Brian Snyder / Reuters

A new initiative seeks to revive empty commercial land as public space

Emptiness is a recurring condition in America's urban areas. The crash of the housing market has left homeowners underwater, and developers with evaporated financing and stalled projects. But while homes may have earned most of the attention as the real estate market’s crash continues to reverberate through cities, thousands of commercial sites have also been left empty in its wake.

Empty parking lots, boarded up storefronts, dirt plots waiting for development. For cities these pieces of land blight their surroundings and drag down property values. But they don’t all have to. A new initiative aims to work with cities to reimagine empty plots of commercial land as a network of open spaces, taking commercial properties in the red and turning them into parks.

The project, “Redfields to Greenfields,” is the brainchild of the Speedwell Foundation, and is currently being developed by researchers at Georgia Tech with the help of the City Parks Alliance advocacy group. The idea is to look at what could be accomplished in cities with high rates of empty commercial sites if those plots of land were converted into parks.

“We could reduce the oversupply of commercial space, generate jobs, renew neighborhoods and spur new development,” City Parks Alliance executive director Catherine Nagel told an audience at this week's American Society of Landscape Architects annual meeting. “It could pave the way for a healthier community, a healthier nation and would make our country more economically competitive.”

That might seem like a lot to expect from a few parks, but the organizers behind the project believe that the huge amount of vacant commercial properties in cities across the country hold great opportunities for redevelopment.

They’ve partnered with 11 cities in the U.S. to explore the idea, using models to predict what might happen if a city were suddenly able to invest billions of dollars in buying up and converting commercial properties into parks. The participating cities – including Houston, Denver, Cleveland and Atlanta – pulled together reports on their oversupply of commercial property through the lens of providing parks to neighborhoods that are lacking in public space. And by looking at how park space increases land values around it, they were able to quantify the benefits of large-scale park creation.

Pilot cities then researched what they could do with a $5 billion infusion of parks funding. It seems like an unreal amount to be even considering, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the federal government has given to save banks, according to Kevin Caravati, who’s leading research on the project at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. In Atlanta, he says, $5 billion could pay for the purchase, demolition, redesign, construction, operations and maintenance of parks covering about 2,850 acres. With a glut of empty spaces and prices at historic lows, now would be an ideal time to make such an investment in communities struggling through the recession.

“The least valuable urban spaces are the ones that don’t have parks. But they do have big empty lots bringing down value,” says Caravati. “We just don’t need all that retail space anymore. The idea is that when the economy recovers, it will recover around an asset, not a liability.”

In flood-prone Houston, park creation also has a safety element. The city needs more retention areas to hold the massive amounts of water than can fill and flood over its channelized bayous. And as the fourth largest city in the U.S. with a rapidly growing population, it also needs more park space.

A $5.4 billion investment could create 8,800 acres of new parks built within Houston's retention areas. Typically only needed for a few days a year, these retention areas could help form a citywide network of open spaces.

“This could be the fastest and most effective way to meet the growing demand for both within our community,” says Trent Rondot of the Houston Parks Board.

Creating parks is also a quick way to increase property values in a community. In Houston, the new Discovery Green park, which opened in 2008, has already increased land values in some nearby properties by 400 percent, according to Rondot. Other cities have seen similar increases in values near parks.

They’re also job creators. In Miami, a $5 billion investment in parks creation could be expected to create more than 14,000 jobs. In Denver, a similar investment could create 35,000 jobs.

For cities struggling with devalued commercial properties, such an idea is an easy yes. But it's still just an idea. Nagel hopes it could soon become reality in a handful of pilot cities that are working to get banks and developers behind it. It’s unlikely that any city will be able to pull off a $5 billion chunk of money for parks creation, but it may turn out that they’ll be able to convince banks to offload some of their problem properties for redevelopment.

Nagel hopes this effort will show cities a new way of thinking about the vast amount of empty land within their borders. And though many of these blighted and problem areas were inadvertently created by the downturn in the economy, Nagel contends that they don’t have to remain scars and victims of the recession. “Parks,” she says, “can solve the urban real estate crisis.”

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