Parks & Rec Exclusives - October 2019
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Optimizing Outcomes of Community Center Renovations

By Leah Rockwell and Dana Gillette

Community centers are growing in importance across the United States. As reported in a November 2011 South Source article, community centers facilitate a sense of belonging, improving residents' quality of life, property values and even tourism.

What goes into a great community center? A 2017 National Recreation & Park Association (NRPA) poll highlighted the importance of community centers to people across generational strata. In addition to traditional services such as fitness and aquatic facilities and out-of-school programming, between one-third and one-half of the survey's 1,000 respondents said they valued inclusive facilities for all needs and abilities, access to internet-enabled computers, health clinics and services, healthy living classes, programming for older adults and nature-based activities.

Such opportunities factored in the City of West Palm Beach, Fla., when a county sales tax referendum passed that would fund renovations of its community centers. The city was presented with an incredible opportunity to update the centers, several of which were built between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, or create new ones—an effort they had adopted in their 2015 master-planning process.

Community input decisively factored in this process, and with this new funding, the city could fully leverage previously unavailable opportunities. Their aim: to optimize outcomes for the community by delivering on their requests.

Strategies for Optimizing Community Outreach

Community engagement sessions, consistent stakeholders and committed citizen champions are key variables in the formula for optimal community involvement.

Engagement Sessions. Professionally led but informal community engagement sessions are a valuable starting point to gather information. In ways that are comfortably conducive to participant input, the project committee can present existing conditions and invite community members to share their input in a casual, conversational format.

Finding creative ways to meet people where they are—with evening and weekend meeting times that fit their schedules—can be crucial to start conversations. At Howard Park, for example, city officials arranged a weekly food truck at a time when many people were picking up their children from a nearby daycare. This allowed people to pause to enjoy something to eat, browse mockups and share their desires for the park.

By capturing viewpoints from residents who may not have had time or inclination to attend a formal meeting, leaders could factor in their valuable opinions. For people who could not attend any public event, mailed surveys collected thoughtful written input.

Consistent Stakeholders. The people who consistently attend meetings can offer initial feedback on sketches, review changes and follow up to ensure their project receives continued attention.

In West Palm Beach, Gaines Park and Coleman Park have particularly strong neighborhood associations and friends of the park who provide a timeframe for projects, participate in review sessions and hold the city accountable. Having reliable stakeholders and champions ensures that no details are lost amidst a full wave of renovation projects.

Committed Champions. To foster a sense of ownership, several parks in the city have park champions. These citizen volunteers are residents who keep city officials on task through regular communication. Having a point person to act as a go-between for city staff and other park patrons ensures strong attendance at meetings, as well as early communication around issues or concerns. As a result, the city celebrates the park champions' involvement and passion.

Citizen champions are key in a multifaceted renovation project like the one at Howard Park, where structures have historical significance for the community.

For example, according to the project architect Alfonso Hernandez, the new proposed bar shape building and shed roof are inspired by the original 1920s warehouse structure, one of many portions of West Palm Beach destroyed in the 1928 hurricane. In addition, architects are exploring whether to preserve the internal roof line of an existing 1960s building, which features asymmetrically positioned exposed wood trusses. The goal for both buildings is to retain their historical charm while providing new amenities and prioritizing an abundance of green space.

Hernandez said the new building's architectural intention is to seek a harmonious relationship with the natural parts of the park. Expansive glazing along the east side optimizes visual connectivity; the roof line and part of the structure also integrate the new facility with the landscape.

Strategy & Timing. Engaging the public is a two-pronged effort, with both strategy and timing playing key roles. It can be challenging to decide how much advance planning to do when funding levels and sources are both uncertain. Planning projects before funding is available risks disappointing residents if the budget can't support their desires. On the other hand, waiting for funding can delay implementation. At the same time, early resident engagement can help planners determine funding requirements and even result in greater creativity around securing the funds.

Even the highest-level, most conceptual plans benefit from early resident engagement, such as unofficial, pre-project explorations. Budget transparency keeps expectations realistic and provides a framework for planning. Staff can also provide insightful feedback that helps to clarify and frame the conversation.