The Selling Off of our Public Space by the NYC Parks Department — Private Fashion Event To Take Over West 4th Street Ball Courts; Parks Dept. Bypasses Community Board Approval

Yes, there was a Washington Square Park Task Force/Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting last night addressing Washington Square Park’s Redesign: Phase III.  But truthfully what was perhaps more interesting was what happened after that part of the meeting ended.

CB2 Parks Committee chair Tobi Bergman announced that they had a last minute addition to the agenda. At that point, four young women who had entered the Task Force meeting mid-way (they didn’t look like the regular Washington Square Park folks) went to the front of the room and sat down, clearly ready to give some kind of presentation. I couldn’t even fathom what it might be but it had ‘this is going to be interesting‘ written all over it.

Turns out it was.

These women represented clothing designer Joseph Abboud, who, along with JC Penney and the NBA are launching a fashion line, and have been given the go ahead by the Parks Department to take over the West 4th Street (Basketball)Courts for a day and night on Monday, May 18th for a private event – an “editors’ preview” – for the sum of $17,000.00. The event planners met with the Parks Department about a month and a half ago and just now, one and a half weeks before the event will occur, the agency sent representatives from the company before the Community Board to present the plan – after the contracts have been signed.

The New York City Parks Department basically threw these four women into the fray with no idea what they up against (community disapproval, for one). Instead of the Parks Department sending its own representative to explain this decision – which is supposed to receive Community Board approval first – they sent company representatives who clearly didn’t realize there was any issue with what they were doing.

And, really, why would they? In Mike Bloomberg’s New York, why would you think there’d be any problem with a corporation taking over and seizing a public space for a private event, shutting out the … uh… public?

There’s no possible reversal or canceling of the event at this point. I gather the Parks Department figured it was better that the Community Board hear of this now rather than after the fact and alerting them before hand (as is technically required) might have put this plan in jeopardy. The Community Board might have not approved it or put stipulations on the event.

Tobi Bergman commented, “We don’t love people using parks for private purposes.” That was the basic sentiment of the Board during the meeting which was outraged and concerned that approval of the event did not come before them first.

I asked Geoffrey Croft from NYC Park Advocates about this privatization of parks and the bypassing of the Community Board and he said: “This is common practice by the Parks Department. This administration goes out of its way to avoid community based planning and consultation.” In addition, “The City is using Parks as cash cows. The money doesn’t even go into the parks. However, that also becomes a slippery slope because [if it did] the temptation to exploit our parks becomes so much greater.”

Part of the problem – which perpetuates situations like this – is that the Parks Department is severely underfunded and neither the Mayor or the City Council seem ready to address this anytime soon.

It was suggested at the meeting that the company (or someone) put up notices in advance to alert the basketball and handball players at the West 4th Street Courts – it’s a very popular court for both playing and watching – that their courts were being taken over for a day and therefore unusable. The company has the public space from 6 a.m. to midnight. The event occurs from 6-8 p.m.

I’ve written here before about privatization-of-public-space in New York City. See previous entries: Union Square and pervasive influence of the local Business Improvement District, the selling off of the Washington Square Park Fountain to the Tisch Family by the Parks Department ($2.5 million) and another well publicized take over of public space in Central Park by Chanel last fall given the green light by the Central Park Conservancy.

Photos: Left, Wallyg; Right: Footprintzstars

The Vanishing City… and Vanishing “CitiField” name?

Technically, this blog writer is on a blogging break til Monday, April 13th. Except, as you might have noted, the blogging thing sort of gets in your blood and it’s hard to stop. !

With that in mind, I write a short entry below:

I went to the second Vanishing City event Sunday afternoon at Dixon Place Theater featuring films, including the work-in-progress documentary “Vanishing New York” (20 minutes was shown) and “The Over Successful City,” and speakers discussing the changing neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, Chinatown and Bowery (largely attributed to Mayor Bloomberg‘s policies, giveaways to developers, and “rezonings” of these areas). Doris Diether, of Community Board 2 and a highly regarded Village activist and advocate, was added to the line-up at the last minute. All the speakers and audience members’ points were spot on.

I’ll try to write something about it in the near future or perhaps when I return writing new entries. I’m sure Kirby at Colonnade Row blog will write an update. I’ll link to it when he does. You can read my report back of the first event in late January here.

In the meantime, at Vanishing New York blog, Jeremiah has an interesting write up today on the new Mets Stadium and the unfortunate selling of the naming rights to CitiBank. It is now called “Citi Field” – but, as Jeremiah notes, only if we agree to call it that! He advocates boycotting the name (I agree) and taking a cue from the MTA which lists the stop as just Mets (the old stop was listed as Shea Stadium) and heretofore calling the new stadium Mets Field.

I’d read that the reason for the missing “CitiField” name on the subway stop is that CitiBank, one of the banks bailed out by our taxpayer money, would not pay the MTA to have their name listed as a subway stop – so the stop is just referred to as Mets. (That seems a bit dubious on the part of the MTA but anyway…) If you think about it, they bought the naming rights to the stadium – for $400 million – for only 20 years.

