points out that, “People need to walk through a place a few times for their perception of a place to change,” further noting that, “it took about two or three months” to see a shift in public perception.

Sometimes, there is no crisis or poor perception. Sometimes, a public space is merely underutilized. And though underutilization may not harm property values or retail sales as real or perceived danger - it still hurts. There is a growing recognition that active public spaces add value to retail and property values alike by extending peoples’ stay in downtowns and increasing foot traffic. BRV recently worked with Greensboro, NC to transform an underutilized block that was half-lawn/half-parking lot into LeBauer Park, now a significant cultural and recreational asset for the community.

In the case of Greensboro, as in many other successful initiatives, revitalization of the park was spearheaded by a group of various downtown stakeholders. “You have to have public-private partnerships,” advises Donsky. Support of local government is critical and should be in place very early in the process. Private sector stakeholders are typically business and property owners, non-profit organizations, and philanthropic groups. Philanthropic support, and businesses pursuing their “enlightened” self-interest (to increase sales or the value of their real estate), are often the source of initial seed capital and advocacy. In Greensboro, a donation by the LeBauer family, via The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, made their transformative project possible.

Most cities/towns have an existing platform where a cross-section of community stakeholders convene, such as chambers of commerce, community foundations, or business associations. “Chambers may be a good vehicle for initiating a project because they already have the organizational structure in which community stakeholders are cooperating and connecting,” says Donsky. While not typically an operational entity, these organizations can serve as incubators, providing a platform for education, consensus, and discussion which can make decision-making easier early on.

Inception of public space initiatives is often a cooperative, political effort that is composed similarly across the country. Implementation, however, which requires the practical matter of operational capacity and finance, is solved in a variety of ways.

In Tempe, AZ, BRV worked with the Downtown Tempe Authority (DTA) to develop a comprehensive strategy to improve public spaces, most of which are privately owned, and the streetscape of downtown. Despite the sound of its name, DTA is a business association (not a government agency) that previously created a Business Improvement District and manages downtown parking lots and garages. Recognizing they had underutilized gathering spaces and the shifting demographic to downtown living, DTA sought a strategy of short-term and long-term actions with the goal of catalyzing and channeling future investment by enlivening its downtown. DTA was necessary in implementing the plan, as the City did not have the capacity, while the DTA already had staff in place. Tempe found themselves in the rare and convenient position of having an implementer in place, and several of the downtown spaces had been activated with new, free classes, amenities, and events within six months of BRV providing its recommendations.

The Indianapolis Parks Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to “enhance the recreational, educational and cultural life of the Indianapolis community by encouraging and soliciting support for the City’s parks system”, reached out to BRV as they saw a need to improve organizational capacity and make that same transformation into an entity that operates parks and plazas.

“In a lot of places, city parks departments have seen large budget cuts, leaving a vacuum of expertise and labor that the private sector has to fill,” says Donsky. Because of that, it is not uncommon that a new nonprofit organization forms where no appropriate entity already exists.

Yet another scenario occurs when an existing organization alters its role and structure to address operation and management of public spaces. BRV encountered this in Houston, TX where a pre-existing non-profit, the Upper Kirby District Foundation, agreed to expand beyond their current operation providing below-market rent office space to non-profits and accept the role of public space management, evolving into the Levy Park Conservancy. Levy Park re-opened after renovation on February 25.

The type of organization charged with stewarding public spaces varies based on each place’s unique circumstances, and is often driven by efficiency.

“Public spaces should strive for self-sufficiency, though [it is] not always possible in smaller markets,” says Donsky. “That’s why the support of local businesses and property owners, who stand to economically benefit from upgraded parks, is so critical.”

While more and more studies being published show the financial benefits of high quality public spaces in terms of rents, retail sales, and tax revenue, functional operation and management cannot rely on abstract, external value. As mentioned above, philanthropic support sometimes provides the necessary capital.

Alternatively, as in Houston, creating a public space presented new development opportunities. As part of this development, the ground leases of the new development support about three-quarters of the public space’s budget. The remaining quarter is gapped by programming, sponsors, and eventually a new restaurant and retail kiosks within the park. Programming, such as retail and event-related amenities, is an oft-employed revenue stream. Corporate sponsorships tend to be more typical in large cities, although companies with a major presence in small to mid-sized cities are also a factor in sharing the cost of public spaces. Public space sponsorship is an attractive marketing opportunity that may also align with corporate responsibility directives. Further, sponsoring a public space as an economic development project may be more appealing than a pure charitable donation.

Public space revitalization projects are not an exercise in aesthetics, they are tangible opportunities for economic development. Navigating such projects requires cooperation, consensus, and creativity in terms of organization and funding. But the returns are real.

Following the development of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, TX, nearby asking rents went up about 70%, Class A assets saw large increases in value, Class B assets’ value doubled, and new residential and office buildings replaced surface parking lots. This kind of success is not limited to big cities, either.

“Although typically thought of in big cities, the same dynamics are in play in small cities […] in terms of improvement of real estate within a five-minute walk of a project,” says Donsky.

The essentials to execution, Donsky says, can be broken into two categories: political, and practical. Politically, a successful project requires cooperation and consensus among all major parties affected and having local government involved from the get-go. Practically, financial solutions must be achieved within local context, and stewarded by leadership that champions the project.