Catalytic Spaces Stimulate Economic Development

See-saws, swings and slides and scenes of children running and playing are usually the images most people associate with a park.

Parks across the nation, however, are also green spaces where adults gather to mingle, which in turn, is driving retail and redevelopment. They have been transformed into economic drivers that are helping to rebuild America’s urban core.

“The usage and designs of parks have changed dramatically over the past 20 years,” said Michael Stevens, president of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District in Washington, D.C., which is charged with maintaining and programming Yards Park.

This park in the nation’s capital has quickly become the cultural hub of the community known as The Yards — a 42-acre mixed-use community that when built out is expected to have 2,800 residential units, retail, office space and restaurants.

“In the suburbs, a park is a civic investment but not necessarily envisioned as leveraging reinvestment. It will be used by the neighborhood, but it won’t have a catalytic effect, it will have a stabilizing effect as a community building block,” Stevens said. “Yards Park really has been catalytic in that it not only helped stabilize the neighborhood, it triggered a wave of new development and investment.”

Yards Park not only has jump-started investment in the mixed-use development with the same name, it also has helped spawn development in the greater Capitol Riverfront Community, a 500-acre waterfront neighborhood in southeastern Washington, D.C. Yards Park, and the more recently opened Canal Park, have created community, sense of place and identity where none had existed before. They have helped to brand the neighborhood as attractive not only to millennials, but to families who locate here and visit from adjacent neighborhoods.

Since Yards Park opened in 2010 there has been a flurry of activity including:

  • The opening of a 50,000-square-foot grocery store, Harris Teeter, in an 88,000-square foot mixed-use space that also includes Vida Fitness, and its affiliated “offerings” Bang Salon and Aura Spa. They are alongside a new apartment building known as Twelve12, which also includes two apartment buildings that offer 218 smaller, market-rate and affordable apartments.
  • A $14.6-million investment to modernize the Van Ness Early Education Center. The school initially opened in 1956, and for the past nine years, it has only housed DC Public School staff, but will reopen for students in fall 2015.
  • Reuse of the historic 35,000-square-foot historical building called The Lumber Shed, which now houses Ice Cream Jubilee, Agua 301 and Osteria Morini, as well as the offices of the developer Forest City Washington. Two additional restaurants will open in the building later this year.

There is no doubt development is booming and proof can be spotted in the amount of sales tax being generated in the areas. Sales taxes have increased significantly, with restaurant sales tax jumping from $2.38 million in 2012 to $4.76 million in 2014. Retail sales tax, which excludes restaurants, jumped from $1.33 million in 2012 to $4.43 million in 2014.

The Capital Riverfront Business Improvement District notes that residential property taxes increased to an all-time high of $23.2 million in 2014, up from $19.9 million the prior year and about $17.6 million in 2012. In the last three years alone, a whopping $453.6 million in new tax revenue has been generated by development in the Capital Riverfront area.

The popularity of the neighborhood can also be seen in the amount of residential development that is occurring. Currently, nine residential buildings containing 2,860 residential units are under construction, and another 1,325 units are in the development pipeline. Over 4,700 people call the Capitol Riverfront home, and that population is expected to double in the next three years. The parks and access to the river have been definite attractions when marketing the residential components of the neighborhood.

Dan Melman, vice president of Park and Public Realm for the Capital Riverfront Business Improvement District, notes that the riverfront community was experiencing an uptick in development and new retail and jobs before the development of Yards Park.

That activity was due, in part, to the $611-million investment in the new Nationals Stadium, the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green certified major stadium in the United States. Melman said that some of the increases in residential development could be attributable to the baseball stadium and perhaps new employment opportunities. But he asserted that it also could be attributed to people seeking a better quality of life. “Quality of life,” Melman said, “could be tied to parks and green space and access to the river.”

Additionally, Stevens notes that Yards Park was the first improvement in The Yards community. It made people want to live in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. Thousands of people began to use the park space, thereby creating demand for additional services. Retail, hotels and residences started to sprout up because developers were following the demand.

“It has been an anchor development,” Stevens said.

Yards Park appeals to the young, the old, and all those in between. It was designed to offer visitors access to several different outside “rooms” Stevens said. There are seasonal plantings and areas to keep the sun off that may attract the elderly or those with young children. There is a modern bridge and light feature; riverfront boardwalk; a terraced performance venue area that accommodates large crowds, but also offers quiet spaces; and a canal basin and waterfall feature.

Equally important as the built environment is the unique programming that brings concerts and festivals to the former Navy shipyard industrial center and keeps people coming back to the area. Yards Park hosts the Friday Night concert series in the summer that has attracted as many as 2,500 people into the park. Not only do people come by land to see the concerts, but many choose to come by boat across the Anacostia River to hear the music and enjoy the view of the park.

Sometimes, though, there is no programming, which is intentional. Not only does it give the park a rest from large crowds and traffic, it also gives people who are visiting the park the opportunity to just relax and enjoy the green space and views of the river.

