Philanthropy’s Green Thumb

Donors are pouring money into parks, including the National Mall. The results are often stunning, but is it the job of private money to spruce up public spaces?

By Drew Lindsay

The chunk of limestone was 5 feet long and a foot wide and weighed about 150 pounds. Installed in the portico ceiling of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial during construction some 70 years ago, it fell one day last fall and shattered on the marble floor more than four stories below.
No one was hurt; it was early morning, likely before tourists were stirring. Yet when National Park Service officials investigated, they found a big problem: Water had been seeping into the ceiling for years, freezing and thawing until pressure popped out the limestone slab.
 
Welcome to the National Mall, 500 acres in Washington, D.C., that half of all Americans will visit in their lifetimes. In history books and the mind’s eye, this is hallowed ground, a place for national celebration and political protest. The reality isn’t so grand. Age, dwindling funds, and the wear and tear of more than 25 million visitors a year have left the Mall tattered. Monuments are cracked. Fountains are broken. Until recent renovations, swaths of grass looked like Dust Bowl Kansas.
 
The Mall has a $450-million backlog of work. The bill for deferred maintenance throughout the agency’s 401 parks and historic sites stands at about $11-billion. Yet the budget has been cut repeatedly in the past decade.
 
What’s the answer? Philanthropy, it appears. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit created to raise money to restore what it calls "America’s Front Yard," will soon announce the first phase of a long-term, $350-million campaign to pay for rehabilitation and capital-improvement projects. The federal government, meanwhile, is expected to pony up $350-million.
 
Such public-private partnerships are being forged nationwide, and philanthropists pouring money into city parks and the National Park System often find themselves managing more than just fundraising events. For instance, New York’s Central Park Conservancy covers 75 percent of the park’s budget and employs 95 percent of the maintenance staff. St. Louis and the conservancy for the 1,300-acre Forest Park, one of the country’s largest city parks, share decision making and split duties like a couple divvying up household chores: The city handles snow removal, trash collection, and sidewalk and building repair; the conservancy tends the gardens and bushes and picks up litter.
 
On the face of it, this mingling of private interests and public spaces seems unholy. Government, you might say, is abrogating its responsibilities to entities with no political accountability. Yet history shows philanthropy regularly assuming what might be considered government’s role. The public-parks movement originated in the 1830s in England, where it "was widely considered that the provision of parks should not be left to the state" but to private citizens, according to scholar Harriet Jordan. Similarly, land grants from philanthropists anchored many of America’s early national parks.
 
Out West, a railroad industry hoping to pack its trains with tourists paid for national-park lodges and improvements that government might never have contemplated. When Congress balked at funding a road for cars in Yosemite National Park, Stephen Mather—an Interior Department official (and later the Park Service’s first director)—rounded up cash from the Sierra Club and philanthropists and, together with his own money, bought a private wagon track that he turned over to the government.
 
Within this heritage, fixing up the Mall with private dollars is business as usual. You can argue that Congress sidestepped its duties when, after a 2011 earthquake, it appropriated only half the $15-million needed to repair the Washington Monument—requiring that the rest come from a private source. (Financier David Rubenstein provided the match.) Yet many memorials on the Mall, including the monument, were built largely with private funds. Philanthropy has also paid for improvements at Mount Rushmore and repairs to the Statue of Liberty.
 
The Trust for the National Mall was started with a similar mission. John "Chip" Akridge, a Washington commercial real-estate developer and chairman of the trust, created the organization after a friend told him of the Mall’s deterioration. He was surprised: He took morning runs there and was thrilled to see the sun rise over the Capitol dome. "I am a Vietnam veteran and a patriot, and I just thank God I was born in this country," he says.
 
But after studying the Mall through the lens of a property manager, Mr. Akridge was disgusted. A longtime Washingtonian whose wealth has been fueled by the city’s growth, he decided to do something. "This had happened on my watch. I couldn’t pass this along to my children."
 
Initially, the trust aims to raise $159-million to restore Constitution Gardens, a forlorn 38 acres between the National World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It is one of three underused areas the Park Service selected in 2010 to improve as destination points for visitors. Each project was to be privately funded, and the agency authorized the trust to oversee contracting and design, hoping a private entity would be more nimble and attract top talent.
 
Not wanting to dictate the look of a park dedicated to democracy, the trust decided not to handpick the designers. Rather, it organized an international competition, with the winners selected by a jury of historians, critics, urban-design experts, and architects.
 
In its new life, Constitution Gardens will feature lawns, meadows, forests, and gathering spaces for tour groups. Its seven-acre lake—now concrete-lined, filled with city tap water, and often topped with dead fish—will be re-engineered to collect rain water and storm runoff from nearby Constitution Avenue.
 
The gardens’ centerpiece will be a glass-enclosed pavilion sporting views of the Washington Monument. It will feature the Mall’s first indoor restaurant as well as rentals for recreation on the lake—fishing poles, model boats, and ice skates.
 
Renderings of the new area are beguiling. They teem with people who sunbathe, picnic, and stroll through gorgeous gardens. The designers imagine that the space will be home to Ultimate Frisbee, yoga classes, and poetry slams. The pavilion’s plaza will host events of up to 4,000 people—a venue desperately needed, park officials say, given that the Mall annually hosts 3,000 concerts, festivals, and other events.
 
