Citizens' widening range of recreational persuits and the costs involved in developing municipal parks are making their planning and operation increasingly complicated.
People come and go. Families outgrow homes and become empty-nesters, workers get transferred and change careers, young marrieds move in together and old marrieds split up, urbanites flee to the suburbs and rural teens leave the farm for the fast track.
And all of them want places to play.
These patterns of migration alone would be enough to make park planners' lives difficult, but two facts of life in '90s America make things even more complicated: People's interests are expanding, and the costs associated with developing parks that can accommodate all these interests are skyrocketing. Therefore, communities are seeking partnerships with sport associations, neighboring communities, school districts and corporations, in some cases begetting an operational structure fraught with complications of its own.
Yet, large multiuse parks are springing up in communities across North America, boasting active and passive outdoor recreation - pool complexes, in-line and ice skating rinks, batting cages, miniature golf courses, basketball, volleyball and tennis courts, skateboard facilities, ballfields, soccer pitches, lakes, woodlands and trail systems for walking and biking. (Some are also associated with indoor facilities such as recreation or community centers.) Controlling costs is a primary focus beginning with the hunt for affordable and appropriate land. Many resort to combining uses to keep costs down - scenic lakes situated to allow their use as irrigation vessels for fields, soccer pitches that double as football and lacrosse fields, and ball diamonds that are built to accommodate all levels of softball and baseball.
Fast-growing urban areas and their largely unchecked areas of suburban sprawl are typical homes for these complexes. One such place is Jefferson County, Colo., home to several booming Denver suburban cities including Lakewood, Golden and Arvada. Colin Insley, a park planner with the Foothills Park and Recreation District in Lakewood, estimates that the county, which now has a population larger than that of Denver County, is "about 26 fields short" of meeting recreational and league needs - and that's just for soccer.
In spite of several new multiuse parks in the area and several more on the agenda, "It's going to be awhile before we catch up," Insley says. "We're so far behind demand that let's say the economy drops out and a lot of people move out of the area, and we go back to the same population we had five or six years ago - we might still be behind. Fiscally, we're fine, but the community's grown so fast that it's way ahead of our ability to provide all the services they're demanding. Hopefully we'll catch up, but I don't see that happening for at least another five or 10 years."
Choosing Partners in Colorado
Ground will be broken this fall on the Foothills Park and Recreation District's new 130-acre multiuse park that will include a complex of four softball/baseball fields and eight multiuse fields primarily for soccer, football and lacrosse. The project carries a $15 million price tag, so like Fort Collins (a northern Colorado boomtown that partnered with its school system), Foothills is going the cooperative route. A local corporation (the Gates Foundation) is on board, local soccer associations are helping fund the soccer facilities, and the park district is applying for a grant from The Great Outdoors-Colorado.
When it comes to funding issues, park districts' bewildering organizational variety makes generalizations impossible. Foothills is a special district that is about one-third funded by property taxes and two-thirds by program fees, meaning that large-scale purchases of high-priced Colorado land are usually out of the question. The district was doubly fortunate in this case; first, the site in question was owned by a developer who went bankrupt 10 years ago during a time of slower-than-expected development. Because the land was zoned as residential and the owner was in a hurry to sell, the property was available for a lot less than what the market could bear as the development boom picked up steam.
Second, Foothills found a deep-pocketed partner in Jefferson County, which earmarks a portion of sales tax revenues for land acquisition and development of recreational facilities. The county purchased the land and will continue as owner under the terms of the 99-year lease it struck with the district.
"Like everybody else, they get umpteen million dollars in requests and only have so much money that they can set aside each year for purchases," Insley says. "It helps to have at least a county-wide master plan so we can go to them and say, 'This is our next priority and we want to work with you on this.' " Unfortunately, he adds, other cities and other special park and rec districts are in the same boat, making the funding picture permanently blurry.
"We're all going to the same funding sources, and we're kind of competing against each other for those dollars," Insley says.
