Monday, October 20, 2014

Parking Problem

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The recession and diminished public funds have left many Valley cities park poor. Remember when you were a kid and spent countless hours scaling the jungle gym and smacking a tetherball at your local park? Or, maybe you have fond memories of your parents pushing you on the swings or catching you at the bottom of the slide. Neighborhood parks play a multifaceted role in the lives of Valley residents, according to Dale Larsen, a professor at Arizona State University’s College of Public Programs and former Parks and Recreation director for the City of Phoenix. Parks provide nature in an urban environment, a place for children to play, a property-value boost for residents and a gathering place for the surrounding neighborhood, he says. “What we need are safe, citizen-driven neighborhood parks that reflect the needs of that community.”

But not all cities in the Valley meet that need. According to the 2013 ParkScore index, a rating system used by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to measure how well the 50 largest cities in the United States are meeting the need for parks, Phoenix scored semi-respectably – finishing in 23rd place – while Mesa clung to the bottom of the list in 46th place. The score is based on park acreage, services, investment and access. According to the Trust for Public Land, the intermediate-low density cities of Phoenix and Mesa should dedicate 8.1 percent of each city’s total area for parks. Phoenix devotes 14.2 percent, but Mesa only 2.6 percent. Other Valley cities deficient in parkland include Glendale at 5.6 percent and Chandler with 3.7 percent. The city of Mesa is working to change their park-deficient status. Voters passed a $70 million bond last November to improve existing parks, which includes playground upgrades, shade features and irrigation systems, as well as new park development. The most high profile of Mesa’s bond projects is the enhancement of Riverview Park, which is being built in conjunction with the new Chicago Cubs spring training facility. Marc Heirshberg, Mesa Parks and Recreation director, says the city hopes to transform Riverview Park into a regional park that will attract people from around the Valley with its unique play equipment. Projects include a 300-linear-foot climbing wall with descending slides, ramadas, splash pads and a 50-foot rope climber. While not the sole cause for the paucity of parks, the recession certainly exacerbated the problem. Surprise, a city that experienced hyper-growth from 2003-2006 and was generating almost $7 million of impact-fee revenue each year dedicated to open-space development and parks and recreation facilities, hasn’t had a new park project in almost eight years, according to Mark Coronado, Surprise’s director of Community and Recreation Services. When the recession hit, residential growth decreased and impact-fee revenue dried up. In 2009, Surprise voters rejected a $185 million general-obligation bond proposal, which included a tennis and multi-purpose center and a bike and skate park. The city of 119,000 has only four public parks, constituting a mere 0.7 percent of its total land space. Once considered a retirement community whose residents were predominately over 60, Surprise has rotated demographically. Now 60 percent of the residents are under 40, many of whom have children, Coronado says. The conversation is beginning to lean toward prioritizing parks, he says, “but we haven’t gotten there yet.” ASU professor Larsen says the Valley’s inadequate park inventory is not about the lack of big, turfed soccer fields or mega-sized swimming pool complexes, but the scarcity of reasonably sized 10- to 30-acre parks within walking or biking distance of neighborhoods. As for Phoenix’s high ParkScore rating, Larsen attributes it to the city’s professional water conservation standards that were implemented to grow and maintain traditional green parks. The flip side is that Maricopa County is oversaturated with turf golf courses, Larsen says. “If you could somehow convert those green golf courses into traditional park areas, we’d be the envy of the world.”

 

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