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…)

Thoughts On Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in Madison Square Park…

Jeremy’s Vanishing New York blog covers the phenomenon of Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. Part of the whole renown and hoopla around Shake Shack seems to focus on the obligatorily long wait-in-line for the food — the Shake Shack even encourages those standing in line to do Shack-cercizes and has its own web cam! VNY has his own theories about what the whole attraction to waiting-in-line is for some New Yorkers.

(Personally, after reading some Chowhound reviews of primarily Shake Shack hamburgers, I wonder about the whole meat industry-tortured animals-factory farming-hormones in our food-potentially alzheimers- causing prions factors and what the attraction to that is.)

Nevertheless, if Shake Shack, and, more importantly, some necessary Parks Department upkeep, helped make Madison Square Park more of a destination, it does not mean that our parks that manage just fine as they are (see: Washington Square Park, Union Square Park) need to be tampered with in the same way.

In the News… Daily News’ Juan Gonzalez: “Mayor Bloomberg’s Union Square Park Restaurant Deal Tasteless”

Juan Gonzalez has an excellent piece in today’s New York Daily News: “Mayor Bloomberg’s Union Square Park Restaurant Deal Tasteless.”

Gonzalez writes:

A $7 million private donation to the project from an anonymous source is based in part on construction of the [restaurant] concession, a [Union Square] partnership spokesman confirmed yesterday.

So why can a private donor give money only on condition that a portion of a public park become a private concession?

The fire sale of public space for private business deals has become all too common in the Bloomberg era. Mullaly Park in the Bronx was sacrificed for the new Yankee Stadium.

Randalls Island was turned over first for a water park concession, but the deal later collapsed. Then there was a deal to give rich private schools preference on using the island’s ballfields. A Supreme Court justice voided that deal and the city has appealed.

The article also revealed something I did not know. Restauranteur Danny Meyer who is presently co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (the local business improvement district/BID) which controls much of Union Square Park already — was “a founder and director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy” at the time he was given concession space within that park. That concession is the “popular” Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.

Gonzalez continues:

Meyer, who owns Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, also heads the Union Square Partnership and is a major promoter of the $20 million renovation.

Meyer has sworn under oath he would not bid to run a restaurant in Union Square Park.

That’s not the question. The question is when will Mayor Bloomberg stop giving his rich friends city parkland?

And let’s not forget the plans for the naming of the Fountain in Washington Square Park “Tisch Fountain” which occurred after the Tisch Family made a $2.5 million “donation” to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.