NYC Parks Department Not Complying with 2008 Law to Monitor Disparities and Track Private Money Amidst City’s Public Parks

The New York Times reports today that the city’s Parks Department has not been complying with a 2008 law passed by the New York City Council to  “shed light on how much money was flowing into different parks across the city.” Disparities between parks across the five boroughs have been a concern, with private money allocated to specific parks, primarily located in Manhattan, not revealed and properly documented.

The legislation “required the Department of Parks and Recreation of New York City to prepare an annual report that would detail, park by park, the contributions of nonprofits and other private donors.”

At the time the law was passed, the Parks Department went on record as agreeing that it was a good idea and even suggested that it played into the Bloomberg Administration push for “transparency” (the pretense of which many of us would question).

However, surprise! The documentation from 2010 was never listed on the city’s web site and, even if it had been, it is sorely lacking in its compliance, missing data that would properly shed light on the true state of affairs in our city’s parks, the intent of the legislation. In addition, the 2011 report is seven months overdue.

From the Times:

It [the 2010 report] fails to list the city’s largest parks nonprofit, the Central Park Conservancy, which spent $28 million during that period. Other major parks groups, including the Union Square Partnership, the Madison Square Park Conservancy and the Friends of Washington Square Park, are also missing.

Stopping there for a moment. These other “major parks groups” — Union Square Partnership, Madison Square Park Conservancy, one is a BID (Business Improvement District), the other is obviously a Conservancy –are really well known. Friends of Washington Square Park? I’m not even familiar with that. (I’ll come back to that later.)

Nonetheless, Alan Gerson reappears. The former City Council Member, who previously represented the district which encompasses Washington Square and is now under Margaret Chin’s purview, so to speak, was a member of the Parks Committee, and is quoted in the story. (I wonder if Gerson will run again against Margaret Chin – who has been so disappointing – next election; that would be interesting.)

“It doesn’t reflect a real effort to comply with the law,” Alan J. Gerson, a former councilman who sat on the parks committee in 2008, said.

“Whether it’s for schools, or parks or any public place, the public should know where the private money is coming from and what it’s buying. It’s basic good government,” Mr. Gerson, a Manhattan Democrat, said.

“That’s what we wanted to establish,” he said.

The city’s Independent Budget Office concurs with the problems. Doug Turetsky, its chief of staff, states, “It’s clearly not the most illuminating. You’d want to see more detail in terms of specific amounts.”

Some things are peculiar in the article — the current Parks Committee Chair, Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has been somewhat of a champion of changes in the Parks Department’s structure, declined to comment. A spokesperson for Council Member Helen Foster who represents the Bronx and was the previous Parks Committee Chair said  that Ms. Foster “did not feel she remembered the legislation.”

The Parks Department declined a request by the Times for an interview with a Parks Department “official” and offered no rationale for the incomplete data. My guess is that this data would not reflect favorably and that’s exactly what the City Council was pushing for – to see what – and how – resources are allocated to, say, Central Park vs. Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.

As for the “major parks group,” Friends of Washington Square Park (an organization, as I mentioned, with which I’m not even familiar), via a Google search, I see that it is now listed on the Washington Square Association’s web site (and given pretty much equal ‘billing,’ so to speak, listed on a line with the organization’s name). That seems a bit, uh, dubious. However, such is the world of the city’s parks under the Bloomberg Administration.

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Previously at WSP Blog:

Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks October 8, 2010

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Washington Square Park Administrator Departs; Search on for New WSP and Union Square Park Administrator

Updated — Scoopy’s Notebook in The Villager first reported on Thursday that Rebecca Ferguson, park administrator for Washington Square Park, has left the building, so to speak. Ms. Ferguson arrived about the time this blog began, sometime in early 2008 as Phase I of the park’s redesign first got underway. I’m sure it was not always an easy job maneuvering between the city’s Parks Department’s ‘wishes’ and the community’s. As time went on, she seemed a little less congenial but mostly cordial and efficient. It was clear she had a mixed response to this blog. The Villager says she’s gone off to a “plum job with the National Parks Service” (I have to wonder who the source was – “plum job?”). Ms. Ferguson began with just Washington Square under her purview. At some point in the last few years, she was also given oversight as administrator over Union Square Park.

