Civic Philanthropy: Parks
April 14, 2012 4 Comments
This is part of a short series on Civic Philanthropy. For an introduction, please read my first post on the subject: How Can Cities Leverage Donations?
Traditionally, land grants were a great way for citizens proud of their city to contribute to the public well being. In the times when the wealthy owned huge swaths of ranch land around Los Angeles and elsewhere, they could turn this land over to the city, with stipulations that it be preserved as park space, museums, plazas, or for other public uses.
This was the case with Hancock Park, where the La Brea Tar Pits and LACMA now sit, as well as with Griffith Park. I wrote briefly about Hancock Park in my introduction to civic philanthropy, but Griffith Park has perhaps a more interesting backstory.
Originally owned by Colonel Griffith J. Griffith (really? what a name) as part of his Rancho Los Feliz, it was donated to the city of Los Angeles in 1896. The half century from 1880 to 1930 could be considered the “golden age” for donations of this sort. Griffith Park, Hancock Park, and Barnsdall Art Park, among countless others, we’re granted to local governments by wealthy benefactors.
After donating the park, and subsequently serving time in jail for shooting and seriously injuring his wife, Griffith attempted to donate money for a variety of public amenities in the park, including an observatory, amphitheater, and boys and girls camp. The city, however, was unwilling to accept his donation because of his criminal reputation. Before his death in 1919, Griffith set up a trust fund for these improvements, and the city later accepted the money and built the amenities he imagined. Completed in 1930 and 1935, they live on today as the Greek Theatre and the Griffith Observatory, respectively. Eighty years later, these are some of the most beloved spaces in Los Angeles.
Today, as land is more scarce, it is rare that a single landowner would own more than 4 square miles (the original size of Griffith’s gift) in a publicly accessible area to donate, much less want to. And yet, public space (specifically park space) is more necessary than ever in our city that dedicates more land area to roads and parking lots than any other use.
As scarce as it is, the importance of park land does not go unnoticed. In 2007, after much of Griffith Park had been destroyed by fire, the Los Angeles Dodgers donated $100,000 to help start the restoration. Dodger Stadium is located in nearby Elysian Park, but they recognized the benefits that all parks (especially one as large as Griffith) bring to the city.
In my introductory post on Civic Philanthropy, I mentioned a Florida church that discarded plans for a new worship center to instead bless its city with a much-needed public park. The body of believers in a church certainly needs a place to meet, but wouldn’t it be amazing if more churches did something like this?
One of the nicer parks (or is it a plaza?) in Downtown is Maguire Gardens (“gardens fits,” as it’s really a hybrid park and plaza with lots of plants). It could be said that it was created out of the benevolence of developer Maguire Thomas Partners because the company did pay for the park’s development, though it was not out of sheer benevolence. In a $1 billion deal with the city that allowed the developer to build the nearby Library Tower (now the U.S. Bank Tower) and the Gas Company Tower in the mid 1980s, the developer agreed to provide specific public amenities. The centerpiece of these public amenities was Maguire Gardens. The company (now called MPG) still maintains the park, but is reimbursed by the city every year — it is the most expensive park to maintain in Downtown. Hardly a “gift” from the developer to the city.
Today, Spring Street Park is already under construction in the Historic Core and the city is still struggling to find maintenance funds. This same problem had become disastrously apparent at the LAPD Headquarters park over the last couple years. Simply maintaining the parks we already have, let along building new ones, has become a burden for the cash-strapped city, and represents a major area that willing benefactors and philanthropists with both large budgets and small can help. This need will never go away.
While plans are still being discussed for how to pay for the maintenance at Spring Street Park (earlier public-private partnerships fell apart), I can assume that private donations will have a place and I will update this if more information becomes available.
The LA Parks Foundation provides a great opportunity for anyone to donate to parks across the city, along with a searchable database of parks and a variety of ways to contribute. LA Department of Parks and Recreation also has an adopt-a-park program, though it’s certainly focused more towards companies. In many ways, the outpouring of support from local residents helping to clean up and maintain the park at LAPD Headquarters has been inspiring (as opposed to the Occupy group that willfully destroyed nearby City Hall Park).
As land is scarce, we need to find ways to contribute to the city’s public space other than donating ranch land. Much of this can come in the form of supporting maintenance, but this does nothing for he desperate need for more park land around most of the city. I have high hopes for many of the spaces currently occupied by flat, surface parking lots (as Spring Street Park once was), though I doubt a parking lot operator will donate space. It will come at a high price, but buying a parking lot and turning it over to the city for a park is certainly a possibility if any of the more wealthy among us is looking for their way to contribute.
Other Posts in the Series:
Civic Philanthropy: How Can Cities Leverage Donations?
Civic Philanthropy: Education
Civiv Philanthropy: Transit