‘Peaceful Arms Race’
 
Cities across the country are showcasing similarly dreamy renderings. Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Seattle are among those turning to public-private ventures for parks—competitors in what Adrian Benepe, formerly a New York City parks commissioner, describes as a "peaceful arms race."
 
"A very large gift to a park can literally change the landscape of a city or a town in a way that you couldn’t with a gift for a building on, say, a college campus or at a hospital," says Mr. Benepe, now with the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to creating parks.
 
In the National Park System, philanthropy has increased as visitors come to see themselves as stewards for the future, says Curt Buchholtz, director of major and planned giving for the National Park Foundation. "These are people who want to make sure the parks are taken care of and passed along to their kids and grandkids," he says.
 
Whatever the intentions of donors, their gifts can present thorny issues. As with art and cultural philanthropy, questions arise about whether social services are more deserving. Increased business support also raises the specter of "creeping corporatization," as a public-employees watchdog group warned the Park Service in 2012.
 
In New York, growth in public-private partnerships has left many worried that philanthropy is creating a city park system of haves and have-nots. A state lawmaker has proposed forcing wealthy park-affiliated nonprofits—the Central Park Conservancy chief among them—to give 20 percent of operating funds to parks in need.
 
Even the most successful public-private partnerships walk a fine line. A case in point: the 1980s campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. A public commission led by Lee Iacocca, then the chairman of Chrysler, was named to spearhead the effort but did little. Work devolved to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the nonprofit raising money for the restoration, with the Park Service overseeing.
 
Controversy dogged the project, including allegations of mismanagement and exploitation of the Statue of Liberty image by corporate sponsors. Ultimately, however, the campaign netted $305-million. An investigation by Congress’s General Accounting Office found that although federal oversight was at times weak, the result was a fully funded restoration, completed in time for the statue’s 1986 centennial celebration. "The foundation and Park Service worked hand in hand," says the nonprofit’s longtime president, Stephen Briganti. "A decision was never made by the foundation without the partnership and approval of the National Park Service."
 
The foundation continues to pay for restoration of Ellis Island—earning acclaim from historians but also an occasional rebuke. In 2004, with the Statue of Liberty closed for more than two years awaiting new post-9/11 security measures funded by the foundation, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley suggested that the Park Service "might have given too much control of a prized national asset to a private foundation."
 
Though such critiques have bite, they aren’t likely to slow the growth of public-private park partnerships. About half of major cities now have park conservancies, according to a new report by the Trust for Public Land. The days when parks were "to be carried on the shoulders of city government" are over, the report states.
 
The Park Service, for its part, is eager to build more revenue-raising partnerships for its facilities throughout the nation. "Park philanthropy has not reached its potential," declared a recent report by an advisory committee to the Park Service’s director, Jonathan Jarvis. That committee recommended more prominent, yet "tasteful," recognition of donors and suggested "reimagining the allocation of authority and control" in partnerships.
 
Critics will watch all these efforts for signs of mismanagement, commercialism, and undue donor influence. "What one donor might consider a ‘tasteful’ billboard-size acknowledgment of a contribution might seem like an unsightly blight on the landscape to a visitor," says Jacqueline Vaughn, coauthor of Philanthropy and the National Park Service.
 
Hot Dogs or Steaks?
 
The Mall campaign has avoided serious missteps so far, but battles may lie ahead. Judy Scott Feldman, an art historian and a Mall advocate, says the restoration plan does not go far enough. She wants to reimagine the Mall entirely, sweeping in surrounding land. Philanthropists, she argues, should bring together leading thinkers and designers to realize a new vision.
 
"We would hope that philanthropy would see beyond piecemeal agency maintenance plans," Ms. Feldman says. "Philanthropy is about getting past the practical to the bigger vision that should guide big thinking."
 
There will likely be a tussle over whether the Constitution Gardens restaurant, tentatively planned as a white-tablecloth affair, is appropriate for the Mall. Mr. Akridge, the trust’s chair, says Disney officials who advised the group on revenue concessions recommended the upscale approach. The choice of Mall food and beverage "will be driven by the bottom line," he says, as they will help fund long-term maintenance. "If we can’t make more money selling steak than we can hot dogs, then guess what? We’ll sell hot dogs."
 
Unbridled success for the Mall campaign could raise perhaps the biggest questions. In public-private partnerships, as the private entity raises more money and assumes more control, the government’s role often shrinks.
 
The Park Service’s Robert Vogel, who leads the Mall effort, wrestles with this issue even as he preaches the benefits of partnerships. In addition to the Mall restoration, he’s working with city officials, residents, and local businesses to fix up a small neighborhood park. "Everyone is engaged and thinks this is a great thing. All the neighbors—young people and old people—they’re all working together."
 
"I just hope we don’t get to the point where the only way we can take care of our parks is to have some other group do it," he says. "If parks need to be run by other entities, then what are we saying about the real worth of these as public assets?"
 
Meanwhile, repairs are under way on the Jefferson Memorial ceiling that disgorged the chunk of limestone last fall. The Park Service is swapping out the rubber membranes in the memorial’s original gutter system for copper, among other things. There’s no timetable for completion.
 
The work, says a park official, is extensive.