By Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue
From the February issue of LAM:
Emeryville, California, squeezed between Oakland, Berkeley, and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, has 10,000 residents and 20,000 daytime workers on only 1.2 square miles of land. For most of the 20th century it was an industrial center, known for meatpacking plants and a Sherwin-Williams paint factory. It has since evolved into a shopping destination and a hub for biotech and software.
Residents of Emeryville think the city needs more parks. The commuters think it needs more parking. In 1999, the city planning department started eyeing a warehouse site at Doyle and Hollis Streets for a six-story, 700-vehicle garage. The location wasn’t a good one: It abutted a low-density neighborhood, faced a middle school without playing fields, and would have thrown shade onto the new Emeryville Greenway. “We first considered putting the garage beneath a park,” says Diana Keena, an associate planner for the city, “but the site is so narrow that just the entryway would have consumed a third of the space.” The city also suggested a park surrounded by diagonal street parking, but that, too, would have swallowed most of the green space.
Neighbors who had coalesced a few years earlier to redesign the Emeryville Greenway as a park rather than as a tree-lined automobile street rose again, and after a long battle they persuaded the city council to rezone the block as open space and name it Doyle Hollis Park.
From then on the park moved steadily forward. The land was bought for $5.1 million in 2005, remediated of some petroleum contamination for $800,000, designed and built for $4.5 million, and opened in 2009. “During lunchtime on a sunny day, the place is packed with workers, kids, and food vendors,” notes Jim Martin, an original leader of Doyle Street Neighbors, which supported the park’s creation.
The Emeryville story is anything but typical in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is blessed with an array of open spaces and natural wonders—from Mount Tamalpais to Alum Rock Canyon—but has only a tiny trickle of new, convenient parks being created. For the region’s seven million people, the number of planned parks far exceeds the number actually completed.
The public broadly supports creating and improving parks in the Bay Area, but there are two major impediments: the high cost of land, which eliminates the kind of easy property acquisitions that occur in many more affordable communities, and the lack of political consensus, which allows even relatively weak opposition to park projects to drag out the process for years or decades. The Association of Bay Area Governments recognized the problems around making new parks and asked us at the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence to explore the reasons. We studied the area’s 93 Planned Priority Development Areas (PPDAs), the places designated by the region’s towns, cities, and counties for the kind of modern infill development that has multiple uses, is easy for walking and using transit, and also, ideally, has a range of income levels among its households.
Studying these development areas is challenging because they vary immensely in size, from the 12,638-acre San Jose Consolidated Area to the 21-acre South Shattuck in Berkeley. They also vary in population: The San Francisco Downtown/Van Ness/Geary area has 152,251 people, whereas the Pittsburg/Bay Point BART Station area has a population of 44. Their existing parklands also range greatly, from 458 acres in the San Jose Consolidated Area to one-tenth of an acre in Fremont’s Irvington District and zero acres in 28 others. But looking at all 93, the median parkland area among these development zones comes in at around 1.1 percent, and 41 percent of all the people who reside in a PPDA live more than a quarter mile from parkland.
Because parks have such high costs, park planners, managers, and advocates scramble to find alternative methods to finance their creation and upkeep. “Alternative” funding means “whatever works.” Alternatives tend to include developer fees, tax increment financing, or a voter-approved levy or bond. The majority of communities TPL studied used more than one of these methods. Some communities also pursued grants, special taxing districts, and voluntary developer contributions for acquisition and development.
As for park maintenance and operation, Bay Area communities use a wide variety of approaches, including general fund appropriations, developer agreements and fees, grants from other government agencies, business improvement or special service districts, private donations, and voter-approved dedicated funding. Seven of the communities studied, such as Fairfield and Belmont, don’t fund their parks at all and rely entirely on volunteer labor. One community uses parking program revenue. About half of the communities responding use only one method of funding park maintenance and operation, whereas the other half use multiple methods, some going all the way up to a combination of five and six different methods.
The current area-wide economic problems and reduced tax revenues weigh heavily on planners, city officials, developers, and park advocates. However, most of the proposed parks in Bay Area PPDAs didn’t come any closer to fruition during the boom years of a decade ago than during the bust years that followed. The single greatest success factor is having a strong pro-parks leader (either a group or an individual) and a commitment to finding a political path to completion.
Parks naturally cannot be completed without funding, but the availability of funds alone rarely leads to a park. Thus, it is critical for advocates to seek the broadest, most diversified support—allowing them to build political strength as well as a multiplicity of funding streams. Funding can never be dissociated from constituency building and advocacy, since all revenue is ultimately dependent upon the support of the public. There are no truly novel funding concepts out there, but many of the old ones can be updated and used for today’s needs and situations.
