Turning Toxic Real Estate into Parks

Michael Messner, a Wall Street investment manager, sees enormous social, environmental, and even financial value in turning vacant lots and distressed properties into new green parks. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Messner argues that “parks and managed green space are vital pieces of urban infrastructure that not only improve the quality of life for millions of people but also drive economic growth.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s great landscape architect, figured this out first 150 years ago, when he first drained a swamp to make Central Park, elevating nearby property values. Messner says an initial $13 million investment in the site led to an “astounding $209 million increase in just 17 years” (see more on the economic value of Central Park and parks, more generally). In a similar vein, more than 200,000 acres of vacant retail, office and industrial space, along with massive underused residential real estate stock, could be “acquired by a parks agency or by public-private partnerships, which would then begin demolition, park design and construction, putting people to work immediately. More jobs would come as the improved areas attracted development.”

This sort of large-scale WPA-like project is crucial, Messner argues, because the glut of distressed properties is currently serving as a major “drag on our communities and the economy and threatens to topple even more banks that hold mortgages on these ‘toxic assets.'” In addition, this type of broad-based “scaling-back” and redevelopment isn’t unknown: “The railroads, which had many miles of underused track to maintain, pulled up 55 percent of their tracks in the past 60 years to increase profitability, enabling the creation of 19,000 linear miles of ‘rails-to-trails’ parks. Pittsburgh, realizing that the steel industry was never coming back, tore down riverfront steel mills and replaced them with an attractive mix of parks and office space. In Michigan, Flint and Detroit are finding ways to ‘bank’ land as open space.”

The only way out of the long-term problem is to then get the government to engage and also incentivize the reuse of property to create broader environmental, social, and financial value. “Instead of buying mortgage-backed securities, why couldn’t the Fed buy excess developed real estate to be held as green space through ‘land-backed securities’? Why couldn’t the FDIC give some of the useless properties it obtains through bank closures to land banks or nonprofit organizations? With the right financing structure, philanthropic entrepreneurs could use leverage to remake America just as some of our bad developers used easy bank financing to help create the excesses.” Also, tax incentives could be used to “encourage banks and landlords to donate land and encourage wealthy individuals and corporations to buy conservation tax credits.”

Messner has certainly been putting his money where his mouth is, funding the Redfields to Greenfields initiative at Georgia Tech along with the PBS documentary, “The Olmsted Legacy” (see earlier post).

Read the article. Also, see the presentation Messner and his team gave to help win some early administration support for the increasingly broad-based Redfields to Greenfields partnership, which already includes a number of organizations like the Trust for Public Land and the Urban Land Institute.  

Image credit: Brownfield construction site / SRW

2 thoughts on “Turning Toxic Real Estate into Parks

  1. bethmeyer 01/19/2011 / 1:14 pm

    Can someone do some simple fact checking? Yes, the property values around the edge of Central Park increased dramatically after its construction. But Central park was not created on a swamp that was drained. It was created on an diverse and large (800+ acre) site on the suburban periphery of Manhattan. Yes, there were rocky and swampy parts of the site, but there were also small workshops, local industries and houses. In fact, over 1000 people lived within the boundaries of what is now Central Park. They were on small farms, and clustered in small villages, such as Seneca Village. The Pre-Park residents included Free Blacks as well as German and Irish immigrants. Like now, some residents gain and others lose in all urban development projects. Let’s understand landscape architects’ role in the process as more complicated, and at times, less honorable. We are agents of all sorts of changes, and and not always on the side of social justice.

    See The Park and the People published in 1992 by Roy Rosensweig and Elizabeth Blackmar.

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