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On Common Ground

On Common Ground
April 2016
Jenny and Michael Messner nurture a bold, green future for Charleston, from the Low Line to Laurel Island, wherever that is...

It’s a mid-winter afternoon, which on this Thursday in Hampton Park feels like early spring. A mom pushes a jog stroller, pausing as her son watches geese waddle by. A saucer magnolia in full pink glory reaches toward the crisp blue sky. A few Citadel cadets, tees dutifully tucked-in, lope around the fitness trail, while a young couple lounges on a blanket, laptops open. An elderly man hunched over his cane idles past camellias along the sandy path. Some folks rove on foot or bike, others toss Frisbees, walk dogs, picnic. Over the decades, Hampton Park has been many things—a horse racetrack, a Civil War camp for Union prisoners, the site of a grand international exposition—but today, it is whatever these folks need it to be.

This is the beauty of a well-designed park—it’s an open invitation. It says “come in” with an unobtrusive subtlety, fitting within its broader urban surroundings, complementing and augmenting them with a seamless magic. People meander through Hampton Park, and perhaps more dramatically, Manhattan’s Central Park—both examples of the design legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted—and enjoy the serene artistry of this vital touch point with nature. Park-goers “never notice the intentional design and engineering underneath,” says Tupper Thomas, founding president of the Prospect Park Alliance, in the PBS documentary Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks. “[Olmsted parks] feel so right and look so natural that they don’t feel engineered.”

The same could be said about certain citizens—the ones who go about contributing to the community in impactful yet subtle ways. They have no desire to call attention to themselves, or say, be the focus of a magazine profile, but they have a full and clear intention of making a difference in lasting ways that matter to them and to the city. And maybe that’s why Jenny and Michael Messner are such big Olmsted fans. They approach civic engagement and philanthropy in much the same way the legendary Olmsted firm designed parks. The Messners take a vision for beauty, for enhancing common life by connecting people with nature and with each other—such as the Lowcountry Low Line, a proposed revitalization of 1.6 miles of defunct and derelict rail lines cutting through the peninsula—and strategically plant it. Add water, maybe a little mulch, and mix in lots of resources and attention and hard work, and things start to grow.

Park Passion
The Messners moved to Charleston four years ago after raising their three children in Summit, New Jersey. “We finally realized that, with the kids gone, we couldn’t possibly shovel all that snow,” says Jenny, who grew up in the pastoral Amish country of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. (The Messners still own and frequently visit her grandfather’s beloved circa-1760 stone farmhouse that was once part of a large farm estate near Speedwell Forge.) Michael, an Atlanta native, played football at the University of Pennsylvania, where he and Jenny met, and went on to study civil engineering at Georgia Tech before eventually segueing into the Wall Street investment world. When deciding where they might escape snowy winters, Charleston was a natural choice—the couple had grown to love the area via vacations at Isle of Palms. “We started coming the summer after Hugo when there were no tops on the palm trees, and the family has come every other summer since—40 Messners in three houses,” Jenny says.  

“It’s great to be able to come back to the South and not be in Atlanta,” says Michael. And they’ve wasted little time becoming involved in various local organizations and efforts aimed, in way one or another, at “making sure Charleston doesn’t become Atlanta,” he adds, referring to a sprawl-induced, car-centric, congested mess. The key to doing this, the Messners believe, is to enhance the vitality of more dense urban neighborhoods through strategic investment in parks and schools and in making it safer and easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to get around.

Jenny, who serves on the board of Charleston Parks Conservancy, boils it down pretty simply in her typical easy-going, no-fuss way: “A great city needs great parks and great schools,” she says. “These are the public spaces where everyone is welcome, where everyone can feel that they have a stake and are part of the city.”

And this is where the Messners echo Olmsted, whose philosophy and parks they not only admire but know quite well, given that Michael was executive producer of the previously mentioned 2011 Olmsted documentary, which aired on PBS and has been screened across the country. So how does a hedge-fund manager become a park guru? “I believe the 2008-’09 financial crisis was caused in part by excess real-estate development,” Michael says. When the bottom fell out, thousands of commercial and residential properties across the country went into foreclosure, leaving neglected properties, dubbed “Red Fields” (see sidebar), that need to be rescued. As Olmsted’s projects demonstrated time and again, turning these blighted parcels into parks, bikeways, or pedestrian malls attracts economic development and revitalizes communities.

