All too often Placemaking is viewed as a luxury, something nice but not essential to a project’s success. This is especially true in lean times like these, when every dollar is precious and paying too much attention to “frills” can feel frivolous or even wasteful.
But, in fact, Placemaking generates a big return on investment. Project for Public Spaces has seen this to be true all over the world, from a refurbished a bus stop in L.A., which sparked the retail rebirth of a whole street, to the revitalization of entire cities.
Two projects we’ve worked on recently show how creating great public places pays off as a tool for economic development. Paying attention to the simple principles of Placemaking can leverage millions of private dollars in return at the same time as sparking retail vitality and attracting new residents and business.
DISCOVERY GREEN, HOUSTON,TEXAS
A New Park Brings Vitality to an Overlooked Part of Houston
The new Discovery Green in Houston is the city’s first major downtown park. The project transformed 12 acres of underused green space and parking lots near the convention center into an urban oasis.
Working with Discovery Green Conservancy—a group of local foundations, philanthropists and civic officials—Project for Public Spaces facilitated a community visioning process to develop a program for the new park, which was conceived as “Houston’s backyard.” The PPS plan focused on creating a number of irresistible destinations in Discovery Green, since there were deep fears that no one would use the park in a downtown where only 3,500 people actually live. These destinations range from a one-acre lake with café, interactive fountain, and playground; a market promenade, enlivened by a farmer’s market on Thursdays; a signature restaurant, with event spaces and “tree house” balcony extending into the tree canopy; dog runs for small and large breeds; a stage and sitting lawn; as well as spacious lawns for recreational activities and events. The design was completed by Hargreaves Associates and a management plan was developed by ETM Associates.
The park opened in the spring of 2008, and has been phenomenally successful—an estimated quarter-million people visited the park between April and the end of June. A new restaurant built right in the park, The Grove, is doing far better than its preliminary estimates. According to Guy Hagstette, President of the Discovery Green Conservancy, “The meeting planners love the park, and it has helped Houston attract conventions and fill downtown hotel rooms.”
As soon as plans for the park were announced, a new highrise residential building, One Park Place, was proposed by a local developer. It is now nearing completion. The building, with 21,000 feet of retail and 345 apartments, represents approximately $145 million of new investment. Last March, a new$300 million office building and retail center, Discovery Tower, broke ground on the north side of the park. And the city and Houston Endowment are partnering on an RFP for a new convention hotel on the last remaining empty block alongside the park, opposite the existing Hilton Hotel. Current estimates are for a project that will be in the $350-400 million range.
Widespread worries that people would not come to the park, which is located in what was until now an out-of-the-way part of downtown, have disappeared. One reason for Discovery Green’s success is the sense of ownership felt by people in the surrounding community. PPS initiated a series of meetings and workshops with downtown workers, neighborhood residents, cultural and environmental organizations, the Hispanic community, young people, and others. Virtually every group contributed valuable ideas that were incorporated into the park’s plans.
Insiders around Houston say the inspiring and inclusive vision for Discovery Green park helped attract unprecedented levels of funding from private foundations and donors. And those funders stayed engaged in the project, actively contributing to the planning and development of the park through the Houston Downtown Park Corporation and the Discovery Green Conservancy, which manages the park. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle: “The park is attracting development that’s bringing energy to east downtown. And the city’s $41 million investment in Discovery Green, coupled with twice that sum in private funding, has set a standard for parks that will influence public officials and donors for generations, park advocates say.”
CAMPUS MARTIUS, DETROIT, MICHIGAN
The new square that boosted downtown Detroit
Project for Public Spaces partnered with the City of Detroit, the Detroit Department of Transportation and a civic group, the Detroit 300 Conservancy, to reclaim a 1.6 acre concrete island that sat unused in a sea of auto traffic. This spot, Campus Martius, had historically functioned as the heart of downtown and PPS’s concept plan envisioned restoring it as a public space in order to spark a larger revitalization of the area.
Indiana landscape architects Rundell Ernstberger Associates carried through on our ideas, and the park won wide public acclaim when it opened in November 2004, melting widespread cynicism that downtown Detroit was a lost cause. Since it opened, 2.24 million square feet of new or renovated retail and office space has opened or is under construction on lots fronting Campus Martius. More than $450 million in new investments has already gone into the area, with other multimillion dollar projects still underway. Ground floor retail space has greatly increased and approximately 300 new condos and apartments are planned.
The success of the park can be attributed to dedicated management by the Detroit 300 Conservancy, and the huge variety of programming and uses planned each year. The park—which works as a town square—offers grassy lawns, a central fountain and water wall, informal seating for 2,000 people, two retractable stages with light and sound equipment, bocce ball courts, a restored Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and a café with outside seating. A skating rink keeps the park busy through the winter.
An estimated 50,000 people don ice skates each winter, and more than a million visitors enjoy the park throughout the year. Workers from nearby local office buildings frequent Campus Martius, but the wide range of activities also bring in people from Detroit’s suburbs—some of whom haven’t ventured downtown in years. Bob Gregory, President of Detroit 300 Conservancy, says, “The quality of the space attracts everyone from rich to poor. The park has delivered on its promise to be a gathering spot for everybody.”
Campus Martius cost $20 million, $8 million of which came from the Detroit 300 Conservancy as a 300th birthday gift to the city. The Compuware and Ford Motor companies together provided another $8 million, and the balance was covered by the City of Detroit.
For more in depth information and methodology, see the Campus Martius Economic Impact Case Study.