Open access vs. donors' influence

Private dollars procure amenities - and influence - in public parks.

Soon after a great fire had gutted much of Chicago's lakefront property, city fathers decreed it should be "forever open, clear, and free."

But more than a century later, visitors walking downtown might be a little perplexed by Millennium Park, this summer's addition to the city's lakefront. For on its "open, clear, and free" space sit the Harris Theater, the Pritzker Pavilion, the Crown Fountain, and the SBC Sculpture and Plaza - not to mention the Bank One Promenade, Wrigley Square, and McCormick Tribune Plaza.

It's a startling welcome to a new kind of Logo Land, where public spaces are funded substantially with private money. Although the practice isn't new, it's a trend that's accelerating in the United States and even spreading overseas.

At a time when government funding for parks and other urban spaces is declining, it raises a big question about control over public facilities: Whose park is it, anyway?

So far, the privatization of Chicago's newest park has generated peculiarities but not protests.

For example: A week after Millennium Park's grand opening as a gift to the people of Chicago, the property was closed to visitors while the city prepared the grounds for an invitation-only fundraising event. The event benefited the park, and no other special access has been promised to donors.

Nevertheless, the message is clear, observers say.

"You get what you pay for," says Brent Ryan, codirector of the City Design Center of the University of Illinois at Chicago. "When the private sector pays for public space, you get demands on that space you wouldn't otherwise."

Then there's the bandshell controversy. The futuristic structure swoops and dips wildly and sports bristling metal fins on its roof - "like an exploded Coke can," quips one local author.

That look wasn't the first choice of designer Frank Gehry. "Frank settled on one design, a Miesian scheme, very simple - none of this exuberance," says Edward Uhlir, the park's project manager. But since the $15 million bandshell was being underwritten by local philanthropist Cindy Pritzker, her preference for a design more readily identifiable as a "Gehry" won out, says Mr. Uhlir.

Some proponents defend such control. "The private sector can do what the public can't," says John Bryan, chairman of the fundraising committee for Millennium Park. It can "say: 'Do your masterpiece and don't worry about the cost.' "

Chicago, which gave control of the lakefront acreage to the nonprofit Millennium Park Inc., is not the only city to "sell off" pieces of public land to private philanthropy.

Since the formation of New York's Central Park Conservancy in 1980, groups of private citizens have taken on the task of securing funds to repair and maintain many central city parks, including Forest Park in St. Louis and Piedmont Park in Atlanta.

Many of these fundraising groups have also undertaken responsibility for programming and parks management.

In some cases, the process has gone too far, some experts argue. "If an adjunct fundraising operation comes into existence, that's wonderful, but it needs to follow the plan and the priorities of the [park] agency, with decisions publicly made," says Peter Harnick of the Trust for Public Lands, which urges increased private support for public open space.

But the tail can seem to wag the dog, with the definition of "park" changing based on donor requirements.

The original $150 million public budget for Millennium Park was "nothing but a garage with grass over it," says Mr. Uhlir. Instead, the new $475 million space includes numerous amenities - a bicycle transportation center and a densely landscaped garden as well as the theater, bandshell, sculpture, and fountain - each made largely to the donors' order and all on only 24.5 acres.

No wonder parks subsidized by private money tend to be more cluttered - or full of amenities, as the case may be - than those supported by tax money. They have to satisfy donors' desire to commemorate themselves. Great parks of the 19th century typically included similar monuments, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park and the museums clustered in St. Louis's Forest Park and Chicago's Grant Park.

"People don't want to pour their money into generic green space," says Professor Ryan.

But private money goes to public facilities for a simple reason: Public money isn't available. Chicago's choice was not between an arts park built with public money and one built with private money, but between an arts park built with private money and no arts park at all. Likewise, the various conservancies managing public parks nationwide came into being because even crown jewels like Central Park were being neglected by city governments strapped for cash for garbage collection and schools.

Private donations may increase the amount of money available to parks, or they may simply drive out public money, letting city governments off the hook.

New York City has seen both trends. In Central Park, "no matter how much money was raised, the city promised not to reduce the fair share Central Park would get," says Mr. Harnick of the Trust for Public Lands. "So three times as much goes there as would otherwise."

But in the city's lesser-known parks, New York's Independent Budget Office found in 1997 that private contributions did not make up for cuts in the city's parks budget.

Even if there is additional private funding, it may not be equitably distributed. Donors tend to support parks in high-profile locations. "Would the same money have been leveraged for pocket parks in neighborhoods where Marshall Field doesn't want to put his name?" asks Professor Ryan. "Never."

Pittsburgh addressed the inequity issue by transforming a proposal for a Schenley Park Conservancy into an agreement that a public-private partnership would support all four of the city's major parks.

Groups like the City Parks Foundation in New York support parks in low-income neighborhoods, but their fundraising is dwarfed by that of the conservancies funding higher profile parks.

The US leads the way in privatization of public space, but it has a few followers, such as Britain. Canada, on the other hand, remains firmly in the public-funding camp, as does France. While the Chinese government has begun charging user fees, those are to limit use of parks overwhelmed by demand rather than to alleviate the burden of public funding.

As for the US in the future, "it would be no surprise if all new parks were expected to be paid for privately," Ryan says, "even the national parks."

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