Thank you to the Pioneer Press for the extensive coverage of the Parkland Dedication ordinance, both with news coverage on August 18 and 19 and with the editorial on Sunday, August 23.
According to the American Planning Association report, How Cities Use Parks for Economic Development, “Parks provide intrinsic environmental, aesthetic, and recreation benefits to our cities. They are also a source of positive economic benefits. They enhance property values, increase municipal revenue, bring in homebuyers and workers, and attract retirees. At the bottom line parks are a good financial investment for a community.”
I would also add that healthier citizens reduce medical costs for employers and governments and that healthier neighbors mean happier neighbors. Kids that exercise do better in school, building a better workforce for the future and increasing potential earning power. Parks filter our water and cleanse our air. Green spaces cool the urban heat island. Parks are habitat for pollinators and serve as wildlife corridors. They provide a place for community building.
According to the local group, Growth & Justice, minorities are less likely to own a home than white folks. Therefore, the lack of neighborhood parkland disproportionately affects people of color at a higher rate than whites. At a time when the country is wrestling with equity issues, it is imperative upon us to reflect how our public policies quietly build inequities into our system.
St. Paul recently surpassed 300,000 inhabitants. The Met Council estimates that between 2010 and 2040, 826,000 more people will call the metro area home, bringing the total population to nearly 3.7 million. Most of that growth is projected in the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Using 4.5% and 0.5% as the parkland dedication rates going forward, parkland throughout St. Paul will be inadequate to meet growing demand.
There are a couple points in the Pioneer Press editorial worth commenting on. For starters, the ordinance the City Council is poised to approve changes “may” to “shall” dedicate, making the ordinance an option rather than a requirement.
Secondly, the $800,000 generated by the parkland dedication ordinance since 2007. Technically, that should be $600,000 because $200,000 of that was received through parkland diversion, that is, when parkland is sold. The two categories are exact opposites, actually. Dedication brings land and money into the system for support of parks and diversion brings money in when parkland is broken up. To put this in context, last year, Brooklyn Park collected $870,000 in dedication and in 2013, Woodbury collected $1.3 million. It has taken St. Paul 8 years to collect $600,000.
Thirdly, an increase of 93 percent for residential developments and a decrease of 29 percent for commercial and industrial properties noted in the editorial. The current ordinance is based on a percentage of estimated market value of the land tied to increased parking spaces created at platting and permitting and the proposed ordinance is unbundling dedication from parking spaces.
At platting, the percentage currently used is a maximum of 2%. If a cash-in-lieu fee is paid rather than land dedicated, the cash-in-lieu fee is currently charged at 33% of 2% instead of 100% of 2%. Thus, by making it more equitable in the proposed ordinance by using the same dollar value for both land and cash-in-lieu, the cash amount collected will go up by 66%. That is the proposed ordinance, and that is the right thing to do. Why should a developer be penalized by contributing land and benefit by paying cash? It was an inequitable practice and should be fixed.
The platting rate for residential development is being proposed to change from a maximum of 2% to a maximum of 9% and commercial and industrial is being proposed to change from 2% to 4% maximums. However, the ordinance also contains language that if the developer and city don’t agree on land, a fee will be paid instead. Firstly, “fee” is murky language that should be changed to “cash-in-lieu fee” so it is clear. Secondly, in effect it continues the current inequity of taking a lesser amount in cash because the “fee” is now shifted to permitting, where the percentages are lower. At permitting, which is where St. Paul collects cash-in-lieu rather than platting in the proposed ordinance, the percentage is proposed at maximums of 4.5% for residential and 0.5% for commercial. There are also multiple exemptions, meaning these maximums will seldom, if ever, be reached.
Fixing the inequity of only charging 33% instead of 100% of the maximums when cash is paid instead of land dedicated, however, makes the proposed ordinance seem as if its creating an undue hardship by increasing the rate at such a high percentage, up to 93%. It is understandable why anyone would look at that and wonder how Friends of the Parks could be advocating for more. Let’s continue to dissect the ordinance…
At permitting, the proposed ordinance would change residential projects from a maximum 7% currently collected to a maximum of 4.5% and commercial and industrial maximum from 2% to 0.5%. As you can see, in both instances, the maximums are going down substantially.