The Village Voice is wondering who will replace Ms. Ferguson and therefore oversee Union Square and Washington Square. However, I’d say the Voice is stretching a bit in saying that Ferguson was somehow behind or at all instrumental in the “crackdowns” at Union Square (for artists) and Washington Square (for musicians). That was clearly coming from up ‘above’ in the ranks at the Parks Department. I do agree that it’s worth paying ‘attention’ to who is chosen as her replacement.

Victoria Bekiempis at The Voice writes:

However, there’s good reason to pay attention to this kind of development (as boringly administrative and bureaucratic as might seem) , even though it’s still unconfirmed.

As we have been reporting, Parks and Rec recently has seen its fair share of scandal and shakeups.

Aside from three lawsuits on the issue of artist vendors, longtime Commish Adrian Benepe quit in June, and will be replaced by Veronica M. White.

Because she has no related experience whatsoever, White has been billed as the “Cathie Black” of parks.

In addition to heat faced by these top honchos, it’s important to point out that Ferguson has also gotten flak.

Not only are Washington and Union Square Parks largely the epicenter of the artist-vendor controversy — some have criticized Ferguson’s management for failing to protect parkgoers’ safety.

This last bit was in relation to Union Square and some problems the park was experiencing although I’d never seen her name linked to that. With the presence of the Union Square Partnership, the BID “overseeing” the park, I’m not sure how the responsibilities were shared, what was brought to the attention of her bosses at the Parks Department, how they responded, etc., so I would be hesitant to criticize for that.

At the end of the day, it will be interesting to see how long it takes to find a replacement, will that person handle both parks at the onset, and who will it be. It is an important job and helps Washington Square Park run smoothly — that person oversees pretty much everything that goes on (whether on site or not), schedules events, handles maintenance and care of the park, etc. — and it’s often, it seems, done on close to a shoe string budget. (Note: I don’t really know this for sure but issues of maintenance have been mentioned before.)

The Parks Department’s budget has been cut by the Mayor(s) and the City Council by about 2/3rds over the last 20 years and needs to be increased so they are not endlessly privatizing our parks. If money was spent on maintenance and upkeep the way it has been, during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, on splashy redesigns and other schemes, our parks would be in much better shape overall.

That being said, I wish Rebecca Ferguson well and we’ll see what happens next!

(Links to be added.)

The City Council Member Vs. The Parks Commissioner

Last week, the New York City Council Parks Committee held a public hearing to discuss the Parks Department budget. The Parks Department is woefully underfunded and has been for at least twenty years, if not more. It has gotten worse under the Bloomberg Administration — the lack of funds is used as an incentive to encourage privatization of our public parks.

On Thursday, March 22nd, at the public hearing – note: the “public” hearings are always minimally publicized (which is basically, not at all) – NYC Council Member James Oddo had a heated exchange with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. This was covered over at A Walk in the Park Blog which reports that Council Member Oddo (whose district encompasses parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island) at one point called Commissioner Adrian Benepe “arrogant, cavalier and disgraceful.” Benepe told Oddo to “have a nice day.”

An excerpt from A Walk in the Park Blog:

Staten Island City Council member James Oddo and Parks Commissioner Adrain Benepe provided some fireworks during a Council Parks and Recreation budget hearing this afternoon.

Oddo said it was no ‘Act of God’ that lead to flooding dozens of people’s homes six months ago when Hurricane Irene hit – it was a lack of maintenance from the Parks Department.

The pond in Willowbrook Park overflowed, flooding nearby streets, cars and dozens of homes.