Stevens also stressed that in addition to programming, parks need a funding commitment to keep them well maintained and vital and to foster future growth. The Yards Park, initially built by the District of Columbia government, is funded through several revenue streams, including a self-imposed tax agreed to by the developer, corporate sponsorships and up to $400,000 in sales tax revenue generated by the new restaurants that are located in the Lumbershed Building overlooking Yards Park. Anything generated beyond that goes back to the city.

Further south in Atlanta, Ga. another ambitious plan is taking shape.

The Atlanta BeltLine, when complete, will connect a 22-mile pear-shaped loop of historic rail lines around the city with multi-use trails and will also add an additional 11 miles of trails into existing neighborhoods to give residents access to the first and last mile of safe connection to mass transit.

When complete, the BeltLine will add 1,300 acres of parks and will have remediated 1,100 acres of brownfields. The goal also is to bring workforce housing to 5,600 people who want to own and rent. Through the end of 2014, 985 affordable housing units had been created.

Perhaps the best known park in this cluster is the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark. As the name suggests, the park offers skateboard amenities but also includes a large multi-use athletic field as well as a playground for children.

President and Chief Executive Officer of Atlanta Belt- Line Inc. Paul Morris said that $400 million has been spent “on the ground” either on construction of the parks and trails or on cleaning up formerly contaminated spaces.

That investment, 90 percent of which was federal, state and local money, has yielded another $2.4 billion in private capital investment in the area, meaning that $6 dollars in private capital followed every $1 in taxpayer financing.

“We think that’s a good start,” Morris said in March, noting that most private investments were made “within walking distances from where our private developments are occurring.”

Similar to Yards Park, there is programming along the BeltLine which helps draw crowds. For the last five years the park called on local, national and international artists to participate in the Art on the Beltline, the city’s largest temporary public art exhibit. When the exhibit kicked off in 2010 there were more than 40 works. The following year the exhibit increased to more than 66 individual and performance works. By 2014 the number of selected projects grew to more than 100 pieces.

The exhibit is shown from September through November and it kicks off with a Lantern Parade that in 2014 featured 20,000 revelers who made color lanterns — either at home or at a workshop — and danced in the streets with their lights.

One early investor in the BeltLine was Kevin Rathbun, a successful restaurateur in Atlanta. He was the executive chef and corporate chef for three Buckhead Life Group restaurants in Atlanta, but when he decided to strike out on his own, he opened his first restaurant, Kevin Rathbun’s Steak, on Inman Street by the Eastside Trail. The Eastside Trail was the first multi-use trail completed in the BeltLine. The trail runs from the tip of Piedmont Park to Inman Park and the Old Fourth Ward.

“We never could have predicted the transformation of the abandoned rail corridor next door,” Rathbun said. “We knew something good would happen. But the thousands of people who walk and cycle past the restaurant on a daily basis are proof that the Atlanta BeltLine is working for residents, visitors and businesses like mine,” Rathbun recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, has experienced a renaissance with the extensive renovation and expansion of Washington Park. A $48-million partnership between the city and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation — known as 3CDC —helped transform the run-down, eight-acre park that drug dealers and prostitutes called home into a gathering place that features a civic lawn, performance stage, a 7,000-square-foot water feature with 130 pop jets, a playground, a dog park and even a 450-space underground garage for those who can’t walk to the park.

The project was a finalist for the Urban Land Institute Open Space Award for 2014. “It’s been a tremendous story in many ways, one of which is economic,” said Steve Shuckman, who works for the city of Cincinnati as the superintendent of park planning and design.

“Clearly, it has driven the development of many, many, new restaurants and shops up and down Vine Street, just a block away, and where nobody would even walk before.” Over-the-Rhine had the dubious distinction of being one of America’s most violent neighborhoods. But it also was known as having one of the largest historic districts. The architecture in the area is a mix of Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne, with some Art Deco buildings here and there. Its collection of historic architectural buildings rivals that of Savannah, New Orleans and Charleston.

In addition to bringing retail and restaurants into the area, the School for the Creative and Performing Arts is relocating and will be on the southern end of the park. The nonprofit 3CDC, which is responsible for much of the activity, also has moved its offices and is across the street from the western end of the park.

Similar to the other catalytic parks, Washington Park is programmed with activities year round meant to draw people to the area, such as the MidPoint Music Festival.

Holly Redmond has been a REALTOR® for 11 years and for eight of those years she has been selling 3CDC properties in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

When she first started showing condominiums, she said it would take a couple of years for the building to totally sell out. Recently, though, one building sold out in just one day and another sold out in less than two months.

She shows properties that range in price from $94,000 for a one-room studio condominium to a three-bedroom unit that costs upward of $600,000.

“Washington Park was a huge catalyst,” she said, adding, “now people are clamoring to be downtown.”

When she is showing real estate, Redmond said the time spent with the client never starts with a walk through the condominium.

“We walk through the neighborhood and tell them what retailers are coming next and which restaurants,” she said. “By the time we’re done, they are so excited.”

Christine Jordan Sexton is a Tallahassee-based freelance reporter who has done correspondent work for the Associated Press, the New York Times, Florida Medical Business and a variety of trade magazines, including Florida Lawyer and National Underwriter.

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