Keep in mind that most of our neighboring communities are collecting 10% at both permitting and platting for residential, commercial, and industrial developments. Maplewood, who has 9% dedication, balances that lower percentage out by also collecting on governmental and institutional developments. St. Paul does not include those categories, although the Friends of the Parks’ amendment includes them. (Plus, how is a need created by parkland different whether the project is being platted or permitted?)
Additionally, the proposed ordinance has language that rather than collecting 4.5% cash-in-lieu for residential, there would be a per unit residential fee instead. The fee, $1,200.00 is embedded in the ordinance, meaning that if St. Paul wanted to adjust that fee, either for inflation or to make it more in line with our neighbors’ fees, which average $3,284.00 per unit, the entire ordinance will need to be re-visited. That is a lengthy and time-consuming process. Friends of the Parks is hoping that the Council will remove the specified amount from the ordinance and set it in a separate document. Putting a dollar amount in an ordinance is just bad policy, plain and simple. It makes the ordinance static, rather than dynamic.
If St. Paul passes this ordinance, setting the rates at permitting (when most parkland dedication is collected) at 4.5% for residential and 0.5% for commercial and industrial, we will have an ordinance that is well below that of our neighbors at 10%. City Council President, Russ Stark, commented at the City Council meeting on August 19 that this ordinance should be revisited every few years, perhaps in five years. He went on to say that maybe the development market will have changed by then.
According to Minnesota Public Radio, Minneapolis is on track to set an economic development record for the third year running. Development is booming. If St. Paul waits five years to put an ordinance in place that puts us on a level playing field with others in the region, we will have lost out on five years’ worth of booming development dollars. In addition, if we are to adjust our ordinance to the rate of our neighbors, that means that the ordinance about to be put in place would set our rates at 9% and 4% at platting and 4.5% and 0.5% at permitting (again, remember we hardly ever plat land because we are mostly-developed and therefore mostly-platted and if a developer doesn’t want to give land at platting, the rates then convert to the lower permitting rates) it would be a huge ask in five years to change all those rates to 10%. In short, not only is the Council set to approve a weak ordinance, it will take a long, long time to get the ordinance adjusted to where it should be today if we wish to be competitive in the region.
According to the city, we have 11.7% city parkland. If we want to maintain that level of parkland and increase it as adopted city plans, such as The Great River Passage Master Plan call for, 12% is both necessary and reasonable. There have been multiple community meetings regarding the development of the Ford Site, with St. Paul advertising it as a “world-class” development. How can we hope to achieve “world-class” status with a parkland dedication ordinance that is an option and establishes the rates below that of our neighbors and at our current level of parkland? The Ford Site is privately owned. Our zoning code and parkland dedication ordinance are the only tools by which the community can influence that development.
The Trust for Public Land (TPL) says we have 15.3% parkland if we add in Ramsey County parks and federal parkland. Bloomington has 36% parkland and the courts have upheld their 10% parkland dedication. Even though we were rated Number One Park system in the country (tied with Minneapolis) its obvious that we don’t have too much parkland. In fact, of the other cities included in the TPL survey, Portland, Fremont, Boston, Jersey City, Oakland, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Honolulu all have more parkland than St. Paul.
I proudly display my sticker that says we are the Number One Park system in the country. We are very, very fortunate to have dedicated and hard-working folks, not to mention very nice folks, in our Parks Department. But, to say that we should have a parkland dedication ordinance at 4.5% and 0.5% because we have enough parkland is a disservice to St. Paul’s citizens of today and those of tomorrow.
On May 20, 2015, a Pioneer Press article by Frederick Melo and Tad Vezner quoted former New York City Parks Commissioner and now Senior Vice President and Director of City Park Development for the Trust for Public Land Adrian Benepe, “Parks are not just a nice amenity. A good park system definitely contributes to the tax base. We’re finding the great, livable, economically viable cities of the country also have strong park systems.” He went on to say that cities such as New York, Boston, and Seattle have started a friendly competition to improve, expand and market their park spaces, partly as a way to lure families, working professionals, retirees, and employers back into the city.
