Written by Vivien Kim Thorp Wednesday, 01 August 2012 18:12
In July 2011, the San Francisco Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers released an updated report on the Bay Area’s infrastructure, grading its nine counties on “subjects” ranging from roadways to urban stormwater and flood control. Parks, one of nine categories, included recreational, open space, and special use facilities. Together, they earned a barely passing C-. The good news was the situation hadn’t worsened since the original survey, published in 2005. The bad news was that things had not gotten better. Without $50 million a year in dedicated funding, the report stated, parks were unlikely to make the grade.
In addition to recreational and health benefits for users, parks also provide ecological diversity and important development buffers for communities as a whole. The diverse needs they serve are reflected in their infrastructure inventories. Major assets range from urban swimming pools to vast preserves, roads to ranger stations, horse trails to historic buildings. Parks must often maintain their own tarmac, bridges, and sewage and water needs, in addition to visitor centers, restrooms, and trails. And a balance must be kept between maintaining older structures versus replacing them, as well as accounting for the needs of new land acquisitions.
For the Bay Area report, ASCE’s San Francisco Section had asked park professionals to gauge conditions, capacity, deferred maintenance, safety, and security. Would an open space’s resources serve a growing population? Would structures wear well during serious seismic activity? Were facilities like playgrounds physically safe?
Six years later, things were reported status quo, said Mike Kincaid, chair of the San Francisco Section’s infrastructure committee. “Folks were like, ‘Hey, not much has changed since 2005’.” A lack of funding was the core concern. “Agencies and districts — those responsible for park infrastructure — are wanting to fund improvements and do maintenance,” Kincaid said, “but there are very limited funds available to do that.”
Let Nothing Go to Waste
The East Bay Regional Park District comprises 112,000 acres, with 65 parks, 125 miles of paved road, and more than 1,200 miles of trails. Much of the 78-year-old district’s infrastructure costs relate to roads and restrooms, but it also has to continually renovate or replace systems and structures built during the mid 20th Century.
Parks such as Tilden Regional Park, founded in 1936, have historic character and the aging structures that go with it. “You can imagine how many sewer and water lines you can’t see under those green lawns that are 60 or more years old,” said Anne Scheer, chief of park operations for EBRPD. “Sometimes we spend a lot of money when a waterline breaks.” The same goes for buildings. “Structures that were built right the first time are remodeled,” she said of older buildings, some of which were built on brick or supported by railroad ties. “But if the foundation isn’t good, it usually means a demolition.”
Restrooms, continually billed a top priority by the public, require constant attention. Many are situated in remote areas without sewage or water systems. To serve this need, the district has 300 chemical toilets and 20 vault toilets, all serviced by a 3,000-gallon sanitation truck. Replacing chemical toilets — which must be pumped out up to several times a week — with concrete durable toilets makes a sensible but costly long-term investment, at $30,000 apiece.
One of the largest infrastructure costs for the district is pavement. For the past seven years, Scheer’s staff has been using StreetSaver, a computer program from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The program assesses road issues and targets early prevention projects to reduce costs; for instance, indicating patches of road for which a new top layer would prevent more costly damages, like cracks and pitting. The district has begun a similar program with other maintenance projects, entering a log of 20 years of maintenance into a database that will help predict and prevent major problems.
Several large infrastructure projects sit on the EBRPD horizon. Del Valle Regional Park gets power from the nearby city of Livermore, but pumps water for lawns, toilets, and drinking from Lake Del Valle. “The water treatment plant was built in the ’70s,” said Scheer. “The state changes drinking water regulations often, and we still pass. But we are not sure for how much longer.” Replacing the system, Scheer estimated, would cost $3 million. Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, whose water supply is fed by a 2.5 mile waterline, faces a similar issue. Constructed in the 1940s, its patched-up water system and tanks will eventually need to be replaced. In the meantime, visitors are instructed to bring enough water for themselves, their dogs, and their horses.
Build It and They Will Come
The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department was established in 1950. From Golden Gate Park to community gardens, it comprises 220 parks, playgrounds and open spaces, 25 recreation centers, nine swimming pools, and the San Francisco Zoo.
Infrastructure concerns include bringing old, inefficient irrigation systems, aging recreational and pool facilities, and dated play structures up to 21st Century standards, including ADA accessibility. There are also the usual aspects to maintain — public restrooms, pathways, roadways, and about 131,000 trees — plus the particular problems of urban parks, such as graffiti-covered walls, pilfered copper piping, and arson.
Connie Chan, deputy director of public affairs for the department, estimates SFRPD’s deferred maintenance costs at $1 billion. “We’re in an urban, dense area — seven times seven miles of land with more than 800,000 residents and almost two million visitors in San Francisco on a daily basis,” Chan said. “Put it all together, and that makes for a lot of wear and tear on parks and facilities.”
During the past four years, funds from the 2008 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond ($185 million) have been used to address several of the department’s infrastructure concerns. The city’s 30 miles of urban trails were given $5 million for renovations, and $11.4 million was allotted to public bathrooms. The popular 13.7-acre Mission Dolores Park received $13.2 million to address drainage and irrigation problems, and to renovate a playground and tennis courts.
But perhaps the biggest recipient of the bond’s largess was the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center. Built in 1951 and located in one the city’s most densely populated areas, the center has been historically a key place for inner city youth. It badly needed seismic upgrades and updated facilities. (It’s one of the largest emergency shelters in the area.) This July the department completed a $21 million makeover.
SFRPD hopes voters will pass the 2012 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond this November. The $195 million-bond would include $99 million for neighborhood parks, $34.5 million for waterfront open spaces, $15.5 million for failing playgrounds, $13 million for forestry, trails, and water conservation, and a “long awaited” $21-million investment in Golden Gate Park, Lake Merced, and McLaren Park, including major infrastructure improvements.
The Big Picture
The ASCE San Francisco Section’s final grading gave the Bay Area’s recreational and open space facilities a C, and its specialized facilities, such as pools and performing arts centers, a D-. But their outlook for the future is not entirely glum. “We believe some cases are terribly underfunded, and these needs have to have the support of the public,” said Kincaid. “But the people of San Francisco and the Bay Area have been very supportive when it comes to addressing specific needs with ballot measures. We can’t break that trust going forward.”