Windsor Town Green
Windsor, a town of 27,000 about 30 miles north of San Pablo Bay, has one of the newest central parks in the Bay Area. The park, called Windsor Town Green, grew from a desire to reclaim a largely abandoned downtown, make a public gathering place, and compete for wine tourism.
Windsor incorporated in 1992 in an area of traditional subdivisions. To preclude neighbor opposition, the town planned to develop the Town Green on the grounds of a vacant junior high school campus owned by the Sonoma County Office of Education. The 21-acre site was broken into two parts and sold—7.5 acres to the town (for a new town hall) and 13.5 acres to a private developer, subject to a public planning process that would include a park.
In 1999, after the exact location of the Town Green had been selected, the Windsor Redevelopment Agency bought that 4.8-acre site for $1,142,670. (The agency used its tax increment fund plus a $450,000 grant.)
“The town had been promoting the concept of mixed use for a long time,” says Windsor’s former senior planner Rick Jones, “but no one was willing to take the risk” even with the redevelopment agency’s spending $2.9 million to build the park, widen sidewalks, bury utilities, and improve the surrounding streets. In 2001, a developer named Orrin Thiessen finally made a development agreement with the town that gave him the right to develop his three properties at higher densities than code allowed, and also allowed him to encroach on sidewalks for restaurant seating and commercial use. Even so, with the housing downturn of the late 2000s, the development proved extremely hard to sell.
The Town Green itself opened in 2001. It has a stage, covered pavilions, a playground, a plum tree orchard, a fountain, reflecting pools, and a historical timeline walk. The park and nearby restaurants and businesses share a wireless network. A summer concert series drew 40,000 attendees in 2011, and the park also has a farmers’ market, evening movies for kids, and outdoor Shakespeare theater performances in summer.
FROG Park, Oakland
The city of Oakland has an impressive amount of parkland, but it is unequally distributed: Its hilly areas are well supplied with parks, but the more populous flatlands are not. In 1997, a campaign began to build a community park in the Rockridge neighborhood, now known as FROG Park, for the Friends of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt.
It wasn’t easy, and the first effort failed. When a Department of Motor Vehicles licensing facility underwent renovation, green space advocates suggested converting half its parking lot into a park. But other neighbors feared the loss of parking and killed the idea. Nevertheless, the pro-park group remained determined to find a space for their idea, and soon realized they had a chunk of underused open space right in their midst that could be upgraded into a park. “We all knew it was there,” says Theresa Nelson, a cofounder of the Friends group. “We just suddenly saw it in a new light.”
The site at first seemed unappealing and difficult. It combined a semi-abandoned basketball court and dog park with fenced-off land owned by the Alameda County Flood Control District. A major highway ran through the site, which is long and narrow and had multiple owners. But it also offered great potential, with a creek and a 120-foot-long mural under the highway. When two FROG volunteers came up with a plan to build playgrounds to anchor either end of the linear park—one for toddlers and one for older kids—the park idea gained traction.
To secure a site lease from the city, FROG first had to negotiate permission from both the California Department of Transportation and the flood control district. By early 2000 it looked as if FROG would be able to obtain the cobbled-together site, so fund-raising began—and it was quite a saga. First, by working with Oakland Vice Mayor Jane Brunner, FROG positioned itself legally to receive funding from city bond measures. (Later, Brunner also provided her entire $125,000 annual discretionary allotment to the park as a challenge grant.) Oakland’s Measure DD, the Trust for Clean Water and Safe Parks, provided $140,000. California Proposition 12, the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Coastal Protection Bond Act, supplied $493,000. FROG also managed to snag $60,000 for a tot lot under Measure I, the Oakland General Obligation Bonds for Parks—and then, with the help of Friends of Oakland Parks, secured an amazing additional $400,000 of interest money on unspent Measure I funds.
Private fund-raising followed with a mail campaign, monthly articles in the local newspaper, direct solicitations of businesses, a reception, and a silent auction, generating well over $200,000 (along with offers of volunteer labor and tools that ultimately totaled $350,000).
The park was built in three phases. Phase 1 consisted of two playgrounds, the restoration of the 1972 mural (by the original artist along with students from a local arts college), and improved access to Temescal Creek. Phase 2, completed in 2006, yielded paths, basketball hoops, swings, a water fountain, and—as public art—surprise bronze castings of wildlife hidden throughout the park. Phase 3, in 2012, was a FROG-funded, solar-powered restroom, replacing the 10-year-old portable toilets on the site.
