My editor is living the Downtown dream in a condo tower, but she recently told me a sad story of urban life. She was in search of a good place to play fetch with her puppy, so she walked the Bonneville underpass to the green space at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. But there’s no shade, and the dog grew sullen. She could walk the three-fourths of a mile to Huntridge Circle Park, but that lovely space isn’t puppy-safe, because it’s an island surrounded on all sides by Maryland Parkway’s swift traffic. And it’s only open weekends. So, she plays fetch with her dog in the parking lot of a law firm.
How sad is that? Let’s add parks to the list of amenities badly needed for our Downtown revival.
When I think of great cities, I often think of parks, without which we can scarcely imagine those cities. New York City and Central Park. San Francisco and Golden Gate Park. Vancouver and Stanley Park. What’s our Central Park?
When I asked the city about this, I received a helpful spreadsheet of parks in and around Downtown and went on a Sunday tour. This depressing experience only reinforced my original perception that Downtown is badly in need of good parks.
Some of the “parks” barely meet the definition. For instance, Centennial Plaza behind the Historic Fifth Street School is nice, with a water feature and the Poet’s Bridge, with fine verse etched in the concrete:
“The wasteland is just
Beginning to look ...
We get to shape it.
Eventually saplings will provide shade, but the 16,000-square-foot space—the size of a decent Dallas mansion—is all concrete. Same with Boulder Plaza in the Arts District.
Justice Myron E. Leavitt and Jaycee Community Park is the real deal, but it’s 2.5 miles from Downtown’s condo towers—not walking distance.
Lorenzi Park and Gary Reese Freedom Park are both excellent, but they’re not Downtown.
Even allowing for total park acreage citywide rather than just Downtown, we rank low among cities with similar population density, such as San Jose and Pittsburgh, according to a 2011 report from the Trust for Public Land. Just 4.2 percent of our total land area is park space, below the median of 6.7 percent for cities of similar density, and behind major cities except Stockton, California. (Ugh!) We score similarly low when it comes to park acres per 1,000 residents.
Flinn Fagg, the city’s planning director, acknowledges the lack of a major Downtown park but notes that the city’s long-range plan calls for a series of smaller “pocket” parks connected by trails and pleasant pedestrian corridors.
Not much has happened yet, but Fagg says in an email, “We’ve made some initial steps in getting portions of the trail and pocket park network off the ground.”
It’s not surprising that Downtown lacks what other cities take for granted. We have a libertarian history that doesn’t value public spaces, and until relatively recently, Downtown was neglected while the suburbs boomed.
But now is the time to build parks Downtown. Borrowing costs and land values are at historic lows—a perfect time to buy empty lots and build parks.
We can’t afford it, you say. This is shortsighted and wrong. Parks are investments that pay dividends. Think of the value Central Park has added to Manhattan real estate, and therefore how much extra tax revenue the city collects. Parks and other amenities will attract people and businesses to move Downtown.
There’s another predictable objection: the homeless, who will surely sleep in our parks. This is an infuriatingly defeatist and pathetic response to a longstanding policy problem. It’s like saying we’re not going to build a road because it will attract drunk drivers.
We can’t deal with the homeless problem, so we’ll just wave the white flag and choose not to improve our city. Here’s my fresh alternative thinking: Deal with the homeless problem.
It’s time to start raising our expectations for Downtown. Are some decent parks too much to ask?