Conservancy aiming to repair tattered parks
By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
In Riverview Park, erosion has caused a road to fall off the side of a hill.In Highland Park it is some of the formally planted, century-old oaks and elms that have fallen, poking holes in the cathedral-like green canopy over the parks serpentine drives.
In Frick Parks gatehouse roofs there are holes that let the sky in too.
And everywhere invasive species have, well, invaded. Wild grape vines are choking trees in Frick, Schenley and Riverview parks. And in Highland and Schenley, 1970s-era bus shelters transplanted from East Liberty to be picnic shelters are gagging folks with aesthetic sensibilities.
Looking for comfort facilities in the parks? There is one rest room open in Schenley. If you cant wait, theres another one in Highland.
If youre going to Riverview, go before you go -- theres none there.
No doubt about it, Pittsburghs four major parks are in shabby shape. Theyre all about a century old and look every day of it. The last time any real attention was given them was in the early 1940s.
Decades of under-funding, neglect and poor or nonexistent planning have turned what should be the citys emerald necklace into a string of lost settings and tarnished images.
As bad as they are, they are not unique. Rather they suffer from the same chronic maladies as parks in many other cities where essential services are in demand and tax bases have eroded faster than a steep Panther Hollow slope during a thunderstorm.
With the Murphy administration willing but financially unable to give the four regional asset parks the care they need, their salvation may lie with a private non-profit group, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
Formed in 1996 as the Schenley Park Conservancy, the group changed its name and focus just six months later to include Frick, Riverview and Highland -- all the citys regional asset parks.
In June 1998, the conservancy signed an agreement with the city to form a public-private partnership for the purpose of raising money for the four parks that sprawl over 1,700 city acres.
In doing so it is following the lead of conservancies in New York, Boston, Buffalo, Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Louisville, New Orleans and a host of other cities that are already moving ahead with plans to recapture the former glory, grandeur and greenery of their urban parks.
Because most metropolitan areas are constrained by geography and limited budgets to concentrate resources on existing park land, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Benchmarks measure -- metropolitan area residents per central county park acre -- shows little difference from two years ago.
The big change, and a strong trend fueled by quality of life considerations, is the rehabilitation and restoration of urban parks.
"Cities have been facing shrinking budgets, and many find it easy to cut parks funding because parks dont vote, said Meg Cheever, president of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. "Our parks are facing real maintenance, rehabilitation and design standard issues. They may look green and beautiful now, but look below the surface and you can get pretty worried.
Cheever said a never released 1991 city parks study put a $20 million price tag on needed capital improvements, maintenance and restoration projects.
The Pittsburgh parks drainage systems, sewers and water lines, all about 100 years old and badly maintained, are worn out, said Patricia ODonnell, a Vermont landscape architect who has worked on parks in Louisville, Rochester and Buffalo. She was in Pittsburgh recently as consultant to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
Walls are crumbling. Invasive species have damaged the forests, by one estimate killing one of every three trees. And many of the original park designs and landscapes have been lost.
"The grand tree rows along the Highland Park drives, the linear trees that produce the cathedral ceilings and the dappled light, are 1890 plantings approaching the end of their natural life," ODonnell said. "How will they be replaced?
Each park has lost at least a half dozen defining, historic, structures -- bandstands, boathouses, race tracks, fountains, stables and monuments -- that can be found now only on dusty planning documents or faded photographs. Each loss has chipped away another chunk of character.
"People should appreciate that parks are designed landscapes. To make them, hills were moved, lakes created, streams rerouted. They are the original installation art, Cheever said.
"Our task is to look at the historical design, combine that with the on-going biological assessment and usage needs, and come up with a plan that incorporates it all.
That the parks fill an important need is not in dispute. With a grant from the Laurel Foundation, the conservancy conducted surveys that found 95 percent of park users and 75 percent of county residents believe the four regional parks are important to their quality of life.
"We have 725 paid members, Cheever said. "We havent mobilized as much yet, but that kind of interest shows theres a constituency out there for those parks.
Duane Ashley, the new city parks director, welcomes the planning effort, as well as the promise of public interest and money to implement the plans.
"We havent had a park planner in this city since 1993. Our major thrust has been day-to-day programming, Ashley said. "We just havent paid much attention to planning in the parks for the last 10 years.
"I look at the conservancy work as a blessing of volunteers and benefactors who feel very philanthropic and are coming forward now to stop the degradation.
Last month, at a series of public meetings attended by only a couple of dozen people, consultants released preliminary task force reports on all the parks, assessing their ecological and design features, their images and "opportunities for restoration and renovation. Final master plans will take another year.