That extends to corporate sponsorships and partnerships with for-profit ventures, two areas where the district is being more aggressive, despite the fact that Foothills (like park and recreation districts generally) is run on a break-even basis. One current venture is with a group that recently built an ice arena on the park's land; in return, ownership of the facility will shift to the park district in 25 years, at which point the district will have to decide whether to maintain it as an ice arena or renovate it. "It works out well for us because they're providing service to the community using a facility built with private funds that we don't have to operate or manage in the near term," explains Insley.
Insley sees such partnerships as the wave of the future in Jefferson County and elsewhere. He mentions, for example, a 600-acre site owned by the Denver Water Board that has been declared a surplus property.
"It's the one site that everybody's kind of got their eye on," Insley says. "We all realize, though, that there's not a single agency in the county that has the money to develop it. I know the school district needs an alternative stadium site, so perhaps between us, the school district, the city of Lakewood and some other agencies in the area, collectively we could make something happen there."
Finding Space in Columbus
The explosion in growth that has defined Columbus, Ohio, for the last two decades has also left its mark on the city's recreation and parks department. As work began on 39-acre Lazelle Road Park in May - $528,754 worth of improvements that include basketball courts, softball diamonds, benches and playground equipment - city officials announced the purchase of three other pieces of land that they hope to be able to develop into multiuse parks soon.
The Lazelle Road site is on the city's far north side, which is a lot further north than it used to be, as far north as the previously distinct towns of Westerville and Worthington. As Columbus eats its way into neighboring Delaware County, the number of neighborhoods grows, and so do the demands for park space.
Gary Fenton, director of Columbus Recreation and Parks, began his career in Columbus and then moved to Richmond, Va., where he says residents were more attuned to the importance of dedicated park space. They expected new subdivisions to include parkland, and most developers built their neighborhoods with that in mind. Now, after 12 years away, Fenton says Columbus residents are fully park-savvy. "Now," he says, "people call me three weeks after they buy a new house and say, 'I live in the city of Columbus, where are my facilities.' I tell them I'm working on it, but it's going to take awhile."
The competition between neighborhoods for recreation facilities isn't limited to those demanding facilities where none currently exist. Residents of older neighborhoods see new parks going into new neighborhoods and want their older facilities refurbished. "People ask me whether it's a bigger priority to fix up old facilities or develop new ones, and the answer really depends on what neighborhood I happen to be in at the time the question's asked," says Fenton.
A park planner in a city the size of Columbus, therefore, has to construct a framework for determining the whats and wheres of land acquisition - a philosophy of current versus future needs. You make your best deals by buying before an area is fully developed, but then you must commit scarce resources to projects that may be 10 years away from fruition - a trade-off that residents may or may not understand.
"As I look to planning 20 years down the road, and I see a piece of land that we could get now for a tenth of what we'll have to pay then, I want to get it," Fenton says. "But there are other people who say, 'Wait a minute, we've got a neighborhood right here that needs facilities.' It's hard to look to the future when you have immediate needs."
Lazelle Road Park, an example of immediate need, vividly demonstrates the trade-off. The city purchased the 39acre parcel three years ago from the Worthington School District for about $42,000 an acre - that's more than $1.6 million in land costs for the project. Meanwhile, on the south side of the city, Fenton recently oversaw the purchase of 300 acres for roughly $1.3 million. The land sits very near a 300-acre park that was purchased in 1968, and Fenton is close to acquiring a smaller piece of land between the two that will eventually give the recreation and parks department a huge multiuse park site of close to 800 acres. Fenton hopes people will look at this park, already 20 years in the making, and buy into the department's overall philosophy.
"This park will be a reality because somebody had the foresight to acquire that land back in 1968 - and I'm sure he was criticized," Fenton says. "Today, we would have had to pay $1.5 million to get it, and 20 years from now it would cost us $5 million."
The department can't afford to be too profligate. It's halfway through a five-year, $25 million park improvement bond passed in a 1995 referendum that, while welcome, doesn't come close to the $65 million worth of needs the department had identified. Some of its land purchases need immediate development; athletic fields are being planned for the three recent west-side acquisitions, and in the meantime, the sites must be maintained or interim uses found for them. (Portions of the southside land are being leased to farmers so revenue can be generated.) The department is also looking at potential partnership opportunities with Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Parks, a separate entity that develops mainly passive recreation parks in suburban areas.
