Solving the Real Estate Crisis with Parks

Mike Messner, the investment fund manager, is the primary force behind the budding “Red fields to Green fields” movement, which has been picked up by more than 10 major cities in the U.S. The basic idea is to transform toxic real estate into parks, elevating nearby property values, and turning a downward spiral of economic stagnation and disinvestment into a positive, self-reinforcing trend of new growth. As Messner noted in a conference he organized with City Parks Alliance on Capitol Hill, “parks and trees are great. I do like them. However, these are secondary to good investments.” And investing in transforming red fields into parks makes smart economic sense these days (see earlier post).

“The U.S. caused this real estate crisis with its housing policy. There were no down payment requirements, easy credit, and lots of capital moving into non-performing assets.” As a result, the federal government had to move in with $10 trillion in investments and recovery programs (“real estate backstopping”) to hold off further economic decline. To counter this trend, surplus land must be redeveloped as green space. Cities large or small can use green spaces as an “economic multiplier” that not only creates green infrastructure but also helps developers get developing again. “Parks can help unlock the real estate market.” Also, tearing down underperforming, vacant housing can create wealth. “Land without buildings are still assets.” If real estate entrepreneurs and parks managers collaborate on identifying opportunities, these types of program could not only lead to a “stock market explosion” but also make communities more livable.

Many cities like Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Detroit, Los Angeles see great value in this idea, but this is largely because it’s not new. In fact, many cities have already experimented with these approaches before, just not at the scale Messner proposes. According to Chris Nevitt, President, Denver City Council, the city of Denver has found that parks put in over old brownfield sites can power economic development. In the South Platte river area of downtown Denver, 20 years ago “there was some of the crappiest real estate along with abandoned railroad switching yards. Really, this was the worst real estate in the city.” To resuscitate the local economy, Denver replaced a 5-mile strip in this area with a park. “Now 20 years later, this is among the most expensive real estate.” Nevitt sees this as a “proof of concept” for red fields to green fields.

The National Park Service is also behind the idea, having gotten on board three years ago when Messner first started presenting his vision. Mickey Fearn, Deputy Director, National Park Service, says there are no large spaces left to set aside as park land in the U.S. so the “next bold parks project” similar to the ones undertaken by President Roosevelt and the Olmsted brothers could be aggregating smaller spaces into inter-connected parks and using abandoned brownfield lots to fill out these spaces.

However, Fearn noted that while the concept holds great merit, proponents of this model must also focus on gaining support from the public. In Seattle, Paul Allen, one of Microsoft’s founders, planned to donate a massive amount of land to the city to create a new Seattle Commons, a park in the middle of the city. But advocacy against the effort, which convinced “poor and low middle class residents” that this was a “boondoggle,” led to the initiative’s defeat in a referendum. “This goes to show the importance of community organization.” The communities around the redfields need to buy into the projects. Fearn thinks selling these projects as green jobs creators for local communities is the way to go.

A number of cities outlined how they would use some relatively big sums (multiple billions) to convert derelict properties into high performing green spaces. Kevin Carvati, Redfields to Greenfields Research Director, Georgia Tech Research Institute, argued that a $5 billion investment within the perimeter of Atlanta’s Beltline could create 2,850 acres of new parks and reserve 13,000 acres for green infrastructure systems, stabilize land values, return liquidity to local banks, and create 70,000 green jobs. In one example, he showed how a 100-acre shopping mall site could be demolished for around $5 million and turned into a park, doubling an initial $30 million investment in the project.

In Detroit, which has had a 50 percent population drop and now has 33 percent unemployed, 27 percent obese, and 33 percent below the poverty line, 40 square miles of vacant properties within their city limits are being viewed as an opportunity. While 6-7 percent of this spread-out city is parkland, the greenways are not connected, limiting their positive impact, said Sandra Yu, Build Up Detroit and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. A 70-mile system of greenways is being planned to create green spaces at key transit nodes, adding a network of biking lanes. These greenways would also offset pressure on aging water pipes, acting as green infrastructure.

Detroit has had some successes: Campus Martius Park, a 2.6-acre park downtown, which cost some $20 million, draws over one million people a year. “This shows the huge impact of open public space,” said Yu. More of these types of revitalization projects using the redfield to greenfield concept are underway: The Globe Trading Center, a huge abandoned industrial building is being gutted and transformed into an “indoor adventure center”, while a nearby area will be turned into a new park, at a cost of $34 million. Also in the works is a new “Motown Music Heritage Park.” However, the city still faces real challenges. Efforts to pull down and environmentally remediate the old Packard Plant, a nearly 40-acre site within the city limits, would cost $25 million. The unfortunate part is that the city could make the $25 million back through selling the site’s reusable materials but they just don’t have the funds up front so the site stays in disrepair, a blight on the community.

Houston is trying to apply the red field to green field concept to its ongoing expansion of its park network through Brays Bayou. Trent Rondot, Houston Parks Board, sees “thousands of properties” that offer an opportunity for 10,000 acres of parks. A $5.4 billion investment could result in a $8.5 billion total economic impact and 50,000 jobs. In Los Angeles, Green L.A. Coalition worked with landscape architecture students from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, to locate opportunities within the city, finding that 1,100 acres of lots around half an acre in size were available for redevelopment into park land. In one example, an empty lot was transformed into a community garden, plaza for a farmer’s market, and outdoor classroom. While L.A. does have a lot of park space, it has it in the wrong places: More than 70 percent of the city’s residents don’t have a local park nearby.

Image credit: Confluence Park, South Platte River. Denver / Snap Man. Flickr

3 thoughts on “Solving the Real Estate Crisis with Parks

  1. Charlie 06/21/2011 / 12:24 pm

    This is a fine idea. However, the redevelopment of depressed property into public spaces must include some means to operate and maintain these spaces. Here in Seattle, we have many parks and open spaces, community centers and libraries that are not receiving the maintenance they need and the buildings are operating fewer hours per week. We can’t keep building more and more public facilities without an operation and maintenance annuity that will go along with the new developments. Maybe part of the captured properties could be leased or sold to the private sector for profit making purposes with a percentage going into a earmarked fund for operation and maintenance of specific, related publically redeveloped parks and open space.

  2. Mark Brian 07/21/2011 / 3:13 pm

    Charlie brings up a good point about paying for this. Quality of life is surely better in the areas around well maintained parks, but if the parks are not maintained….

    However, I have to say I like the idea of more parks. It is just the question of how we pay for it that needs to be addressed before we commit to building a park.

  3. Jim Labbe 07/25/2011 / 6:15 pm

    Capital improvement and operation and maintenance of parks and greenspaces are workforce development and job creation opportunities, opportunities that we should be seizing in this political climate. The trust in government is low, but parks and nature are popular and most park and natural resources management agencies enjoy relatively more public support, especially in urban areas. Green jobs need to be more than renewable energy and energy conservation, they need to be about physically making our communities more healthy and ecologically sustainable.

    I would suggest we need to better link the case for re-investment in public spaces for short and long-term job creation, both capital improvement/ecological restoration and ongoing maintenance and stewardship.

    Portland, Oregon

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