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Parks Could Be Key In Nighttime Economy, But Agency Must First Turn The Lights On

By Aaron Kraut

Tuesday - 8/20/2013, 1:15pm  ET

Discovery Park in Houston at night, Flickr photo by N.Smith

Montgomery Parks officials say urban parks can be a big part of creating a more vibrant nighttime economy for the county.

But as is the case with many aspects of the county’s nascent effort to increase night life and attract younger residents, the agency must make big shifts in its own policies.

To start, it would have to keep its parks open past nightfall.

“Many of the very successful urban parks have some type of staff that’s available at the park all hours that it’s open,” Montgomery Parks planner Rachel Newhouse told the county’s Nighttime Economy Task Force on Monday in Rockville. “We don’t have that.”

Newhouse and Parks planner Susanne Paul ran through example after example of parks in big cities with creative lighting, nearby retail and concert or other arts programming. In Montgomery County, that’s not yet part of the Parks equation.

Montgomery Parks are not open at night, save for some that host evening events such as teen skating until 11 p.m. or sports fields with lighting that are rented out.

Newhouse said Parks has been studying some of the most successful parks in the country — Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Madison Square Park in New York, Discovery Green in Houston, among others — to see how they are built, managed and paid for.

The agency has a new emphasis on creating urban parks inside the Beltway and has recently enacted a new corporate sponsorship policy.

“We have some internal challenges that our department needs to deal with,” Newhouse said.

Important in keeping parks open after dark is having enough money to keep them supervised. Newhouse said it’s unclear if Parks would be able to fund Park Police supervision of certain facilities after dark.

Planners will soon travel to Yards Park, the recent open space created near Nationals Park in Southeast D.C., to see how a business improvement district maintains and operates the area.

“Parks are definitely relevant to this conversation. The nighttime economy is not just about economic development,” Paul said. “It’s about creating places, places where you want to go and spend time and maybe linger, and hopefully spend a little money as well.”

Paul identified three key characteristics to any successful urban park after dark: lighting, programming and proximity to retail.

“We have urban parks, but now when we’re renovating them, we’re also realizing the need for people to sort of spill out from the retail and come into these parks,” Newhouse said, citing Woodside Urban Park in Silver Spring as an example.

Finding space for new urban parks in Bethesda, especially near the popular retail areas, is very difficult because of soaring land values. Brooke Farquhar, who helped research the agency’s Park Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Plan, said Bethesda is in need of  dog parks, community gardens, flexible grassy open spaces and urban wooded areas. But the land is often too expensive and there is always heavy competition.

Montgomery Parks’ best chance for a new urban park that also boosts a nighttime economy might come in White Flint, where Parks planners are waiting to see what happens with Wall Park, which is due to be remodeled using what’s now a surface parking lot for the Shriver Aquatic Center.

Flickr photo by N.Smith