The documentary—narrated by actors Kevin Kline and Kerry Washington, written by the Messners’ daughter Rebecca, and underwritten by the family’s Speedwell Foundation (named for their Pennsylvania homestead)—makes clear that Olmsted’s passion was not simply to design picturesque landscapes where “beauty enters our souls” or to increase property values, but to create green oases equally accessible to rich and poor, native and immigrant, black and white, old and young. To create common ground—in essence, the breeding ground for democracy. In Olmsted’s own words: “It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”

Fast forward from Olmsted’s heyday in the late 19th century, when he created some 500 iconic designs across a rapidly growing country, to Charleston in 2016, when there’s both a hotel/restaurant boom and tent-city boom; when development pressures threaten affordable housing and green space; and when the disconnect between haves and have-nots, between good schools and failing ones, between upper and lower peninsula seem as poignant as ever. It’s the perfect time to invest in parks, Michael and Jenny agree, as do numerous other civic leaders, including former mayor Joe Riley; former mayoral contender Ginny Deerin; Harry Lesesne of the Charleston Parks Conservancy (CPC); Tom O’Rourke of Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (CCPRC); and Tom Bradford, board chair for Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line and Charleston Moves.

High Hopes for Low Line
“One thing the Olmsted research taught me was the power of connecting parks to each other—his Emerald Necklace in Boston is a great example. Linking parks is a great way to build a city,” says Michael. And the old Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, now a vacant eyesore through Charleston’s midtown? “It’s such a unique opportunity; it’s land just raising its hand saying ‘I want to be a park,’” he adds, envisioning how what he dubs the “Low Line” could connect to the Ravenel Bridge bike path, and northward toward Park Circle (another Olmsted firm design) and to nearby under-the-radar, undeveloped landfill called Laurel Island, “a gem of an island—it feels so remote, like you could be on Dewees” at the foot of Romney Street. “Imagine a bike trail around Laurel Island, that then links to the Low Line,” Michael muses, his wheels always turning.

“What’s so exciting about the Low Line is that we have virtually a blank slate to create a new park, almost two miles long, that has a real opportunity to link the upper and lower peninsula and repair some of the damage done when I-26 tore through neighborhoods,” says Deerin, who currently serves as interim director for Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line, the nonprofit Michael formed in 2013 to negotiate the purchase of the railroad line beneath I-26 and transform it into a linear park. Think of it as Charleston’s version of New York City’s transformative High Line, an old elevated freight railway-turned-“public park in the sky” that has become a popular tourist destination, spurred economic growth, and skyrocketed property values in adjacent neighborhoods.

Negotiating with Norfolk Southern has had its challenges, and there’s still a long way to go to bring the Low Line to fruition, including a lot of community outreach. The board is committed to ensuring this project be done in a way that does not promote gentrification but enhances existing neighborhoods and affordable housing, and in a way that protects local businesses. “Right now we’re asking citizens and neighbors to tell us what their vision is, what they want this park to be. The other priority is figuring out the best way to finance the property and right of way from Norfolk Southern. It’s complicated,” adds Deerin. “But I’m an optimist. One of the nice things about Mike is that he’s impatient—in a good way. He likes to see things happen. He’s pushing; every day he gets up and makes calls. He’s got a park to build.”

Continuing Education
In addition to their investment of time, energy, and resources into the Low Line, the Messners have worked with the City of Charleston, CCPRC, and CPC to enhance existing facilities and increase park holdings over the last four years, including facilitating the acquisition of Limehouse Point and the Baker Hospital properties. And, notes CPC executive director Harry Lesesne, “They have a particular passion for Hampton Park with its Olmsted ties.” Lesesne, who also serves on the board of Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line, credits Michael and Jenny for launching the effort to transform the vacant café, stables, and superintendent’s cottage into amenities that will help increase utilization of the park.