The cause, according to the angry council member, was a culvert that was blocked by plastic bottles and errand softballs from nearby fields that had not been properly maintained by the Parks Department.

Adrian Benepe did not agree. He repeatedly said the flooding was caused by Hurricane Irene, not an “Act of God” and refused to acknowledge or take any role or responsibility for the damage.

Many people in the Willow Brook/Bulls Head section of Staten Island suffered huge loses in property damage and personal belongings due to the damage. The four streets that were flooded are adjacent to Willowbrook Park.

Oddo said some residents had eight feet of water in their basements.

If Rudy Giuliani were mayor, Benepe “would have been canned a long time ago, ” the councilmember said.

Oddo said he couldn’t wait until the remaining days of this administration were over and Benepe was gone.

“I’ll tell ya, I can’t wait for the 650 days to be up,” he said. “I can’t wait till we get someone in there who treats all five boroughs equally.”

“I appreciate your passion,” Benepe said condescendingly to the visibly upset Oddo.

(I was wondering how many days were left in Mayor Bloomberg’s term. Really? That many?)

In August, Washington Square had its own flooding and Parks Department maintenance problem:

August 2011

Previously at WSP Blog:

Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks October 8, 2010

NYC Parks Dept.-2/3 cuts in workers and endless privatization schemes April 25, 2008

On Public Space: The Privatized Union Square Holiday Market and the Performance Crackdown at Washington Square

Union Square Holiday Market

As word of the performance crackdown at Washington Square Park spread in October, Parks Department spokesperson Phil Abramson told the Villager:

“At Washington Square Park the existing regulations are intended to keep paths clear and allow all park users to move about freely and see monuments and views,” said Philip Abramson. He confirmed that performers must stand 5 feet away from benches and cannot perform within 50 feet of a monument or fountain.

To be clear, these “existing regulations” had never existed before. They were written for artist vendors selling their wares (it was controversial with that application) in the city’s public parks. 

The crackdown and ticketing of performers at Washington Square Park has nothing to do with blocking views, paths or monuments. Likewise, the restriction of artists at Union Square Park is not about that.

The Parks Department has no problem with the Holiday Market (pictured above) now in place at Union Square Park – from which it makes over $1 Million. The Holiday Market clearly blocks paths, the 14th Street Plaza and views of the George Washington statue.

This is about controlling public space, money, and a loss of character and charm (the “blanding of New York City”) at our city’s public parks.

Last year, DNAinfo looked into the matter at Union Square:

The sprawling bazaar that takes over Union Square for the park’s annual holiday market has become a hub for gift-shopping New Yorkers.

But one local artist fighting with the Parks Department over its rules to limit street artists in the park the rest of the year sees the city’s preferential treatment of the market as a double standard he thinks could help his case.

Robert Lederman, the outspoken leader of the artists who filed a lawsuit to block the vendor restrictions, claims that money — not public safety or aesthetics, as the city purported — motivated the revised park rules.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe admitted to a Daily News columnist that money was a big factor in welcoming the market, which pays the city $1 million to takeover the southern end of the park where street artists usually decamp.

The Parks Department said the artists created hazardous conditions for pedestrians.

Lederman, who invoked the artists’ First Amendment right to sell there without having to pay the city, is hoping the Parks Commissioner may end up eating his words.

“That the city put a 200-vendor holiday market in the exact south plaza area where the new rules completely ban all artists shows the utterly false nature of the pretext,” Lederman told DNAinfo. “That Benepe publicly claims it’s okay because they paid him $1 million, is the icing on the cake.”

Lederman called the holiday market a “huge public safety threat,” claiming it blocks one of the city’s busiest subway entrances and obstructs monuments — which the artists must be 50-feet away from.

But the city’s law department argued that during the weeks the market operates, the park isn’t used as much anyway.

“…The Holiday Market is allowed during the time of the year when it does not significantly interfere with the use of the Park because weather conditions reduce the number of people who come to enjoy its facilities,” Gabriel Taussig, a chief in the Administrative Law Division of the NYC Law Department, said in an e-mailed statement.

