Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 1.24.08

Downtown parks can drive redevelopment

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark L. Gillem is a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at UO and wrote the following based on tours he and his students took of downtown parks in Oregon and Washington.


Great cities have great downtown parks. Boston Common is a 50-acre park in the heart of the city. New York’s 843-acre Central Park covers 6 percent of Manhattan. Chicago’s 319-acre Grant Park is the centerpiece of a downtown residential boom. Closer to home, Portland developers tore down a parking garage so they could build a new park block above new underground parking. These cities know that density and open space go together. Urban parks attract economic development, increase the desirability of living downtown, and enhance environmental sustainability.

But downtown parks are not just for big cities. They are important to smaller cities interested in attracting residents, visitors, and businesses downtown. Portland, Maine; Huntsville, Ala.,and Louisville, Ky., are all capitalizing on their impressive downtown parks. Savannah, Ga., is even replacing a parking garage with a new urban park in its historic downtown.

In our region, Olympia, Wash., has been improving its downtown parks. Beaverton built a new library and city park in its downtown. Corvallis recently spent $13.7 million on a new downtown riverfront park. Plans are now in the works to build a new $8.9 million park on a 14-acre site in downtown Cottage Grove.

Vancouver, Wash., has invested nearly $6 million to renovate Esther Short Park in the heart of its downtown. Apart from the commitment to downtown parks, Vancouver has many similarities to Eugene. Its population and per capita income are comparable. Like Eugene, Vancouver struggles with growth pressures at the edge of town and, before it committed to rebuilding Esther Short Park, Vancouver’s downtown was languishing. Homeless youth roamed throughout downtown. Pawn shops, liquor stores, and for rent signs were the norm. The public investment in the park, however, brought the kind of change to Vancouver that many in Eugene dream about.

Given that Eugene has been trying without success to reinvigorate its downtown, it would be wise to learn from other cities. Eugene’s focus has been on buildings. not parks. That is the first mistake. Buildings and their tenants come and go. In Eugene’s case, after spending countless staff hours and thousands of taxpayer dollars on elaborate plans and complicated financial projections, the buildings did not even come. In the past two years alone, proposals for the Oregon Research Institute, West Broadway and a downtown Whole Foods all failed miserably.

Eugene’s approach to economic development has been to prime the pump of the private sector with parking garages, tax abatements and other forms of public subsidy. This is Eugene’s second mistake.

The redevelopment focus in Eugene should change from buildings to parks. Public funds should go to public infrastructure — and the highest return on investment is with downtown parks. What has been proposed before, subsidies to one or two large investors, can skew the market for years. The lucky beneficiaries will have the upper hand when it comes to leasing and sales. Future developers will be clamoring for the same types of subsidies to stay competitive — or they will not come at all.

Vancouver’s $6 million investment in Esther Short Park has attracted nearly $250 million in capital investment since 2002 in an area less than the width of three blocks in downtown Eugene. This includes Vancouver Center, a mixed-use development with 194 apartments and condominiums; a 226-room hotel and convention center; a 160-unit public housing project with ground floor retail; an upscale condo project with 137 units and ground floor retail, and a six-story office building for the city’s newspaper. Without the investment in the park, this scale of development would have never occurred. According to Nawzad Othman, the developer of Vancouver Center, “Esther Short Park is the center of the redevelopment; it’s a catalyst for development on all four sides.”

This focus on the financial bottom line, which is what many city staff and elected officials in Eugene prioritize, should not overshadow other benefits of downtown parks. They are essential attributes of sustainable urbanism. If we hope to improve the environmental condition of our cities, then we need to add as much green space as possible. Plazas and paved urban squares can be quite nice, but they do not have many of the ecological benefits of real parks.

With their trees and landscaped open spaces, urban parks improve air quality, reduce stormwater runoff, collect carbon dioxide and provide much-needed habitat. Because urban parks make urban living attractive to a broader cross-section of people, these parks have additional environmental value associated with greater residential densities and reduced driving that results when people live downtown. In the three residential projects adjacent to Esther Short Park, residents will drive up to 5.8 million fewer miles annually than they would if they lived at the edge of town. This translates into a carbon dioxide emission reduction of up to 6.4 million pounds per year.

The sociocultural value of urban parks is well known. Parks are free spaces where people of all races, ages, and income levels can gather for all kinds of events — from farmers markets to political rallies. Beaverton’s City Park hosts a summer film series that has attracted 1,500 people for one event. And the park is big enough for a farmers market that draws 15,000 people on busy summer weekends.

But the mere presence of open space is not enough to attract substantial investment. Eugene’s undersized and overpaved Park Blocks are a case in point. Even Vancouver’s Esther Short Park, established in 1862, failed to attract development until its remake in 2002. So, what makes for a successful downtown park? To answer this question, students at the UO last fall studied urban parks in Vancouver, Corvallis, Beaverton, Portland and Albany. They conducted more than 100 interviews and spent more than 200 hours observing, measuring and mapping. Then, they helped develop the following set of principles for the design of downtown parks.



