Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Me and the Park

Gatecity has a couple of good posts on the new Center City Park that is being built by Action Greensboro.

I'll bet I use that park a lot more than the average Greensboro resident. I normally walk downtown with the dogs and /or other family members at least once a week, and we like to stop there on our way back to sip our drinks from the Green Bean or eat cinnamon rolls we picked up from Simple Kneads.

But the park is almost always completely empty of people. Even on days when they set up a farmers' market, attendance seems thin -- nothing like you'll find at the Greensboro Farmers' Curb Market or the Piedmont Triad Farmers' Market.

So the Greensboro city council's decision this week to spend three quarters of a million dollars to beautify this small park, with an implicit financial commitment to help maintain it, leaves me ambivalent. Want to know my feelings? Good. Because I'm going to tell you. Here they are:

Civic pride. It's about time the city council started paying attention to public amenities downtown. But wait . . . I also feel

Doubt. Our city fathers, mothers, and philanthropists seem to see the park as a recreation destination -- as if suburbanites are going to drive downtown to use a small park. Not going to happen. Few people are ever in the park because no one lives near it and there are no restaurants or shops around it. It's surrounded by office buildings and parking decks. On top of that, I feel

Envy. Action Greensboro is able to persuade the council to commit big dollars to their civic projects with relative ease. But if you're not so well connected, and you have an idea for a public improvement project, well good luck to you. Get in line with the rest of the schmucks.

For example, the city's Small Projects program, which solicits grant proposals from neighborhoods so that they can make improvements to their own public spaces, is funded by the city at $100,000. That's $100,000 a year for all neighborhoods.

Council balked last year at a suggestion by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress that the fund should be increased to $500,000 -- whoa, don't get greedy, neighborhoods! Though council promised to raise the amount incrementally over several years, this year's increase seems not to have materialized.

$750,000 + up to $300,000 a year in maintenance for one small park provided by Action Greensboro versus $100,000 for all other neighborhood improvement projects. Is it just me?

Because it kind of feels like a kick in the teeth.

20 comments:

D. Hoggard said...

Not a kick in the teeth... lower.

You nailed it David.

Chewie said...

Valuable info, beautifully stated.

We need more turnover in the seats of power to keep this city honest.

Joel Gillespie said...

David,

There is NO doubt that Greensboro downtown suffers greatly from lack of planning going way back to its beginning. It is simply not a comfortable place to hang out. Compare it to any number of other cities, where there are little parks and green spaces and sitting spaces everywhere (even New York City). So, to make the city pleasant as a place to spend time and hang out for commuters or for downtown residents we need more parks and open spaces and trees, but this sort of investment in this one little space just seems out of proportion, as you pointed out. Do no other neighborhoods count? I guess what I wonder is what is really behind this? Is this to prove a point? Is this a symbolic act? That much money for that little park - what's driving that train?

David Wharton said...

Joel, not to be too cynical or simplistics about it, but I think Jim Melvin is driving the train.

I'm not one of the Melvin-haters, and I give him credit for having a vision for Greensboro and pursuing it relentlessly.

His big projects -- the ballpark, the Center City Park -- seem aimed at turning downtown into an entertainment zone for suburban visitors. But most of the suburbanites I know don't really care about downtown.

I think it makes more sense to promote projects that will make downtown a densely populated urban neighborhood. Notice that the people who are doing just this -- the Smothers Place developers, the Southside developers, the Bellemeade deveopers -- are not Melvin / Action Greensboro people.

Southside, by the way, does have a very cute little park with a fountain that is surrounded by homes and businesses.

Rob said...

David-

It's not a kick but rather, a pick of the public's pocket in my view.

Not long ago when we lived off West Wendover there was a great park nearby (Centennial Park). Why on earth would I drive downtown? I wouldn't and we didn't very often.
An exception was to the Arboretum on a few occasions.

There is a crying need to futher develop neighborhoods beyond the "Center City's" borders. Not just supply a sunny day lunch spot for downtown workers.

Sure, Greensboro needs a downtown park and should have one. But, the question is scale and scope. How big for which reasons?

From your assesment it would seem the City of Greensboro is taking a "build it and they will come" approach at the expense of concerned neighborhood associations with agendas to return value to their neighbors.

The City could do more to improve the number of dollars available for civic projects.

Anonymous said...

David,
I think that the center city park is a trade-off to make the Wachovia Building more user friendly. Action Greensboro is primarily funded by the Bryan Foundation. See a connection here? -
Also, why would the Cone Hospital Health foundation donate so much to the center city park and then say that they don't have enough money to help maintain health clinics in local schools. Which is more "healthful"? -
I have many asked and unanswered questions about how money is spent by the City of Greensboro. -
About the cute little park at Southside - it was donated to the city and is city maintained. What else could have been done with that little bit of left-over land? Why not let the city have it? Old Greensborough Preservation Society donated some of the money that helped buy the fountain. I wonder how much that park and water feature at Southside costs the city a year.
No matter, I like the southside park and it is in an area where people live and work. -
downtown diane

The Grunkle Guru said...