Total costs for Phases I and II totaled only $2.87 million, partly because FROG mobilized the entire community to help—1,300 volunteers over a 10-day period to construct the playgrounds under the direction of Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, New York. (FROG volunteers also prepared three meals a day for the volunteer workers and offered free child care.) FROG now works to sustain community involvement; all maintenance besides grass cutting and trash removal (handled by the city) is done by neighbors on semiannual work days. A local high school sends its entire freshman class each year to work on replanting the native garden.
The park is a seven-minute walk from the nearest BART station, and Nelson reports that many people use public transit to reach the park. The weekend farmers’ market, held in the DMV parking lot, brings in “probably a thousand people, from kids splashing in the creek and sailing boats to older couples walking to the market,” Nelson says. FROG has also worked with the developers of two adjacent infill developments to extend the park into their properties.
Mission Creek Sports Courts
The colossus of Bay Area urban infill projects—and infill parks—is Mission Bay.
Located in east-central San Francisco, along San Francisco Bay and not far from the Financial District, the 303-acre site was a former industrial area, port rail terminal, and warehousing center that suffered decades of decline. The pendulum finally swung back, the area’s intrinsic value was recognized, and in 1998 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to establish the Mission Bay North and South Redevelopment Project Areas. It then turned the vast project over to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. (The SFRA, along with all the redevelopment authorities in California, was eliminated by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012, but the Mission Bay project continues to move forward under a successor agency.) The area is eventually scheduled to contain 6,000 residential units, six million square feet of commercial space, a hotel, a university campus, retail—and 49 acres of new parkland.
The first of the new parks to come on line is the three-acre Mission Creek Sports Courts, a facility designed to specifically activate land and water spaces partially under a freeway. Its development cost was approximately $7.2 million, its gestation period was 10 years, and it officially opened to the public in mid-2008. As often occurs with redevelopment projects, the story is complex.
By the 1990s most of the land of Mission Bay was owned either by the city of San Francisco or by Catellus, Inc., a land development company associated with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Under normal circumstances, since the area was uninhabited, the company would have had a relatively free hand to develop the large site more or less as it wished, which might have meant a modest amount of parkland. However, there was a small historic and vociferous community living in houses that literally floated in Mission Creek itself, and that group pressed for parks.
“We weren’t going to let them move ahead without a significant commitment to parks and recreation in our area,” recalls Corinne Woods, a local resident. Years earlier, ideas for the Mission Bay area had included a sterile collection of concrete water channels and high-rise towers that residents had rejected. This time was different. “I’ve got to say that they really stepped up to the plate,” Woods says.
The extra push occurred because the developer wanted, and was dependent on, special financing from the Redevelopment Agency for public infrastructure. The city, the agency, and the community therefore had considerable leverage to require that land be dedicated to public parks, affordable housing, and other benefits.
“This is the value of public/private partnerships,” explains Kelley Kahn, former project manager with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. “We brought powerful public financing tools to the table, the developer brought private land, and together with the community a plan with important public benefits was negotiated.”
The redevelopment agency and the master developer (formerly Catellus, now a company called FOCIL-MB) ultimately agreed to create 0.45 acres of parkland for every 1.0 net acre of physical development (acreage not counting streets). This will translate into 41 acres of parks (plus eight more acres promised within the new campus of the University of California at San Francisco). Moreover, under the agreement, the parkland has to be brought on line at a rate equivalent to the development of buildings—that is, park construction cannot be held back during the wait for residents.
Park funding in Mission Bay is from a community facilities district (CFD, also known as a Mello-Roos District) and from tax increment financing—additional tax monies generated because of redevelopment in the area. A CFD is an area where an extra tax on real estate, in addition to the normal property tax, is imposed. The district then sells bonds to finance public improvements and services (which, in addition to parks, can pay for streets, water, drainage, electricity, schools, or police). Tax increment bonds are similarly issued against future extra tax receipts to pay for parks and other public infrastructure.
The CFD (which runs until the year 2043) and the tax increment financing—a key tool of redevelopment—make all the difference. If it weren’t for the district, Mission Bay would not have money to create any parks. Moreover, if Mission Creek had contained a large number of small landowners, it is unlikely that they would have voted to spend extra money by way of a community facilities district. Because Catellus wanted it and was the primary owner, the company was able to make it happen.
Today the park contains courts for basketball, volleyball, and tennis, a dog run, a small boat launch for kayaks and canoes, a walkway, a bikeway, and a multipurpose lawn. Maintaining and programming the sports courts cost about $400,000 a year. A separate community facilities district was formed to fund park maintenance and operations. The cost of this (and other parks) comes to $10,650 per acre for undeveloped land and just over $18,000 per acre for developed land (which is prorated by the number of units on each acre). For individual units, the annual fee generally came to between $150 and $200 in 2010.Peter Harnik is director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, and Ryan Donahue is the center’s former research director.