1. Located in the Heart of Downtown

Great cities have parks at the edges and in the centers of their downtowns. Portland has the Park Blocks and Washington Park. Corvallis has Central Park and Willamette Park. Vancouver has Esther Short Park and Fort Vancouver Park. Edge parks cannot replace parks in the center of town. In Eugene, we frequently hear that Alton Baker and Skinner Butte Park suffice for downtown. But the former is across the river and cannot be considered a downtown park, and the latter is hidden behind a hill. They are also about a mile by foot from the heart of downtown. A central location is critically important because it translates into easy accessibility throughout the day. When parks are at the heart of town, with a strong visual and physical connection to neighboring uses, they become destinations to enjoy and places to pass through. The natural surveillance that results when people walk by the park enhances safety and encourages greater use.

2. Open to Many Uses

Successful parks are not just the physical heart of the city but the cultural heart as well. They accommodate all ages and abilities. They are at least an acre in size, which is large enough to have playgrounds, bandshells, open fields and fountains. They have ample places to sit and enough open lawn area to throw a Frisbee. Parks with these features attract people from all over — not just from the immediate area. They come to read, play, exercise, walk their dogs, socialize, people-watch and enjoy a bit of close-in nature. Great parks are also big enough and flexible enough to host a dizzying array of events — from concerts to movies, from wine tasting parties to farmers markets.

3. Surrounded by Homes and Shops

Housing and shops must surround downtown parks. The public benefits from the “eyes on the park,” and residents benefit from what one young mother who lives next to a downtown park calls “a backyard I don’t have to maintain.” People pay for this amenity. At Esther Short Park, condominiums facing the park command a $30,000 premium. After all, it is more desirable to face a park than a street. Businesses are also attracted to great parks, and people are attracted to the businesses around the park. At Esther Short, the owner of a children’s art supply store knows that the park has brought more business. “Families come in from the playground,” she said. “The parents will take turns coming in while their kids are playing.” Ideally, these surrounding businesses have active ground floor uses — they can be retail shops, coffeehouses, cafes and restaurants. Their entries should face the park, and their walls should be glazed so that people inside can still see the park.

4. Shaded by Tremendous Trees

Downtown parks do not need complicated landscaping. Rather, they need big trees located to provide ample shade in the summer. Portland’s Park Blocks are the best example; they are like “a cathedral of trees with a simple floor of grass.” In addition to their aesthetic value, trees have tremendous ecological value. One mature tree can absorb up to 70 pounds of carbon dioxide every year and 10 pounds of other air pollutants. It can intercept up to 760 gallons of rainfall in its crown, which can significantly reduce stormwater runoff. Trees also can pay for themselves. According to the USDA, their shade can extend the life of paved surfaces by 10 to 15 years. In addition, they can increase the value of adjacent properties by 6 to 18 percent.

5. Bordered by Streets with Parking

City streets border the best downtown parks. While this may seem counterintuitive, the streets provide a degree of separation from the adjacent properties. Without this, parks feel more a part of the adjoining buildings and less a part of the public realm. Of course, safe crosswalks with user-controlled signals should be conveniently located at intervals no more than 200 feet apart. Since many people must drive in our society, nearby parking is needed. At Esther Short Park, nearly 70 percent of the users traveled seven or more blocks; 62 percent drove, and 42 percent walked to the park. Parks must support both types of access. The streets provide a place for on-street parking, which is the most efficient way to park in the city. If placed on the park side, on-street parking enhances safety; cars provide a buffer between pedestrians and moving traffic.

6. Maintained and Secured by the City

A well-maintained park is a well-used park. The best parks are clean and well-tended and have ample places to dispose of trash. They are also well-lit, which allows for use in the early mornings and at night. In many downtown parks, people walking their dogs come at all hours and in all types of weather. Their presence adds to the safety of the park without the expense of additional police patrols. However, the value of a regular police presence cannot be ignored. Many in Eugene have said that downtown parks will only attract the homeless. While some homeless people certainly enjoy the attributes of downtown parks, other communities in our region have found ways to make their downtown parks thrive. In Vancouver, which had a homeless problem many times worse than Eugene’s, the vast majority of park users surveyed felt safe during the day (100 percent) and during the evening (77 percent).

Parks designed with these principles in mind bring people downtown. They come to live across from the park, work near the park and play in the park. Enlightened cities know that urban renewal is best achieved through public investment in downtown parks. They build parks across from libraries to draw children and families into the heart of cities. They extend park blocks from the center of town to help connect the urban fabric. And they surround downtown parks with homes, shops and workplaces to make them safe and attractive settings for more sustainable lifestyles.    

Mark L. Gillem, Ph.D., AIA, AICP is an assistant professor in the departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the UO. Erik Bishoff, Jesse Golden, Jackie Kingen, Allison Kinst, Jessica Kreitzberg, Eilidh MacLean, Martina Oxoby and Ann Winn participated in the seminar.