Parks - creating them, maintaining them, and changing them - are often contentious.
I love Forest Park. Whether it is walking past the Grand Basin at dusk, riding bikes on the trail, or skating at Steinberg Rink on a frigid Saturday night, Forest Park has something for everyone.
Over the last few years, we have transformed Forest Park into the best urban park in America. In order to keep it that way, we - City taxpayers - have to raise a little more than $4 million per year to maintain what has been built.
That is the main reason I support extending a lease with BJC for land across Kingshighway to the east of Forest Park.
Right now, BJC has a lease with 45 years left on it for land adjacent to its campus. BJC uses the land for a parking garage with a tennis court on top. For the term of that lease, the City will receive $150,000 per year.
While almost no one associates the garage with Forest Park, it is, in fact, a piece of the park.
BJC has been negotiating with the City to change the lease and extend its term. They propose to increase the size of the parcel by three acres - all east of Kingshighway. They propose to increase the payment to $1.8 million a year and index it for inflation. And they ask for the right to expand their campus if they choose to do so.
I support BJC because of the important medical research it does, the nationally recognized patient care it provides, the people it employs, and the contributions it has made to two neighborhoods: Forest Park Southeast and the Central West End.
But, that’s not why I am supporting the extension of the lease. I am supporting the extension of the lease because it is good for Forest Park and good for other City parks.
It will be written into the contract that all of the money from the BJC lease will go into the Forest Park Fund to be used to maintain the Park. We are asking Forest Park Forever, a private group, to match the $2 million. Taken together - new revenue and private match - that amount will be close to the amount needed to maintain Forest Park.
This dedicated source of revenue is important for two reasons.
First, over the years, Forest Park has had to compete with other important City needs like police protection, neighborhood improvements, and the maintenance of other City parks. The result, as most readers recall, was an aging park whose important needs had been deferred for years. A dedicated stream of revenue takes Forest Park out of that competition.
Second, this dedicated source of revenue will free up the $1.6 million in General Revenue the City invested in Forest Park in recent years. I am going to propose that money be dedicated to maintenance and capital improvements in other City parks. Parks like O’Fallon, Fairground, Carondelet, Penrose, Tower Grove, and Willmore are as important to the people who use them as Forest Park.
Not everyone else likes the proposal.
Some people believe we should not touch a blade of grass that has the name Forest Park attached to it - even if that blade of grass sits across a busy street atop a parking garage next to a medical complex. To those people I say this: I also love the park. And I would strongly oppose this lease - if it were inside the major confines of the park. It is not.
My bottom line/s: I support an extension of the BJC lease because the new terms make Forest Park better. And I support the extension because it will make it easier to maintain and improve other City parks.