I like the idea of a park downtown, but like others have said, it makes no sense to build it at this time since there is nobody around to use it. Downtown is revitalizing and it is exciting to see, but we need people living downtown to use the park.

My prediction: It will only be fully utilized during the Friday @ 5 series (if still in existence). Otherwise not much more then a cut through.

Anonymous said...

Nix the plan if it really will take $300,000/yr maintenance. You could probably have live Jazz bands playing all year round in it for that money. They really ought to be mindful of keeping these costs as low as possible. Otherwise I'm pretty optimistic about it. Suburbanites certainly won't drive to it unless there is an event. But if downtown continues infilling and the Wachovia building comes back into use, for sure it will be better than the existential void we have there now.

Anonymous said...

The $750K is nothing compared to the, as I understand it, millions spent already for land purchase and demolition of useful buildings. Granted, that is private money. However, it really makes one question AG's priorities. Anyone know how much Action Greensboro has/will spend on this?

David, I think the park is more intended as a boon to downtown office and residential development. Unless there is an event going on, I don't think anyone expects the park to be a draw in itself.

Sue said...

I'm not going to sing an "Action GSO" song here. The cost of maintaining the park is both expensive and (IMO) the city's responsibility. I've seen the park plans and the work being done to raise private money for it; both are outstanding. Having been around before the park land was bought and donated, please know that Action GSO does *not* own the park. It's part of the downtown plan that Action GSO's task force commissioned (a task force open to all). The city should have $$ for every neighborhood's improvements and of course, doesn't. I'd like my neighborhood's well-used basketball court back. But I can't have it.

No, the park won't bring suburban folks downtown for daily park stuff, but it will house weddings, parties, and other rentable-location happenings and folks will go downtown and see what's grown there, and maybe go back.

The park has been full for happenings already. There have been dancing things, movie things and music things, very well attended. When the park is finished, it's going to be beautiful and functional for everyone in GSO. And it's going to return some funds; as time goes on, even more.

Yes, I resent not having enough $$ to have our basketball court back, but I also haven't done anything to raise money for it.

Not an Action GSO defense. Just perhaps an additional take on it.

David Wharton said...

Sue, your comments about possible uses for the park, which I hadn't thought of, make me feel a bit better about the money. As I drove by it this evening, I saw some large tents set up for an event tomorrow. Good!

The fact that I envy Action GSO's clout doesn't mean that I blame them for promoting their agenda. They should do that.

But it's the council's responsibility to allocate funds equitably.

Gr8ful Coach said...

David-
Saturday the park will host the Carolina Blues Festival, www.piedmontblues.org.
Gates open at 1, music starts at 2.
Anyone that is a proponent of diversity, you will find it at a gathering of blues music. Hope to see everyone there!

Billy Jones said...

Let me see if I've got this straight.

1. Action Greensboro wants a new baseball park so they break every rule in the book to get it.

2. Because of all the bad PR Action Greensboro got because of #1, they wipe out a city block forcing numerous businesses to relocate to more expensive locations or close their doors and call it Center City Park thus depriving the city of the tax revenue the businesses had generated previously.

3. Action Greensboro then sticks the city with the cost of maintaining the new park at over 300 grand a year while Action Greensboro collects rent from the users of the park who host concerts or sell produce.

4. Action Greensboro then charges the city 750,000 dollars to plant a mud hole in the middle of downtown Greensboro.

And this is supposed to be GOOD for the City of Greensboro? Now I understand the problems that exist in our public schools-- our local leaders are idiots.

I would have called our city leaders worse but this is David's blog and not mine.

Anonymous said...

GO BILLY.

Roch101 said...

Sue, you wrote that Action Greensboro does not own the park. Who does? Just who is the City Council providing financial support to?

You also wrote: "The cost of maintaining the park is both expensive and (IMO) the city's responsibility." Why should it be the city's responsibility?

Requests to rent the park go to something called Revolution Properties, LLC. Who are they and where do the fees charged to rent the park go? Shouldn't those question be answered before the city starts committing money to the park?

Sue said...

Billy, you wrote "Let me see if I've got this straight.
1. Action Greensboro wants a new baseball park so they break every rule in the book to get it."

First of all, you don't have it straight but I'm not going to talk about the ballpark, because that's not the point of David's post.

"2. Because of all the bad PR Action Greensboro got because of #1, they wipe out a city block forcing numerous businesses to relocate to more expensive locations or close their doors and call it Center City Park thus depriving the city of the tax revenue the businesses had generated previously."

Your facts are wrong. The park land negotiatoins came before the ballpark. The number of persons who worked on that block and were displaced due to the park is 40-ish. Forty workers in a downtown square block and no business went out of business that didn't want or choose to retire.

"3. Action Greensboro then sticks the city with the cost of maintaining the new park at over 300 grand a year while Action Greensboro collects rent from the users of the park who host concerts or sell produce."