"People paint a picture that we don't care about them - if we did, we'd be doing more," Fenton says. "Well, we have a pie, and our pie's only so big."
Accommodating Interests in Windsor
Windsor, Ontario, which shares the shores of the Detroit River with the Motor City, was the home of a Ford assembly plant until it was moved to Oakville, a Toronto suburb. The factory's test track, a mile-long oval, was used until the early 1970s and, in 1994, was acquired by the city from Ford in a land swap. Windsor's parks and recreation department paved the oval, and project manager Mike Clement reports it's getting a lot of use from in-line skaters, bicyclists and walkers. The space inside the track currently is home to 15 soccer fields and two baseball diamonds.
But many different groups have their eye on the Ford oval, and the three public meetings on the matter have been punctuated by some raised voices.
"This is the first park in quite awhile that we've had this much controversy over," says Clement. "You usually do have to accommodate competing uses in new parks, but usually it can all be sorted out within the area provided. But this is a little more tricky because of the park's history."
Its uniqueness is the source of some of the controversy, as well as its location. Newer developments in the area get needed recreation space through parkland dedication, but 60-acre parcels located in the center of a city, surrounded by residential properties that make up one of its older neighborhoods, don't come around every day. While the parks and recreation department estimates that transforming the oval into a true multiuse park will take years and cost $2.75 million (Canadian), its timetable hasn't got universal support. ("That park," as one community service agency director told the Windsor Star, "could sit with a master plan for a donkey's age.")
The city's evolving master plan would reserve the inside of the oval primarily for athletic fields, although it has already spent $20,000 to plant 100 trees, mostly on the park's south end, which it sees as a passive recreation area. The land outside the oval is minimal - 50 feet on the east and west sides, about 100 feet at the south end and 200 feet at the north end - and most of the competing groups view this as a landscape buffer between the park and houses on the east and west sides and streets on the north and south. The city's plan would also use these areas for parking.
Meanwhile, a group of unemployed young adults is working on the installation of a playground and other improvements to the south end as part of a federally sponsored skills training program. A second group, the local soccer association and its players, is arguing vehemently to keep the park's current soccer focus. A third group, made up of the park's neighbors, wants the entire park devoted to passive recreation, and soon enough that it is seeking donations and gathering volunteers to start work immediately. In addition, nearby schools, Ford, the autoworkers union, sport associations, the police department, the Jaycees and a variety of city officials have been brought to the table by a community group.
"The problem comes when soccer wants a distinct block of land and the passive recreation people want a distinct block of land," says Clement. "The goal of the people who want the passive park is to plant a lot of trees and flower gardens, and have walking trails but no sports activities. What we're trying to do through this whole process is to get the groups together and see that the park's uses are integrated, so these two areas wind through each other. The days of having segregated parks are well in the past."
Growing Pains in East Peoria
By the time the EastSide Centre in East Peoria, Ill., opened in June at a total cost of $16.1 million, it had already experienced a troubled birth - it cost taxpayers $2 million more than the original estimate and opened a year behind schedule. Now, an extremely perplexing partnership arrangement may make operation of the facility every bit as complicated as construction was.
A joint effort of the city, the Fon du Lac Park District and the city's two school districts, the facility has five baseball and five softball diamonds, four soccer fields, a football stadium with an all-weather track, an aquatic center, a fishing/paddle boating lagoon and walking trails, a picnic area, an arcade, three concession stands and a 53,000-square-foot indoor recreation center. The park district issued its own bonds to fund construction of the Splashdown Aquatic Center, High School District 309 taxpayers paid for Cornie Clatt Stadium and city taxpayers footed the rest of the bill, with a large portion of the money coming from its share of gaming taxes generated by a riverboat casino.
"It's difficult for some to understand where the separation of responsibilities begin and end," sighs Jim Coutts, director of the Fon du Lac Park District. His agency is managing the aquatic center, with some of the necessary funds being derived from operation of the facility, but the center will also require a city subsidy. However, the complex as a whole is being run by EastSide Centre Inc., a not-for-profit corporation that represents the various taxing bodies as well as other community members. EastSide built the stadium on a design/build basis, and as part of its lease agreement with the high school, the school will retire the principal and interest on the construction costs. "It's kind of a strange animal, how it was all put together," Coutts says.
