Here’s another New Year’s wish for my home town: Let’s figure out how to integrate some public parks into where the people live in the urban core. See, Phoenix has a remarkable number of acres devoted for public parks, and some are truly magnificent for desert vistas and hiking opportunities. Last time I checked, Phoenix’s South Mountain Park was the largest municipal park in the world. Now, quiz time: How far are those park’s entrances from downtown Phoenix, and which City bus lines run to the park entrances? North Mountain Park is one of my personal favorites for hiking and enjoying spring flowers after a winter of good rainfall. Adding to the questions above, how accessible is that park from the south end on the avenues side? Matter of fact, do you know where that park’s entrance is, off 7th Avenue? Our urban parks may be massive, but are they accessible, really? What happened to truly “neighborhood” venues for recreation among urban dwellers here? My children flew their first kites and their first windup, rubber-banded glider planes in Butler Park, and learned the etiquette of sharing swing-sets and taking turns on the slides there. There are neighborhood parks other than Encanto in the City core, but they seem, too often, to have lost their luster as public places.
In fact, a dozen or so years ago, the City got to the point of putting up several of its public parks for sale. No maintenance dollars was the explanation for the selloff. That’s a shame. The City’s never had a policy of allowing the privatization of parks maintenance akin to the experiments of allowing public golf courses to be privately managed. But there’s a new trend afoot, and the City is going to study its viability. The concept is to create livable, walkable communities with the aid of private development. The public/private partnership created would buy busted commercial developments and vacant land in distressed locations and, in many cases, demolish unoccupied or underutilized buildings. Part of the land reclaimed would become an urban park, with the remaining area being densely redeveloped to help pay off the project’s debt and create jobs. Makes sense, as long as the coalition of private development and neighbor associations pools their funds to upkeep that neighborhood park.
Lord knows there’s an appetite for close-in urban parks in Phoenix. When the old Ramada Inn was leveled after it briefly was pressed into service for ASU dorms, the Sheraton promoted the use of the land for “overflow” surface parking (and maybe Channel 12, for its video-remote vehicles). Some of the downtown neighborhoods and the Downtown Voices Coalition balked, big time. I ought to know; I presided over the initial hearing for the use permit application for a five year term to operate a 90 thousand square foot surface parking lot. I got the “stink-eye” from a variety of downtown residents who decided I didn’t “get it,” when it came to the desire for more pedestrian promenades and dog-walk parks space and less parking spots for vehicles. Unfortunately for the residents, the City Board of Adjustment upheld my recommendation to approve the permit. The motion to approve passed with the stipulation of a two-year evaluation of the permit to make sure that “over 100 trees planted and 300 flowering plants” within the parking area are being watered, according to the city’s plans for the lot.
But I digress about the trend. With a grant from the City Parks Alliance, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Speedwell Foundation, a project has been dubbed “Redfields to Greenfields,” contemplating a public/private enterprise with social and economic objectives aimed at acquiring financially distressed real estate and turning it into public parks or open spaces. Phoenix is one of about 10 pilot cities working on the project. An initial “case study” out of Atlanta found that perhaps the city could gain 6,000 acres of park space and 780 miles of trails by acquiring selected properties. You can read more at the City Parks Alliance Web site at this URL: http://www.cityparksalliance.org/news-a-events/red-fields .
Repurposing “toxic” spaces for urban parks is an idea really picking up steam in the New York City area. In 2009, the High Line park/trail system got rolling on the site of an abandoned rail property. Brooklyn Bridge Park is getting a lot of attention through its phased opening this year, transforming miles of industrial backwater, pier ruins and concrete wasteland into playgrounds, sports fields and promenades. But the recurring challenge is that the requirement that parks like these must generate income for their ongoing maintenance. The current plan in NYC is to permit selective private residential development within the park’s boundaries at a cost that will offset the expenses of park maintenance.
Phoenix, in the meantime, is trying to figure out how to turn toward, or away from, this Redfields to Greenfields program. The City’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability Subcommittee of the City Council met December 16, 2010, intending to discuss future opportunities – but no decisions were reached. Since there is plenty of vacant land and abandoned commercial development parcels within the City’s boundaries, and there are plenty of folks seeking gainful employment to develop those parcels into urban recreation areas, there is some reason to be optimistic that with appropriate federal funding, some sites could be acquired for a trial run. Federal funding, you say? Well, nothing’s going to come out of the State’s or the City’s coffers for a few years, that’s for darned sure, supporting any leisure activity – related use, no matter the ecological benefit. But developing a park for neighbors is about as “shovel ready” a project as one gets, so long as the neighborhood has some notice and input into the planning process. The construction of portions of the park could indeed be a community-building exercise.