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Parks not just amenities, but also economic development tools

/ August 21, 2016

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Parks not just amenities, but also economic development tools

Every city seems to want more parks. Not only do city parks and greenspaces provide much-sought-after amenities for members of the community, but they also are an effective tool for economic development leaders to recruit business and industry to the area and positively affect the city’s economic growth.

A community with a park space, no matter how large or small, has greater a would-be homeowner than an area without parks or greenspace. A downtown residential tower or business area with a “pocket park” where people meet to visit or share lunch is more attractive to a prospective business than an area with nothing but concrete sidewalks. And when new residential structures are built and new businesses are established, the city’s economy flourishes.

As a result, when real estate is at a premium and park land is scarce, officials often resort to developing parks in very strange places.

New York City, the nation’s largest city, recently announced plans to convert vacant underground space in a subway station into a park. This very strange space, which covers about an acre, has gone unused since 1948.

Dubbed the “Lowline,” it is being billed as the world’s first underground park. Estimated to cost $60 million, the park will feature a large plaza for events, space for classes and areas that have plants and trees. Some of the track and platforms of the old trolley will be preserved and lighting will be provided by solar technology that gathers sunlight through skylights.

The Lowline is a distant cousin to the city’s High Line, an elevated urban park and greenway completed in 2014 that resulted from repurposing an abandoned railway in Manhattan. That’s a strange place to develop a park but the economic development results have been incredible – about a billion dollars of re-development around the area is the first few years.

Young professionals gravitate toward downtown living so they can be close to their jobs, recreation and entertainment. Affluent retirees also like urban living. Pocket parks, often created on a single vacant lot of two acres or less, or on small, irregular shaped pieces of land, are popping up in many of those areas, attracting more people to downtown and its retail establishments and restaurants.

Texas cities have not been short on innovative solutions for providing park space for communities in high-density population areas. The downtown areas of Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio all have green spaces and many have pocket parks that have been created on vacant lots. Pocket parks are being developed throughout the country and, whatever the size, they quickly become destinations for people who live near them and for businesses to serve them.

In Dallas, the Klyde Warren Park was built over a recessed eight-lane freeway. Who would have thought of that? The park, however, is pretty incredible. It covers 5.2 acres, includes a performance space, food vendor locations, a dog park and playgrounds. No land had to be purchased because it was built over a highway in a space that otherwise likely would have gone unused. The $110 million park project was funded through a public-private partnership (P3/PPP). Owned by the city of Dallas, the park is operated and managed by a private foundation.

Another P3 was responsible for the redevelopment of Houston’s Levy Park, an established but underused and often ignored 6-acre park near the Southwest Freeway. The park is currently undergoing a $15 million facelift and will be maintained and supported by revenues from a 99-year ground lease by a mixed-use commercial development adjacent to the park. Recent projects include a luxury apartment building, an office building and restaurant space.

Public officials have become creative about parks and greenspaces and the economic development benefits are obvious – more public amenities that contribute to social well-being, increased property values, more retail enhancements, more business development and additional tax revenue for city coffers.  Everyone wins!  City leaders are to be commended for developing parks and greenspace in any location – strange or not – and for the benefits they provide their communities.

Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc., a business development company specializing in government contracting and procurement consulting throughout the U.S.

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