That’s an interesting argument – the weather argument. People still come out of the subway in that location and walk through the park there, no matter what time of year it is. On milder days, people would be sitting or performing on the Plaza at Union Square. None of that can be done while the Holiday Market is there.

Since these articles appeared last year, the artist vendor – referred to by the city as “expressive matter” vending – restrictions were put into place at the city’s parks (Robert Lederman’s lawsuit against this is ongoing – a decision should be reached early next year).

The Parks Department’s interpretation of these rules, applying them to artists and musicians performing for donations, is new. It is being purposefully applied at Washington Square – and is yet another example of the city’s attempt to revise the image and historic usage of the park.

These rules, with their expanding applications, are about the Bloomberg Administration controlling and further privatizing our public spaces, not about protecting the public from “wayward” artists and musicians appearing on pathways and in our midst.

NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe To Talk Privatization of City Parks Tuesday, August 9th at Museum of the City of New York

New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe will be a featured speaker next Tuesday, August 9th at 6:30 p.m. at a discussion “Whose Park is It? Financing and Administering New York’s New Parks” at the Museum of the City of New York.

Instead of spending city money wisely on maintenance and staff at parks, Commissioner Benepe, with the support of Mayor Bloomberg, continues to overspend, overly redesign our public spaces, and then naively act as if the city is left with no choice but to call in private entities to manage them. Clearly, this is not a model that’s working and not the model we need to ensure our parks remain public in every sense of the word.

This event is an opportunity for the Parks Commissioner to promote his platform of privatization of our public parks. Commissioner Benepe loves to help developers.

At Washington Square, the neighboring community and Community Board 2 have stated outright: “No Private Conservancy.”

EVENT: Whose Park Is It? Financing and Administering New York’s New Parks, Tuesday, August 9, 6:30 PM

In the past 20 years New York City has added over 20,000 acres of parkland to its acclaimed public park system. Recent additions, such as the Hudson River Park, the Highline, and Brooklyn Bridge Park represent a new generation of park design as well as financing and administration.

In an era of budget cuts and declining revenues, how is the city paying for its new parks? How does new park administration differ from the past? What role does private funding play in the administration of the city’s parks? What makes a successful park in today’s New York?

Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe; Alexander Garvin, professor of urban planning, Yale University; and Catherine Nagel, Executive Director of the City Parks Alliance, discuss the past, present, and future of New York’s public parks.

Co-sponsors: Central Park Conservancy, the City Parks Foundation, Civitas, Friends of the Hudson River Park, Friends of the Upper East Side, Hudson River Park and the Prospect Park Alliance.

Tickets and more information at the Museum of the City of New York web site.

RESERVATIONS REQUIRED: $12 Non-Members, $8 Seniors and Students, $6 Museum Members, A two dollar surcharge applies for unreserved, walk-in participants.

Getting to Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street:
By subway: #2, 3 or 6 trains get you there — #6 Lexington Avenue train to 103rd Street; #2/3 train to Central Park North/110th Street.
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Additional background:

See WSP Blog piece on privatization and the High Line.
Also, A Walk in the Park Blog on the Brooklyn Bridge Park housing “deal” reported in the news yesterday.

Central Park Bethesda Fountain Off Limits Now to Performance; Designated “Quiet Zone” Where Musicians are Issued Summonses and Risk Arrest

Central Park Bethesda Fountain

The New York Post reported May 29th on the decision to designate Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain a “Quiet Zone,” putting an end to music performances there and issuing summons to those who defy this. The organization pulling the strings behind this decision is the Central Park Conservancy, the private entity entrusted with the care of this 843 acre public park. This is what happens when a private corporation runs a public park. This clearly has also been condoned by the city’s Parks Department under Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Both Bloomberg and Benepe are big proponents of privatization. (The Mayor also lives near by). A spokesperson from the Conservancy told the Post, “The fountain is a place for quiet reflection.”

