Forest Park Forever Names New President: What Can a Civil Engineer Do for Our Largest Urban Oasis?

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Forest Park Forever has named Lesley Hoffarth as its President. Lesley has most recently served as the Project Director for the I-64 reconstruction. She’s worked at MODOT for 20 years and has a civil engineering degree from the University of Missouri. So what can a career civil engineer do for Forest Park?

To be fair, Lesley has been much more than a civil engineer. The I-64 project is very complex, involving dozen of public and private constituencies. Once the project got underway deadlines had to be met, standards upheld, supplies and equipment organized. Successfully managing this $500M project would certainly be a feather in anyone’s cap. But I doubt anyone would confuse a highway construction project for one of the largest urban parks in our nation.

Forest Park Forever states its “five key goals” as follows:
1. Prioritizing the visitor’s experience.
2. Clarifying and expanding the role of Forest Park Forever to sustain and maintain the park at the highest standards of excellence.
3. Seeking financial stability and sustainability for the park.
4. Attracting quality leadership.
5. Building community awareness and support for sustaining Forest Park at its current high level of restoration.

Very quickly, the first goal is incredibly vague. Number two seems like a goal to create goals and is very similar to numbers three and five. Number four? Well, that should be a given. Anyway, given these “five key goals,” what can we expect from the new leadership?

As an engineer, the new President may be the right person to “maintain the park.” In a recent Post-Dispatch interview Lesley stated, “There are roads; people need to get around the park, and that’s always confusing for people. We have huge waterway systems in the park, and there is a lot of engineering behind making sure the water flows, isn’t stagnant, goes where it needs to go.” Both statements are true and deserving of attention, but should the park’s priority be less confusing roads for drivers and engineering the waterway system?

It’s also notable that the non-profit organization that has correctly identified the necessity of increasing financial support for Forest Park to maintain the $100M in recent investments has hired someone with zero fundraising experience. Fundraising may not be rocket science, but it’s arguable whether it’s easier or more difficult.

In the Post-Dispatch interview the new President was asked about her fundraising experience. This is what she said, “I don’t have any fundraising experience per se, but the skills that I have developed working on 64 are the same skills I’m gonna need to be a successful fundraiser: just building relationships, working collaboratively with the public, really creating that shared vision of what it is we’re going for, getting people excited about wanting to be part of getting there.” As someone with extensive non-profit experience I do not find that answer or explanation reassuring. There’s no particular reason a talented person cannot become an effective fundraiser, but there are lots of reasons why it often doesn’t happen.

There’s a lot that’s right with Forest Park. The destinations within the park are truly incomparable in their quality and proximity to one another. But what’s wrong with Forest Park is not the relative confusion of its roads or the functioning of its waterways. I’ve highlighted a couple of these issues here at the Urban Workshop including the closing of an important running path and lack of “places”.

It is my opinion that the greatest threat to Forest Park is its increasing treatment as a destination. Although Forest Park is a wonderful setting for museums, the MUNY, the tennis center and the zoo as well as golf courses, demands of visitors, inevitably arriving by car detract from the park user’s experience. Does “prioritizing the visitor experience” mean making driving to and parking near the park’s attractions a priority?

I’m keeping an open mind regarding the new President of Forest Park Forever. By all accounts the I-64 project has been managed well. I think it’s unfair to say that Lesley Hoffarth personally will favor roads and car-centric changes. However, the Forest Park Forever mission statement doesn’t emphasize the experience of the non-destination visitor or pedestrians. With all the attractions in the park you can bet that open roads and parking will play a big part in future park development. My fear is that the new Forest Park Forever President is a perfect fit.

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