"You can't put a monetary value on public works that enhance the image and quality of life of a city." That sentiment describes the impulse back in the 1890s to build a soaring monument to our civic pride, the Spokane County Courthouse. It also describes Expo '74. Some things in our public life are indeed priceless.
But those words were written in 2004, on the eve of the opening of the most ambitious public space created in America this century — Chicago's Millennium Park. The editorial board at the Chicago Sun-Times was advising its readers to look to the bigger picture. Now, 10 years later, the results are in, and backers of Millennium Park were right: Public investment can return many, many times the initial expenditure.
A 2011 study by the Landscape Architecture Foundation found direct visitor spending had increased because of Millennium Park to the tune of $1.4 billion per year, creating $78 million in new tax revenue for the city. Nearly 5,000 new units of apartments and condos could be traced to the Millennium Park effect; rents are up in the neighborhood, and crime is down.
As our advisory committee met over the past year regarding a fresh plan for Riverfront Park, Millennium Park offered great inspiration. We believe park improvements here can trigger similar economic impacts. It's also a great example of leveraging private dollars: Individuals, foundations and corporations donated $220 million of Millennium Park's $490 million cost. The park's concert pavilion, for example, is named for Jay Pritzker, the Chicago entrepreneur whose family paid $13 million for the honor. Those private dollars also help the park's mission: Millennium Park features about 600 free events a year, including more than 100 free concerts at Pritzker Pavilion.
Spokane is right to be asking questions as a plan winds its way to a potential vote later this year. Yes, $60 million — the amount being discussed for Riverfront Park — is a lot of money. But consider that the city of Tacoma (Tacoma!) just voted in $196 million in park improvements last month. And Expo '74 cost at least $580 million in today's dollars — an investment that saved Spokane from chronic decline.
Our own experiences, along with examples like Millennium Park, show us that investing in our civic future can bring profound returns. "Cities," the Sun-Times added in its editorial, "are defined by progress as much as history." ♦
All this month, I'll be devoting my column to the future of Riverfront Park. To read all the advisory committee recommendations, visit riverfrontparkmasterplan.org. Next week: Expanding our vision.