From the article at The New York Post:

City officials began blitzing street musicians with nuisance summonses and posted a “Quiet Zone” sign last week at the beloved Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, where virtuoso performers have been making beautiful music together for over a century.

On weekends, baritone John Boyd, 48, would belt out spirituals backed by a choir including six of his nine children and fellow classical buskers. But two months ago, Parks police descended on the Bethesda Terrace arcade with a message: Muzzle the music.

Last week, they posted a Quiet Zone sign banning Boyd and other serious musicians from playing in the arcade where world-class performers offer their talents for free to ordinary New Yorkers. …

After being hit with five summonses totaling $2,300, the former choir director from Detroit was arrested by Parks cops Wednesday and hauled in handcuffs to the Central Park police station.

“I have a right to free speech,” said Boyd. “When I sing, it is expressing what I believe in. I told them, ‘You are not chasing me away.’ ”

On Friday, passer-by Rhonda Liss, 63, of Yonkers, asked Boyd if she could join him in an impromptu duet.

“You have such a beautiful voice,” said Liss, a onetime Met opera singer and “Phantom of the Opera” cast member in Toronto. The pair tossed off a jazzy rendition of “My Favorite Things.”

“Is this what they want to arrest people for — singing joy to the people?” she asked incredulously.

When asked about the music crackdown, a spokesman for the Central Park Conservancy, the cash-flush nonprofit that runs the park for the city, said: “The fountain is a place for quiet reflection.”

Interesting thread of comments at the Post site. One commenter says, “Bloomberg should be hauled in front of a court for the crime of destroying the soul of New York City.”

WSP Phase II Construction Still At least 2 Weeks Away from Opening Yet Fences Come Down Along Washington Square North. More to this than meets the eye?

Then...

After more than 19 months guarding construction along the Eastern end of Washington Square Park, the fences are down along Washington Square North!

Don’t get too excited — it ends there for now. Phase II’s Eastern end construction is still at least two weeks away from its public unveiling. The decision to begin taking the fences down along Washington Square North was apparently a rush to judgment.

Or was it?

Now... No Fences along Wash Square North

View on Washington Square North

It’s evident that the re-designer of Washington Square has a strong desire to please those living and working along tony Washington Square North. This segment of the block has a heavy NYU presence (many of the university deans inhabit these buildings) and is also the location of the Washington Square Association, an organization which supported designer’s George Vellonakis’s plans for the park, while many did not.

So, it’s impossible not to link the fervor to please the inhabitants of this block and the fence being removed in that location, and only that location, first. Now, those folks have a picture perfect, unfettered view into the park  – after 19 months of construction – before everyone else, except where their view becomes a hilly tree-topped terrain at the far eastern end.

The Hills Are Alive...(fence since removed)

Have you noticed this yet? These newly placed hills and evergreen trees (photo at left — taken before fence was removed) are all new to the park. No one was aware that this re-visioning of the park’s landscape was in store.

(This might have something to do with the fact that efforts to learn exact details of Phase II’s plans were continually stymied by the Parks Department and Community Board 2.)

Previously, you could walk along the perimeter here and look into the park and see what was happening in that Northeast corner. Now, you can’t. A community activist told me that this is to allow the NYU Deans and so forth to “look out on the rolling hills in WSP” and think they are in “Princeton.” It also makes that area of the park dangerous as it creates a true blind spot when you are inside that corner.

It’s hard not to surmise – Is money involved here? Is this an expression of extreme gratitude for support of the controversial redesign plan (strings pulled perhaps?) that these people are being so looked out for and prioritized above all others?

Washington Square Park’s Phase II Construction began in the Fall of 2009. The scheduled completion date was Fall 2010. It is nice to be able to finally look in unimpeded (albeit one section) and know that the remainder of Phase II, after many delays, is at last almost complete (except, of course, for the pieces that were moved into Phase III) for everyone to utilize.

