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As the functions of parks grow more complex, public-private partnerships have increased as a funding source.
Greenville’s Unity Park is an example of many of the current trends in building urban parks — a greater reliance on public-private partnerships, the conversion of postindustrial sites into green space, the reclamation of rivers and waterfronts, and construction of facilities that accommodate fluctuation in water levels to help water quality and flooding issues.
“Parks are no longer simply places for recreation. They’re more complex than they used to be. That’s why public-private partnerships are so important,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of City Parks Alliance. “Really where public-private partnerships shine is that they bring in more resources and skills.”
While Greenville has been known for public-private partnerships for downtown development projects such as the Hyatt, RiverPlace, and the baseball stadium, Mayor Knox White said Unity Park is the city’s first example of a true public-private partnership on a park.
The city has earmarked $20 million in hospitality tax revenue for the new park over 10 years and wants private partners to contribute another $20 million, White said. Separate from the city’s fundraising efforts is one led by Community Journals’ chairman and co-founder Doug Greenlaw to raise money for a veterans memorial in the park. Greenlaw is a founder of the Upstate charter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“Public-private partnerships have become a critical funding tool in the toolbox,” said Kevin O’Hara, vice president of urban and government affairs for the National Recreation and Parks Association. “There are pluses and minuses, but overall, public-private partnerships are good for parks.”
Chicago’s Millennium Park was a result of a public-private partnership. Mayor Richard Daley originally proposed construction of a parking garage with a landscaped greenroof on land that had been parkland, Illinois Central rail yards, and parking lots. The original plan financing called for $120 million from parking revenue bonds and $30 million from private resources.
By the time the park opened in 2004, plans for the park had changed drastically. A cycle center provides heated bicycle parking, showers, and lockers for commuters. The Cloud Gate Sculpture, nicknamed “The Bean,” was installed. There are outdoor art galleries and a promenade. There’s a garden, a plaza with an ice rink, and the Pritzker Pavilion that hosts the Grant Park Musical Festival. Underneath the park is a 4,000 space parking garage.
In all, the city provided $270 million in funding. Private donors added another $220 million. Last year, the park was the Midwest’s most popular tourist attraction.
There’s a wide range of how park public-private partnerships are structured, Nagel said. Some focus on a single park. Others take over design and management.
“There’s a real range of public-private partnership models to consider,” she said. “The key is to fit the model to your community. Some cities have a strong base of philanthropic organizations. Some don’t.”
City Park would also mirror the trend in other cities where postindustrial sites are turned into parks and green space. Many times, those sites are on waterfronts and riverfronts, areas that some cities turned their backs on and became nasty places to which people didn’t want to go. In Brooklyn, a waterfront cargo yard was turned into one of New York’s signature parks. The city redirects real estate taxes from residential and commercial developments in the project zone, creating a self-sustaining revenue stream that is far less dependent on concessions and permits for special events than signature parks in other major cities.
“Parks are helping to revitalize cities and put them on the map,” Nagel said. “It’s exciting that those projects are not just happening in the largest cities but in medium and small cities as well.”
Given its sheer size and location, the redevelopment of County Square is one of the biggest — and the most important — developments in Greenville’s recent history.
“Sometimes, when you have a small piece of land and it doesn’t work out as intended, you can overcome that. With bigger sites, if you don’t get it right, there’s a lot more at stake,” said Nancy Whitworth, the City of Greenville’s deputy city manager. “With this site and its sensitivity to the park and downtown, it’s critical to get this one right.”
The county-owned property is more than 37 acres, equivalent in size to downtown Greenville’s core, and located within walking distance of Falls Park, Fluor Field, and the Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail.
Its redevelopment is expected to be a billion-dollar, decade-long project. By comparison, Camperdown, the redevelopment of a block of South Main Street across from the Peace Center, has a $200 million price tag and ONE, the mixed-use development at the corner of North Main and Washington streets, cost $100 million. Initial estimates put Verdae, the master planned urban community on Verdae Boulevard and Laurens Road on land once owned by the late reclusive textile magnate John D. Hollingsworth, at 1,100 acres and $1.5 billion when completed.
“There are a lot of moving parts, and we’ve got to make sure to get it right,” said Greenville County Council Chairman Butch Kirven. “We’ve got the team to do that.”
Two decades ago, County Square was not thought of as a part of Greenville’s downtown. But Falls Park opened in 2004 and Fluor Field two years later. In between, planning started for the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 22-mile multiuse trail that opened in 2009.
“Now, it’s intricately linked,” Whitworth said.
Because the former mall that now houses county operations will be torn down, the developer and the county have a wonderful opportunity to design from the ground up, said Barry Nocks, professor emeritus of city and regional planning at Clemson University and former member of the city’s planning commission and Design Review Board.
“In a way, it could make a new town area,” he said. “They have the opportunity to be creative and efficient, and make it an important part of Greenville. With Main Street and the West End, it could create a triangle of activity.”
Traffic will be a challenge, Nocks said.
“Any time you double or triple the density of activities, it’s going to strain existing capacities,” he said. “They’ll have to have other ways to get there so you don’t have to get in a car. They’ll need to think carefully about the back streets. They need to make it attractive and feasible to walk with site lines and well-defined walking routes.”
Whitworth, who said the city hasn’t had discussions with the developer, said the city will be interested in how the development’s design will minimize impacts on traffic. The city will also look at other elements like parking, green space, and how trash is picked up. The development will likely require a zoning change, she said.
“County Square is a 360-degree site. It faces Church Street, the park, the Governor’s School, and Haynie-Sirrine,” she said. “There’s no opportunity to back-door anything.”
Kirven said County Square is more than an extension of downtown.
“It’s a test bed to demonstrate how the future looks in an urban environment,” he said. “It’s a clean slate where we can design and create a smart urban environment for the future. This is going to be evolutionary.