Ask any kid who has ever played King or Queen of the Mountain to tell you what happens when you become King or Queen. He or she will tell you that the collective goal of all the others is to knock the King or Queen off the perch. Such is true when a poll shows you at Number One of anything. You can bet that all the others are working hard to knock you off the perch.
Regarding Wednesday’s upcoming City Council meeting, take a look at the item immediately preceding the parkland dedication ordinance. It is the soccer stadium resolution.
The August 23 editorial quoted St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer as saying, “People look around and see a vacant lot and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a park here?’ Everyone says, ‘Absolutely.’” The editorial goes on to say that Kramer said you have to acknowledge that, “this parcel of land will never generate taxes for the city of St. Paul. It will never have a job on it; will never have somebody drawing a salary.”
Therefore, at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, the writing on the wall suggests St. Paul will no longer require developers to contribute land for public parks and trails but will ask citizens to pay for private development of a professional soccer stadium. The professional soccer players will have a park, but the local kids that want to play soccer will not.
It doesn’t matter where you fall on the stadium argument, the fact is that with the resolution before the Council the stadium will be removed from the property tax rolls forever. Apparently, the idea that the stadium will generate minimum wage jobs and major salaries for a few lucky folks makes it a better deal than having green space accompany development throughout the city. How does that equate to the notion that, “The great, livable, economically viable cities of the country also have strong park systems”?
If that isn’t painful enough, the Chamber argues we shouldn’t be requiring developers to contribute to an economic asset, a park, because they don’t want to deter development. The Chamber is arguing for 0% parkland dedication for commercial and industrial development. If the Chamber has its way, the soccer stadium, therefore, would contribute $0.00 for public land for community kids to play soccer on at the same time the soccer stadium is removed from the property tax rolls.
Recently, Minnesota was named, “Best State for Business” by CNBC. If the fear is that a strong ordinance would deter development, why then hasn’t the 2007 weak ordinance skewed development in favor of St. Paul? Perhaps development is happening at record-breaking levels in Minneapolis BECAUSE they are funding their parks and trails as development occurs and building green space into their communities in the process. For example, the Midtown Greenway sparked $200 million in development, with 10% parkland dedication. The Greenway sparked development, the development supports the Greenway and now there is a healthier tax base to maintain the Greenway. A basic, fundamental way to approach economic development that is working for our neighbors.
The editorial went on: “While they benefit St. Paul, we fail to realize, Kramer told us, that ‘parks are a net drain on a city and that there is a tipping point.’ If you keep adding parks and recreation enters, ‘finally you run out of money to maintain them all.’” Last year, $1.6 million was cut from the Parks budget and of the remaining amount, $75,000 is now budgeted annually for maintenance of CHS Field. Perhaps that may account for lack of maintenance funding.
The editorial concluded, “When it comes to stewardship of our treasured parks, a wise City Council will strike a careful balance that acknowledges the value of our green spaces to our quality of life and the importance of development to our vitality. Seeking that balance may leave St. Paul with parkland dedication rates that are lower than its neighbors’. So be it. In finding its way, St. Paul’s never been afraid to be a bit of an outlier.”
The Economic Value of Open Space by the Wilder Foundation stated, “Nearly two-thirds of Twin Cities residents would pay between 10 percent and 25 percent more for a home within walking distance of open space.” That is quite a return on investment.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust, Minnesota weathered the recent recession better than most other states because of its diversified tax structure. The parkland dedication ordinance is a tool to diversify the funding structure of our parks. Clearly, an important tool, indeed.
In summary, I am proud to live in St. Paul and agree that St. Paul has never been afraid to be a bit of an outlier. Let’s hope that this time around, that equates to taking a leadership role in building and sustaining our park and trail system, not just for us, but for our kids and grandkids. Keep in mind, a good trail system is a bonus for the entire metro area, too. St. Paul, I challenge you to be an outlier, to be a leader and to pass a parkland dedication ordinance that is BETTER than any other in the metro. Let Minneapolis compare themselves to us and say, “St. Paul, now they know how to do it.”