Note: Park’s Phase II Eastern end opened June 2nd and it remained this way for one month.

High Line Phase 2 to Open Late Spring; Restaurant in 2013; NYC Privatized Park Keeps Getting Grander – And More Expensive to Maintain

-Updated 4/20-

Map of the High Line Park

The High Line, a grand span which currently runs from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, just keeps getting grander. Next up: after food carts and a beer and wine “porch” appear in soon-to-open Phase 2, a restaurant/cafe is scheduled for 2013. This, according to executive director Robert Hammond, who told Community Board 2 that Phase 2 Construction of the High Line — which extends the park from 20th Street to 30th Street — is scheduled to be completed “later this spring.”

The location for the restaurant will be under the High Line at 16th Street and Hammond told me via e-mail that it “is being designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in conjunction with the design process for the new downtown location of the Whitney Museum of American Art.” At the meeting earlier this month, Hammond stated that a Requests for Proposals(RFP) for possible operators of the restaurant will be offered at the end of this year. Hammond said they are aiming for food that is “healthy for you,” “local and affordable” and “a revenue source.”

Money and Maintaining the High Line ; Its Former “Life”

It takes a lot of money to maintain the High Line. Hammond wrote that “virtually every employee you see on the High Line is employed thanks to private donations. Without this support, we would not be able to maintain and operate the park at the high level of care we all have come to expect.”

Yes, what about that “high level of care we all have come to expect?” Could we have expected a little less? After reading for years about efforts to get the High Line preserved, it all came together in 2002 after Hammond and others formed Friends of the High Line in 1999. The High Line tracks sat virtually unattended for close to 20 years. But FOHL’s vision for it was to take it so far from what it had becomepictures of that vacant time period illustrate its almost wild glory with remarkable, beautiful wild life in the form of plants and flowers that had taken over the tracks and surrounding area.

Phase 2 construction of the High Line cost $66.8 Million; $38.4 Million came from the City of New York. Phase 1 – cost $86 million – opened in June 2009, shortly after Washington Square Park Phase I opened. The park’s total construction costs are paid by a combination of city, state, federal and private sources. As Hammond stated, most of the money to keep the new park going comes from private sources.

Considering the great efforts needed to “maintain” the High Line, I’ve wondered if there ever was a proposal to do something a little … well, less grand? Keeping the park a little more “savage” as one commenter in favor of such wrote at the New York Times site in relation to a December piece about Phase 2.

I didn’t ask Hammond this so I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the group recognized Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe‘s love of “public-private partnerships” figuring this was the best way to get the project done.

“Developers love the High Line”

At one point during the CB2 meeting, Hammond stated “developers love the High Line.” Parks Commissioner Benepe told the New York Times that the High Line has “been a huge magnet for development.” In fact, because it is so expensive to maintain, there has been an effort, relatively unsuccessful thus far, to get residents in nearby buildings to contribute to its maintenance as part of living fees. This effort is considered controversial and unwelcome among those who want more public and less private.

Where the Problem lies with “Public-Private Partnerships” and City Parks

A Walk in the Park Blog wrote of the privatizing effort:

The City’s increasing reliance on these funding schemes, including so called “public/private partnerships” has resulted in a vastly inequitable distribution of services. It has quickly become “a tale of two cities.” Some of these park funding schemes directly divert funds away from the city’s general fund. Experience with these deals over the last twenty years has proven that private subsidies to individual parks has created an enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots, while ignoring the real problem – that our parks are not funded as an essential city service.

From New York Times piece, When Parks Must Rely On Private Money (Feb 5, 2011):

Two of three sections of the High Line, an abandoned elevated rail bed that was transformed into a linear park, cost about $152 million to build. Now, the private conservancy that developed the park with the city is scrambling to devise an income stream to cover the expected $3.5 million to $4.5 million annual cost of maintaining its jewel-box appeal. A proposal to assess a fee on nearby property owners foundered after business owners and residents objected to paying for what they see as a tourist destination. Officials are now looking to increase concessions and to raise money for an endowment.

