Newest urban parks are a joy for our time

March 03, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

BOSTON -- This city's Park at Post Office Square, a Lilliputian 1.7 acres, is a widely hailed "garden for all seasons." An ugly, four-story parking garage had occupied its site. Now, the exquisitely designed park brings sunlight, crowds and a once-missing focal point to the city's dense financial district.

Some 1,200 miles to the south, along the bed of the abandoned Western Rail Line, is the newly constructed Pinellas Trail. Running 35 miles, through classic Floridian sprawl, from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, it's an asphalt walkway nestled into a vegetated park never more than 100 feet wide.

The Pinellas Trail, for a burgeoning area of 900,000 people, has become a recreational lifeline for everyone from toddlers to elders on tricycles. Passing through 24 often contentious jurisdictions, it's also begun to break down psychological barriers between towns: One local politician has called it a "Peace Trail."

Celebrating heritage

In San Francisco, the city's maritime heritage is celebrated in the new 2.5-mile Embarcadero Promenade and an adjacent roadway. They replaced the notoriously ugly, never-completed Embarcadero Freeway, torn down after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Walk along the new promenade, with its breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay, its palm trees and its continuous strip of sandblasted glass, illuminated from below by night, and a sense of awe and excitement are hard to resist.

Along Manhattan's southwestern flank, the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex -- a 30-acre sports and film center developed by private enterprise on public land -- is emerging from New York's Byzantine planning processes.

The old piers had been walled off from the city and its people by an 8-foot-high chain-link fence. Now they'll have such state-of-the-art facilities as a golf range with a computerized ball tee-up capability. But it's not all for pay. Anyone's welcome to walk along Sunset Strip, a walkway parallel to the river, or to visit Pier Park with its spectacular Hudson River views.

These four projects are just a sampling of a surge of high-quality, sometimes quite ingenious, public parks. Mostly incubated in the '80s, they are becoming reality in the '90s.

One is reminded of America's great park-building era, the achievements of Frederick Law Olmsted and his peers, at the last turn of a century. Little of lasting merit was even attempted after the 1920s. Coffers were empty during the Depression and wartime '40s. Suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment absorbed most urban areas in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

There were exceptions such as San Antonio's Paseo del Rio in the '30s and Mellon Square in Pittsburgh in 1953. A next breakthrough: In Oregon, Portland citizens in the '70s, fighting parking lots and highway ugliness, won approval for the handsome Pioneer Courthouse Square and Tom McCall Waterfront Park that replaced a freeway on the banks of the Willamette River.

But it's taken the '90s to inaugurate what we can hope will be a generation of great park building in America. For a tour of 15 outstanding projects, check out "Urban Parks and Open Space," a generously illustrated report published by the Urban Land Institute (1-800-321-5011).

The Trust for Public Land (415-495-4014), co-publisher of the report, has also been pushing a Green Cities Initiative to gin up public support for protecting open space and building quality parks in center cities and urban neighborhoods nationwide.

As the new projects unfold, keys to success are emerging. First: leadership.

Take developer Norman Leventhal, the native Bostonian who conceived the idea of a park at Post Office Square. For a decade, Mr. Leventhal immersed himself in lining up chief executives for the project, fighting a protracted legal battle with the old garage owner, raising funds and selling shares in the project.

To finance the deal, he eventually got a seven-story, 500,000-square-foot garage -- Boston's largest, dubbed "Garage Mahal" -- built under the handsome new park.

Next ingredient: timing. An earthquake set the stage for the new Embarcadero Promenade. Abandonment of a rail line for the Pinellas Trail. Economic desertion of the center city prompted the creation of a waterfront park in Spartanburg, S.C.

And then there's money -- generally multimillions. Though in the words of Peter Harnik, an author of the "Urban Parks" report: "Of course you ultimately need money -- sometimes a lot. But over and over again, I've observed -- if you have vision, patience, perseverance and the moment is right for these great park projects, then the money will follow."

A new vision

What's needed is a political climate open to new, exciting vision, and willingness to bring citizens into the planning process and keep them there. Perfunctory hearings just won't build the broad consensus essential in today's politics.

Finally: patience. These projects take years -- usually more than a decade -- to bring to fruition.

But here's the payoff: They not only bring joy into our lives, they let us once more take deep pride in our cities.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column on urban issues.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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