The cooperative venture is an animal of necessity, although the district had been seriously thinking about building a complex of its own. Says Coutts, "The district obviously didn't have the financial wherewithal to pull it off. We would have consumed all of our debt capacity and then wouldn't have had the ability to do much else for a considerable period of time. So it made sense for us to look at this type of arrangement, although I don't think anybody anticipated some of the situations that we've gotten into."
Specifically, the district wasn't fully prepared to deal with the friction caused by the various parties bringing different agendas to the table and communicating different priorities and management philosophies. But Coutts says that a more fundamental problem had to do with the EastSide group's not-for-profit status, which meant that, unlike the other taxing bodies, EastSide was not subject to governmental restrictions like the open meetings act. As a result, Coutts says, certain information was not made available during the process and some decisions were made without input from the other groups.
In addition, EastSide's director announced that he was contemplating leaving the position after the facility opened, and other staff members announced they might follow, creating a damaging management vacuum. As this was happening, the project was beset by internal struggles as some planners sought the reopening of the management agreements to make modifications.
The issue of control has not waned since the facility opened, since patrons who want to utilize the aquatic center must first enter the recreation center, which is not the park district's responsibility. EastSide's success - an initial spate of hot weather contributed to a daily bather load well over the 1,300 people the district expected - has only exacerbated some of the management problems.
"There have been some issues regarding who is supposed to maintain certain areas and how much area was going to be made available to us to handle the patrons utilizing the facility," says Coutts. "The numbers have been good for us from a financial standpoint, but it became a management nightmare, particularly since we were trying to resolve these issues while the facility was in operation."
Now the season's over and Splash down has closed for winter, bringing optimism to the park district.
"It's like building a golf course - the grass isn't always as good as you want it to be, it takes some time to mature and there are things you need to fine-tune that only time will give you an opportunity to do," Coutts says. "It's a good facility, but right now I would consider it a diamond in the rough. It's my sincere hope that in five years a lot of the issues that we're dealing with now will be gone. Then the facility will be an outstanding asset, not only to our community but to the surrounding area."
Making Progress in North America
As development roars ahead in cities large and small, the number of parks of all types - athletic fields, playgrounds, passive areas and the many variations on the multiuse theme - continue to grow. Both private home developers and parks and recreation departments are making steady progress together and separately.
Many jurisdictions, large and small, enjoy county or state ordinances that require developers to pay for the addition of parkland along with the homes they build. A $500,000 multiuse park encompassing both active and passive areas that opened in July in Malta, N.Y. (population 12,000), was built in part with money set aside from developers' fees - something on the order of $100 per home built. At the other end of the spectrum, the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks & Recreation this year completed Pathfinder Community Park, a $3.7 million, 15-acre multiuse facility in Rowland Heights, Calif., in part with money set aside by developers and under a county law that requires a certain amount of park acreage per 1,000 residents.
Cities that don't have such agreements in place - like Columbus, Ohio - are working to procure them. The rec department there is discussing presenting a parkland dedication ordinance to the City Council that would require developers to set aside either money or land.
"Obviously, some developers are highly in opposition, but we've involved the development community in the whole process of looking at this issue," Fenton says. "They see it as an expense that they'll probably pass on to the home owner, but at the same time some see it as another opportunity to 'sell' a neighborhood. We're expecting a fight."
Audrey Ball, Malta's parks director, says the passage of such laws doesn't necessarily put an end to the control issues that often dog cooperative ventures. Builders of several recent large developments in Malta have constructed smaller parks in each new neighborhood in partnership with home owners' associations. These are welcome additions, she says, but possibly loom as maintenance problems down the line - for somebody. "It'll be interesting to watch," Ball says, "because my guess is that once these groups get to the point where field and playground equipment have to be replaced, they're going to want to turn these areas over to the town."
Still, every new park is greeted with relief by city officials. "The numbers of young people out there who don't have enough facilities is huge," says Fenton. "It's bad today, and it's going to be a lot worse tomorrow."