According to this New York Times piece, the High Line focus on concessionsfood carts, beer & wine porch, and now a restaurant – is in part because reliable private funding from nearby developments hasn’t worked out and the city budget doesn’t have much money to offer a park with such extensive maintenance needs.

This brings up the question: Is it possible that the initial vision for the park, grand as it is, could have been not quite so large in scope, cost and maintenance, and anticipated something that would work over the long haul, not aiming to be yet another luxury product to boost real estate values in Mayor Bloomberg’s NYC?

Additional background:

* New York-based architects Axis Mundi are designing the Downtown Whitney beginning of the High Line at intersection of Gansevoort and Washington Streets.

* Another Meat Packing Plant Pushed Out of The Meat Packing District To Make Way for the Downtown Whitney from Vanishing New York

* Paying Extra to Smell the Flowers, New York Times (4/8/11)

** this is part 3 of my report back from the community board 2 meeting. there’s still a part 4. **

In the News: NYC’s Plans for Private Restaurant in Union Square and Public-Private Partnership Conflict Continues at Prospect Park

* From Washington Square News: City looks to build restaurant in Union Square

— Previously on WSP Blog: The Union Square Pavilion & Privatization of Public Space

* Should someone be a City Parks Dept official and head of a private conservancy?

That’s how it goes at Prospect Park (via The Brooklyn Paper).

— Previously on WSP Blog: Prospect Park and the “sad legacy” of public-private partnerships

Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks

Last year there were numerous creative actions by Save Union Square/Union Square Not For Sale aiming to stop the placement of a private restaurant within Union Square Park‘s north end pavilion. The pavilion had long been closed. It was the focal point of the first Labor Day parade and other historic events, and later used extensively for musical, children and community activities.

The model for all things successful about a city park concession often leads people to point to Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. But is that such a good model to follow?

WNYC.com set out to find out with the piece, “Shake Shack $$$: Bad for City Parks?. It reveals what the “executive directors” of conservancies at some of the tonier parks get paid (Friends of the High Line head Robert Hammond takes home $280,000 a year) and how the popular Shake Shack, as a concessionaire in Madison Square Park, has paid a smaller amount of its $4.9 million a year revenues to the city than most.

City park concessions typically return up to 20% of their revenues back to the city. Meyer’s deal allows him to pay only 12%. In addition, Meyer caters private events at the park from which his company makes up to $15,000 an hour, according to the WNYC piece by Arun Venogopal which references Patrick Arden’s well-researched article “The High Cost of Free Parks.”

Due to the Bloomberg Administration’s over-reliance on private funding in city parks and the administration’s overarching belief that this can take the place of proper funding allocated from the city budget, the Parks Department is in sad shape. This is greatly affecting parks in poorer areas, which don’t have the good fortune of being in high value destinations for real estate and commerce.

Some alarming information follows:

In 1960 parks maintenance and operations claimed 1.4 percent of city funds. Mayor Bloomberg’s new $63.6 billion budget would send parks’ percentage to a record low of 0.37 percent, or $239 million. (Chicago spent almost $150 million more last year on 21,000 fewer acres.)

WSP Blog Note: Really…? Do we want Chicago outpacing us?

The mayor’s cut would drop the full-time workforce below 3,000, less than half the number employed by the Parks Department in 1970. “No other city agency has lost a greater percentage of its workforce over the last 40 years,” says [Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates]. “Private money will never make that up.”

[Patrick] Arden and parks advocates say the “Golden Age for Parks” that Adrian Benepe claims is more like a Gilded Age, “with wide — and growing — disparities between lavish, showplace parks for the haves and cast-off parcels for the have-nots. For every Madison Square, Bryant Park or High Line, there are hundreds of parks that depend solely on the city, and many suffer from scandalous neglect.”

(more…)