Action GSO doesn't own the park and Action GSO is not collecting any rent to the best of my knowledge. The "rent" is for facility maintenance (at this time) and the costs associated with cleanup, security, and similar. PLEASE contact Susan Schwartz at Action GSO for more detailed and up-to-date info.

"4. Action Greensboro then charges the city 750,000 dollars to plant a mud hole in the middle of downtown Greensboro."

It's not a mudhole; it's a well-used facility by a wide and diverse variety of people and groups. The park fundraisers are raising $12MILLION to make it a centerpiece type of place. That's all private money and private fundraising. Go look at the plans; they're magnificent. It's going to be used more and more by wider and more diverse groups; it'll be affordable and downtown.

Roch wrote:
Sue, you wrote that Action Greensboro does not own the park. Who does? Just who is the City Council providing financial support to?

There is a group of foundations, I THINK, that technically owns the park and it's my understanding that DGI and a group called Grassroots are managing the park (see http://www.centercity park.org). synerG manages and raises money to pay for the WiFi in the park (and the WiFi going down S. Elm St.). There are plans (if memory serves) to deed the park to the city (again, I think! and I'm not an Action GSO spokesperson, just a volunteer talking from memory and my "facts" may not be current because plans constantly morph). The group that owns the park is, again, I think, a nonprofit that is mostly concerned with making a great park for everyone to use.

I urge you to contact Susan Schwartz at Action GSO and get the facts from the person who knows the most about the park status regarding ownership.

Mr. Sun said...

This sounds like a good opportunity, David. The trick is to pick a sensible metric and avoid all the easy cheap-shots and name-calling (Melvin this, Action Greenboro that, etc.)

So, what is the metric? You take funding for a downtown park and equate it with neighborhood improvement funding requests. I'm not sure that completely applies.

At the very least, someone should be able to come up with data on 1) request for park/neighborhood improvement dollars made to Council, 2) amounts awarded based on geography and type of funding, 3) source of funds. Without tossing around insults, Council ought to be able to justify its grants based on stated criteria. If not, here's a great opportunity to influence the development of those criteria.

The way out here is end the ad-hoc nature of this process which results in inequity and force-feed a fair process on the Council.

That's a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Action Greensboro got the park done and nobody else can get a word in edgewise because the Triad runs on the old model of NC politics, which is whatever is good for "bidness" is good for NC.

Pick up Paul Leubke's "Tarheel Politics" at your local library, and thumb through it in an evening. In that model of political discourse, which runs most political decisions in the Triad, there is no place for the interesting discussions that occur on this blog. Top down, wait for the big movers and shakers to bless anything before it goes forward, don't do anything that hasn't been done anywhere else, etc.

Charlotte and the Triangle work differently. Charlotte has business leaders who actually read Andres Duany's books and think about these issues in terms of how it affects their bottom line, grasp the connection between vital urban neighborhoods, environmental protection, and the growth of the knowledge economy.

The Triangle has a healthy network of community organizations, nonprofits, independent media and advocacy groups for these issues that affect the debate and influence elections. Politicians elected by these constituencies ignore these issues at their potential peril.

The Action Greenbsoro crowd uses the buzzwords and talks about downtown, but none of them would THINK of living downtown and you won't catch them reading any books- they simply want to quickly know how they did it in Charlotte and copy it without doing the mental heavy lifting.

I also recommend Roberta Gratz' book "Cities: Back from the Edge."

In this book, Gratz delineates the difference between "project planning" and "urban husbandry." Action Greensboro is all about the former, which unfortunately, produces half-baked urban large-scale projects. Putting money into neighborhoods, as David Wharton suggests, is the latter. For further local examples, the next time you're in Raleigh, visit the Convention Center boondoggle/dustpit going up- there's a great project that will lose money for years. Then go over and visit Glenwood South, which put up some nice streetlamps and a few good sidewalks, and now can't stop the flood of investment in individual buildings.

As soon as folks who read this blog can convince Action Greensboro and the City Council to think about the difference between these two approaches to development, progress will occur. Of course, that presupposes a place at the table, which the neighborhoods don't seem to have. Maybe this is why blogging is all the rage in Greensboro.

Darkmoon said...

ehh..what the hell. I'll chip in my $50 worth.

I volunteer with ActionGSO and synerG. As far as I can tell, neither of the staff or volunteers have ever done one thing wrong to the city. Hell.. as far as I can tell, most if not all of the money comes from private donations and grants from local foundations.

What does this say to me? All this hoopla means no one is seeking the right help for their causes.

File for grants from local foundations. Many of us that work in the nonprofit arena know of this, but this isn't necessarily the case for neighborhood based organizations. I happen to have struggled for about 1.5 years trying to get my project off the ground and if it wasn't for the helpful people at ActionGSO getting me in touch with the right people, it'd still be failing.

And no, it's not taxpayer funded. So there. ha!

Roch101 said...

Sue Schwartz answers questions about the park here.