"The city seems as interested as we are in developing a master plan for how the parks will be managed in the future, Cheever said. "Everybody wants to find some way to make it work.
The search for a way to make it work in Pittsburgh is bound to be harder than finding examples of conservancies working well.
Pittsburghs park conservancy is cast in the image of successful programs in New York City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo and Atlanta. Cheever said her group has been in contact with many of those, and she cites their successes with a mixture of admiration and envy.
In New York City, the Central Park Conservancy, established in 1980, manages the 843-acre park, designed by master landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, under a contract with the city. The conservancy raises two-thirds of the parks operating budget, funds major capital improvements, provides horticultural care and visitor programs. It recently finished a $72 million restoration of the parks Great Lawn.
The Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta was formed in 1989 to rehabilitate a 189-acre Olmstead park that is noteworthy for its historic and environmental value, but that had become a haven for drug dealing.
A 1995 master plan calls for $25 million in park renovations. The city has put up $8 million for infrastructure improvements -- sewers, drainage, water lines -- with the remaining two-thirds of the money raised by the conservancy for structural improvements. Pilot projects include renovated park entrances and conversion of a dilapidated boathouse into a visitors center.
An agreement with the city stipulates that the conservancys funding will supplement, not supplant, the citys park spending.
"There isnt the tax base in the city to take the park where it needs to go, said Debbie McCown, executive director of the 1,000-member conservancy. "Weve just completed a $6.5 million fund-raising campaign designed to make people understand that the work of the conservancy is important to how we get there.
In St. Louis, Forest Park Forever has taken over restoration of its namesake park, a 1,370-acre behemoth, also designed by Olmstead, that contains the citys zoo, museums of art and history, a science center, outdoor theater and three golf courses.
"We didnt have any trouble getting people interested. The golfing community, the nearby neighborhoods, environmentalists -- everyone loves the park so much, they were insistent about being included in the planning, said James Mann, executive director of Forever. "Of course there has to be some promotion of the process initially to raise awareness.
Forever completed a communitywide master planning process in 1993, and is in the middle of an $86 million fund-raising program. Half the money will come from the city, but Mann expects to tap local foundations, local businesses, boards of directors and individuals for the other half.
Missouri has awarded the park group a $6 million tax credit that should generate $12 million in giving from individuals, and the Danforth Foundation has pledged a $5 million challenge grant.
To show the people of the Show Me State it could accomplish its goals, Forest Park Forever has already restored a Victorian Style footbridge and a bandstand, relit park monuments and planted trees.
"The park is vitally important, not only for what it is, but what it represents, Mann said. "Its quality of life and stability. It makes a statement about whats important.
If Pittsburgh has any advantage in coming late to the park restoration game, it is that it doesnt need to reinvent the wheel.
The conservancys progress from an all volunteer organization two years ago to one with three paid staffers that is in the midst of developing a long-term master plan for the parks has been aided by information shared with conservancies in New York, Louisville and many other cities.
Operating and program grants have come from the Laurel, R.K. Mellon and Allegheny foundations. Collaborations with the Garden Club of Allegheny County and the Highland Park Community Club have been forged.
"To go from an idea two years ago to an organization that is positioned to do some projects and is developing a master plan with the city and engaged in public education about the parks is doing a lot, Cheever said.
She said it took a year, until June 1998, to sign a public-private partnership agreement with the city. It also took time to find historic park landscape drawings.
"We couldnt do anything until we were officially part of the public-private partnership. And we couldnt just start digging without knowing the historic designs, Cheever said. "Sometimes it seems like things take more time than youd like, but they do.
To spur public interest and private contributions -- and based on suggestions provided by other conservancies -- Cheevers group has planned four "pilot projects, one for each park, with a combined price tag of more than $3 million.
"Conservancies in other cities have urged us not to wait until the master plan, now half-way done, is finished, Cheever said. "We dont want to be perceived as all talk and no action. We dont want to wait to do something.
In Highland, the plan is to restore the grand entry garden, a fountain and reflecting pool. At Riverview, viewed as the "orphan park because it is most neglected, the stonework around the main entrance will be restored.
Fricks rotary and gatehouse area will be repaired, and a visitor center will be opened in Schenley, across from Phipps Conservatory, in an original park building that was a nature center in the 1970s and now houses engineering offices for the Panther hollow Bridge reconstruction.
Cheever said the Conservancy wants to sign a lease with the city to operate the visitor center.
"The visitor center will make people using the park feel like someone is home, Cheever said. "It will be a place to get information, trail maps, or get some water.
It will even have a rest room.