About two months ago, the Post-Dispatch published an article about a proposal to "sell" 11 acres of Forest Park to Barnes-Jewish Hospital (BJH) for further expansion of their facilities. Although it had previously been reported in the St. Louis Business Journal, this was the first that most St. Louis citizens, including many residents of the adjacent neighborhoods and users of the space, heard about it.
Who knew the land bracketed by Kingshighway, Barnes-Jewish Plaza, Euclid and Clayton Road is part of Forest Park? In fact, from the park's founding in 1874 until the construction of Highway 40 in the 1950s, the main entrance to the Park centered at Kingshighway and Chouteau, directly adjacent. The area was "cut off" from the rest of the park when Kingshighway was realigned to build the cloverleaf entrance and exit ramps to 40.
The Mayor paints this area as being simply the roof of a parking garage. The reality is that it's a working recreational space, serving not only the medical campus' employees and visitors, but also families from the adjacent neighborhoods. It's the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood's gateway to the Park. It's the only public playground within walking distance of the core of the Central West End.
In 1973, the City leased subsurface rights to this area to Barnes Hospital. This allowed the hospital to construct a "parking facility (is to be erected) for the use of the citizenry of the City of St. Louis and the public generally." The City receives a lease payment of approximately $150,000 each year, and Barnes agreed to restore and maintain the destroyed park facilities on top of the new structure. My neighbor Sam Clark remembers with fondness the rose gardens and trellises that once filled that site. He is still angry about the decision to not restore them.
The current proposal changes the terms of Barnes-Jewish Hospital's existing lease on the parkland by allowing construction of buildings on the site. In exchange, BJH will pay about $1.6 million and relocate the existing facilities to other areas to be designated by the City. Areas between Clayton Road and Highway 40, including lands returned to the Park when the Kingshighway interchange is reconstructed, would be appended to the lease.
The supporters of the proposal argue that the lease will provide permanent funding for the maintenance of Forest Park. A reading of the materials provided to the Planning Commission for the May 1 meeting undermines this view. According to this document, the funds from the lease are only dedicated to the Park until "other funds are made available on a dedicated basis to Forest Park maintenance." At that point, the monies revert to the City for maintenance of other parks. In either case, it's a zero sum game: the City removed the line for Forest Park in the 2007 budget, anticipating approval of the lease; one could assume that general park maintenance funding would evaporate as well. Supporters cite the City's financial problems necessitating the deal while our mayor notes a surplus of $9.9 million in the 2006 City budget.
Money is not the issue that has brought the members of Citizens to Protect Forest Park together.
Two key principles that brought our park described by the City of St. Louis's web site as "the heart of our city" back from neglected oblivion are being violated.
In the last ten years, metro area residents have donated more than $46 million to help fund renovations and improvement to Forest Park based on the Master Plan developed through dozens of meetings and broad-based public participation over a two-year period before its approval by the Board of Aldermen in 1995. Among the key goals of the Master Plan is the concept "no net loss of green space."
The deal clearly creates a loss in green space. The citizens of St. Louis rejected this notion for the Art Museum a dozen years ago, and for Children's Hospital in 1976. It sets a precedent for other "isolated, underutilized" parts of Forest Park and other City green spaces to be acquired for private use. In a city that is 80% developed, parklands are an irreplaceable asset that belong to future generations as well as our own.
The proposed lease has been negotiated in a behind-the-scenes process over an 18-month period. The incredible success in raising private donations for Forest Park was founded on the inclusion of people throughout the metro area in planning for the future. Returning to standard City practices of "aldermanic privilege" and back-room deal-making threaten continued widespread private support of the park.
We're concerned that City leaders have chosen a simplistic solution to a very difficult problem.
We urge a return to the democratic principles embodied in the Master Plan process to provide a balanced look at financing the future of the park.
We ask our fellow citizens to shake away their cynicism. This is not a done deal. Join us. Write your public officials a letter. Get a yard sign. Visit www.protectforestpark.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Lisa Selligman moved to the Central West End while attending graduate school, and has not yet found a compelling reason to leave her bird's-eye view of Forest Park. When not chasing her two children around the Hudlin playground, she can be found in front of her computer, attempting to save the planet, writing two blogs and practicing architecture.