The Messners also funded the Parks Conservancy’s partnership with the Charleston Digital Corridor to bring Wi-Fi into parks, particularly those near under-resourced neighborhoods. To date, Wi-Fi is accessible at Harmon Field, Mitchell Playground, Hampton Park, and Magnolia Park, with other parks coming online soon. “This wouldn’t have happened without them,” says Lesesne. “They understand on a granular level what makes communities work, and that parks play an important role in the life of a city, beyond recreation and sports. That parks make people’s lives fuller, no matter their age.”

Beyond green space, the Messners believe that vibrant communities need quality, integrated schools, and again, they’ve put their money where their passion is. The Speedwell Foundation has funded two Charleston County charter schools, both on the peninsula, to give more options for all residents to send their children to high-performing nearby schools. Carolina Voyager, a kindergarten-through-third grade startup temporarily housed at the Greek Orthodox Church on Race Street, with one grade to be added each year, offers personalized lesson plans and a collaborative approach, with small-group stations and a dynamic classroom environment. Allegro, currently housed on Broad Street, uses music to anchor a variety of learning experiences for middle grades (sixth through ninth), but unlike the School of the Arts, there is no audition, no barrier to enrollment. The focus is less on music proficiency than on using music as a tool for learning across all academic disciplines.

“It’s important to us that these are integrated schools where everyone feels welcome,” says Jenny, a plumber’s daughter who earned a scholarship to study abroad in high school, spending a transformative year in Brazil. “It opened my world.” She went on to earn her degree in international relations at Penn; served on the national board of AFS-USA (formerly American Field Service), a cross-cultural study-abroad program for which Speedwell Foundation sponsors scholarships; and now chairs the organization’s “Second Century” fundraising campaign. Jenny also grew up playing violin and exposed her children to musical education, and, with her husband, is a huge fan and supporter of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. “Neither Jenny nor I came from any money,” adds Mike. “Education was the only asset we had.”

Fully Engaged
As Olmsted realized and as the Messners know, creating spaces and opportunities that bring neighbors and citizens together—whether in parks, classrooms, or concerts—is not only vital for improving the quality of community, it is personally gratifying and fun. “It’s been wonderful to work with so many great people, and to have a feeling that we’re contributing to the good of the region,” says Jenny. Lesesne appreciates their eagerness to roll up their sleeves. “They’ve not been here long, but almost immediately they’ve become among the key people in this city, guiding our civic life and direction, and not just as funders. They’re fully engaged, far-seeing, and far-thinking,” he says. “And it’s because they care.”

When the economy nose-dived in 2008 to ’09, the value of commercial real estate nationwide tanked to the tune of $3 trillion, leaving cities pocked by “Red Fields,” i.e. distressed properties in the red. Where many saw blight, Michael Messner saw opportunity: “What would Olmsted suggest to help stimulate the economy, make the country better for future Americans, and help solve the problem of 19 million vacant houses and excess retail space? I think he would recommend an Urban/Suburban Park Initiative,” wrote Messner in a blog post. Hope and prosperity would bloom from economic decay via public parks and revitalized green spaces, and Speedwell Foundation funded an ambitious Red Fields to Green Fields (R2G) initiative to prove it.

“Red Fields to Green Fields aims to do more than make esoteric changes to our landscape. It is meant to significantly improve our health, promote sustained economic development, and turn non-productive assets into well-managed green space for our neighborhoods and cities,” the project website explains.

Partnering with the Georgia Institute of Technology, R2G studied 11 U.S. cities to survey red fields, calculate cost/benefit of green development, and suggest best modes of transforming distressed assets into green space. To date, Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, Delaware (Phase 1), as well as Detroit, Hilton Head/Savannah, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix (Phase 2), have been studied, with results presented to legislators and National Park Service officials at the U.S. Capitol. For the five Phase 2 cities, R2G plans would create as many as 20,000 acres of new parkland and an estimated 300,000 new jobs.

In Denver alone, R2G determined an economic impact of $5.1 billion on an investment of $2.5 billion. Converting distressed Denver properties to green spaces would:
■ double the size of Denver’s park system
■ add more than 30,000 new jobs
■ remove 6,650 acres of underutilized or distressed real estate from key areas of Denver
■ promote smart and sustained economic growth while enhancing the quality of life for Denver’s citizens

For detailed case studies on all the R2G cities, videos, and more, visit