Help on way for scruffy city parks

This city's popular "river walk" -- a meandering footpath along the banks of the San Antonio river, interspersed with restaurants, shops, and other commerce -- is the kind of well-kept urban park most cities only dream of these days.

Citizen pressure to hold down local taxes has forced many city park departments to cut services and maintenance at a time when urban recreational facilities are in greater demand. The use of parks is rising as higher gasoline prices force city residents to seek nearby recreation, according to a recent assessment of outdoor leisure activity in the United States by the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS), a federal agency.

Help is on the way, however. Many city parks will get needed repairs this year under a new federal grants program. City officials and recreation specialists are delighted with the prospects; as evidenced at a recent conference in San Antonio on urban recreation.

"New park and recreation investment can be the critical factor in revitalizing city neighborhoods," said Philip Hammer, a Washington consultant who has helped a number of cities develop recreation plans.

The Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program, authorized by 1978 legislation, is the first federal program to target aide specifically at city parks. Some $725 million in federal grants, to be coupled with 30 percent local financing, will be spent on park rehabilitation over the next five years. Grant awards began late in 1979.

The sum is modest when compared to the need. It would take the entire $725 million to fully repair and restore the mammoth park and recreation system of New York alone, that city has estimated.

Yet the grant program will go a long way in focusing the attention of urban park officials on "quality, not quantity," asserts Sam L. Hall, chief of urban programs for HCRS, which is administering the program. The majority to the funds must be used for repairing existing facilities, not building new ones.

City parks have been beset with rapidly rising maintenance costs due to increased vandalism and defacing of public property. The operating and maintenance expenses of most city parks now comprise 50 to 90 percent of their total budgets, the HCRS assessment found.

Mr. Hall says he believes that using the grants primarily for rehabilitation will help cities catch up with stampeding maintenance costs.

Grants awarded to date, totaling some $55 million indicate the thrust of the program:

* New Orleans will receive $400,000 to rebuild a rundown recreation center that serves four poor neighborhoods in the city.

* Buffalo, N.Y., with its grant of $900,000 will replace a public swimming pool that has been closed.

* Seattle is receiving $600,000 to make all its city parks accessible to the handicapped. Curbs and stairways will be redesigned to accommodate wheelchairs, for example.

Public sentiment to hold down taxes or actually reduce them, as in California with Proposition 13, is forcing urban park administrators to seek new nongovernment sources of funding.

"Parks today are relying more on user fees, more on volunteer workers, and more on donations," HCRS director Chris Delaporte said in an interview.

Cities now recover about 12 percent of their costs from user fees on park facilities. These include contracts with concessionaires as well as fees for the use of golf courses, baseball diamonds, ice rinks, and other park facilities.

Urban parks receive federal help through a variety of sources. CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) provides government-paid manpower, the Land and Water Conservation Fund provides money for land acquisition and development, and community development bloc grants help finance the construction of indoor recreation facilities.

The federal government, HCRS estimates, provides about 35 percent of all recreation funds used by county and local governments, and its share has been growing.

While new revenue sources such as user fees are seen by local park officials as holding some promise for their financial plight, many worry that at some point the charges could discourage park use.

The long-term answer for parks, according to Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, is to be sure that recreation remains a high priority of city financing.

"The pressure to redistribute resources away from parks is very real. But we must begin to see that recreation is not a luxury we can afford to neglect," he suggested at the conference.

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