A Downtown Park: Should we go it alone?

On the August 4, 2016 City Council meeting we will be asked to put on a resolution to ask the voters to approve a City Charter amendment to dedicate the entire of the Library Lot to be city-owned in perpetuity. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that the entire of the site is developed as a park rather than creating a public-private partnership to develop part of the site as a mixed-use commercial building and part of the site as a park.

I want to see a park developed on Fifth Avenue by the Library, and I believe the best way to do that is in partnership with a developer who can build, manage, and program the site rather as part of a mixed-use development on the Library Lane Lot. The alternative of having the City build, maintain, and program the site would be extremely costly and at the expense of affordable housing, existing neighborhood parks, and other key services.

The only scenario in which I would be willing to choose a “go it alone” approach to the parcel is there was also a funding source to cover the building, maintenance and programming for the site as well as to cover lost revenue from sale of development rights and lost tax revenue from a building on that site, which I estimate to be a .75 mill property tax.

I believe that the best way to achieve the goal of a downtown park on Fifth Avenue is in partnership with a development that can fund construction, programming, and maintenance.

The City has on numerous occasions taken actions to support a park on the site, such as building a portion of the underground structure to not support a building to encourage a park above the site, studying success factors to identify how to make a downtown park most successful, and voting to dedicate the entire Fifth Avenue street frontage to open space.

Right now, we are negotiating with a developer  to put a building on part of the site and a park on the dedicated park space. While the final details of the park portion are not worked out, initial designs include a water feature, play area, and flexible seating so it can be used as a performance space.

I believe that partnering with a developer in this way is the best way to establish a park without sacrificing our current, neighborhood parks.

When I took office four years ago, the City was just starting to rebound from the great recession. There was tremendous community frustration that the grass wasn’t getting cut in our neighborhood parks. We would like to think those days are behind us, but as fifth ward voters went the first month of the summer with Vets Park Pool closed, I am not so sure. The City-owned pools and ice rinks are due for approximately $10 million in new liners, filters, boilers, etc., which is hard to work into to parks budget of only around $12 million total (going off memory here on the costs, don’t have my notes with me). We’ll get that done, but it highlights how tight the city parks budget is.

At the same time, there are some big requests coming forward to improve and expand our park system. I have been championing the Allen Creek Greenway master plan. If successful, this will help establish a trail with anchor parks along the Allen Creek. This will be a tremendous asset to our City, but also another draw on the already-tight parks budget.

Downtown parks are expensive. According to the Trust for Public Land, the average construction cost for a new urban park is $4.3 million per acre, so at this average the cost to develop a park on the Library Lane site would be $6 million. The Trust also reports that operations costs for urban parks are $200,000-$700,000, with highly programmed parks falling in the $500,000-700,000 range. I believe a park on this site needs to be highly programmed to avoid the behavior problems we see at Liberty Plaza Park on the same block.

So, over ten years it would cost around $10 million just to build, maintain, and program the park—about the same as the cost of the pool and ice rink capital maintenance that is coming due. I am not willing to sacrifice our existing park facilities in our neighborhoods to go it alone for a downtown park.

Not partnering with a developer brings tremendous opportunity costs. If we choose a “go it alone” strategy to develop a public park on the site and refuse to partner with a developer to build, maintain, and program it, we lose more than just the private funding for the park itself. We also lose the estimated $10 million sale price for development rights (half of which would go to affordable housing), as well as an estimated $2 million per year in tax revenue that would fund police, transit, parks, schools, and other core services.

So, a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the total cost of downtown park without a developer partnership is:

  • $10 million lost for sale of development rights
  • $20 million lost tax revenue (to be fair, not all of this would go to the City, but it is still lost revenue for the public good)
  • $5 million to construct
  • $$ million to operate

That’s equivalent to a .75 mill property tax.

There is room to quibble over the numbers. You could argue the actual cost is lower because we could build and maintain the park on the cheap. You could also argue the actual cost is higher because these calculations due not include the impacts of job creation and economic ripple effects.

If voters approved a tax or other viable funding mechanism to cover these costs, I would be willing to take a “go it alone” approach to a park on this site. Without such a dedicated funding source to cover both park costs and opportunity costs, I cannot.