Don’t treat developers as enemy: New York park expert

20 October


The overseer of New York’s burgeoning parklands has a message for Australian urban planners in the context of the intensifying debate about population growth and urban density: don’t treat property developers as the enemy.

“They are partners – they build things. We have never seen them as the enemy but we have to make sure they are on the same page,’’ said New York City Department of Parks commissioner Mitchell Silver.

“They want to know what is predictable and what the rules are. In exchange you want to make sure they help us to build a quality city.”

In New York – once renowned as one of the world’s densest urban jungles -- that has meant building and planning the parks first and then the developments and not the other way around.

“We don’t want public spaces to be an afterthought, it has to be planned up front,” he said.

In his role Mr Silver is responsible for managing 1950 public spaces, including the legendary Central Park and spaces that have recently emerged from former industrial no-go zones. These include Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Domino Park and High Line Park, an elevated public space on 2.3 kilometres of former freight rail line.

Brooklyn Bridge Park was formed as a result of a private public partnership, involving a long term lease to developers Starwood Capital Group that built a 194-room hotel and 108-unit complex on a former shipping wharf within the park.

“The sale of the property has funded the upkeep of the park for at least the next 50 years,” Mr Silver said. “We are seeing these models more and more.”

For developers, there’s good reason to treat open space planning requirements as more than an inconvenience: the New York experience suggests that proximity to well-maintained parkland adds an average 10 per cent to the value of a property, regardless of whether the particular apartment has a view of the greenery.

“Conversely, being close to a poorly maintained one decreases property values by 5 to 10 per cent.”

For buyers and renters, he said, proximity to parks and open spaces is more highly valued than traditional amenities such as access to schools, especially on the part of empty nesters flocking back to the city.

“I always like to say that people eat and sleep in their apartments but they live in the parks.”

Locally, developers may be slower to adopt parkland as an integral part of their projects but there are signs that this attitude is changing.

In Melbourne’s inner East Brunswick, boutique developer Antipodean Land Developments plans to build a medium density housing cluster between Nicholson Street and the existing Balfe Park.

Straddling four interconnected buildings, Balfe Park Lane will incorporate 1.2 hectares of park space and the “voluntary inclusion” of a lane to enable public access.

Across town in Kensington, Impact Investment Group plans to include an 1800 sq m town square and park in a later stage of its $50m redevelopment of the historic Younghusband wool stores.

Mr Silver said planning negotiations routinely involved a “conversation” about what the developer would offer by way of genuine open and publicly accessible spaces.

“I would encourage them to develop the parks and open spaces first and the development after that,” he said.

In Melbourne this week to attend the 2018 International Parks and Leisure Congress, Mr Silver was impressed by the city’s expansive parkland and proliferation of pedestrian bridges. “Melbourne is known as one of the most liveable cities and it is going in the right direction,” he said.

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