Hopefully, 20 years from now, corporate naming and selling off of everything to corporations – a la Mayor Bloomberg – will no longer be a trend.

Jeremiah recalls that the Flatiron Building was originally named the Fuller Building but people didn’t like it so it never stuck. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

Sort of like … hmmm… at Washington Square Park, the “Tisch” Fountain, perhaps? Somehow I don’t think that name will ever stick. The Tisch Family may not have realized what they were getting themselves into when they brokered that one.

See you soon —

Bloomberg’s Privatization of Washington Sq Park: NYU, Tisch, Who Else?

Phase I of the City’s extensive planned “renovation” of Washington Square Park has gone from a projected $6 million to over $13 million. The “renovation’s” TOTAL costs, once two, now three Phases, stated to be $16 million at the onset (an excessive sum to begin with), are now lurching upwards to $25-30 million.

Where will the money come from? Since most everyone believes that Washington Square Park could manage with a few repairs on a relatively minor budget, it seems like a tailor made scheme for future privatization of the Park. Will a private conservancy be put into place to further control and manipulate this park? The Park’s redesign aims to change everything about its past – why not that?

Of course, the elephant in the room is New York University whose advertising pitches and promotional materials all feature Washington Square Park’s Arch (a public space, last we checked) larger than life. On the subway the other day, I saw five ads across the car for NYU’s School of Continuing Professional Studies — the Arch was bigger than anything else in the ad.

NYU is throwing in $1 million thus far for the “renovation” of the Park despite their insistence that they are “not involved.”  The University even sent a letter last year from their Community Affairs office to their “neighbors.”  It stated that “the University believes it [the Park] has been in need of renovation for some time” … “though NYU had no hand in the specifics of the Park’s redesign.” ??

NYU’s $1 million is an amazingly small sum towards this spot that they claim as their own and use in all their advertising and as the site of their graduation ceremony. Anything more and perhaps it would look like they had too much control, eh?

But since Mayor Bloomberg and NYU President John Sexton are such good friends — and Sexton’s endless expansion of NYU through our city’s neighborhoods has been bolstered by Mayor Bloomberg’s “policies” … the destruction of the fabric of communities is what Mayor Bloomberg likes because then his rich yet bland vision of NYC is further realized — there’s definitely some behind-the-scenes negotiating going on here.

Then there’s the Tisch Family who clearly believe there can’t be enough structures with their name on it — who forked over a nominal $2.5 million towards the reconstruction of the historic circular fountain guaranteeing them the naming rights and the aligning of the fountain with the Arch at Fifth Avenue. Soon it will be unveiled as the TISCH FOUNTAIN; a plaque on each side. (Whether anyone will actually call it that or be cool with that plaque’s existence is another story.)

Who exactly is negotiating these deals? Parks Commissioner Benepe? If you’re going to sell off one of the most famous and beloved spots in New York City at least do a good deal.

With the Park’s redesign costs skyrocketing out of control, will the City ultimately commission other corporate naming rights within the Park? The JP Morgan Chase Garibaldi Statue perhaps?

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* Updated and revised version of a post originally published February 29th, 2008 *

Washington Square Park, As It Looks Now, and What’s Been Happening Of Late

Washington Sq Pk, early Dec. 08

Washington Sq Pk, early Dec. 08

For a refresher, or in case you missed ’em, read more about what’s been happening lately at Washington Square Park from these recent posts:

* Update from Washington Square Park Task Force Meeting 12/3, featuring a Parks Department Presentation on Next “Phases” of WSP Redesign, Part I.

* The “Tisch” Fountain plaques have arrived!

* Rocker Pete Wentz and Band Fall Out Boy Attempt “Spontaneous” Concert in Washington Sq Park 12/15.

Photo: J. Bary

NYC Parks Dept. – 2/3 cuts in workers and many privatization schemes

Parks Dept. Logo, old Grate, Flatbush, Bklyn

Parks Dept. Logo, old Grate, Flatbush, Bklyn

According to New York Jobs With Justice:

“Years ago, NYC’s public parks were administered by over 7,500 municipal employees of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Today, it’s only 2,500 municipal employees taking care of NYC’s public parks. This number continues to shrink as the years go by. Much of the labor has been privatized through city partnerships with non-profit administrators resulting in a two-tier work force of public servants in the City’s public parks.

That is a 66% reduction in Parks Department workers.

Since so much has been willingly privatized (by the City), it’s hard to know what the actual number of workers is now.

Another result of the Parks Department budget cuts and the City government’s focus on privatization of our public spaces is emphasis on private entities which manage the space and also deem how that space is used.

* The City sells off naming rights to the fountain at Washington Square Park under the ruse that they can’t afford to repair it otherwise, and they agree to re-name it Tisch Fountain for $2.5 million (it ends up being moved, unnecessarily “aligned,” along with the deal) …

* At Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy – the private entity in charge of the park – has fought workers’ efforts to unionize.

* At Union Square Park, the Parks Department accepts a $7 million “anonymous” donation with STIPULATIONS – strings attached – that this donation ensures that there is a private restaurant in the historic Pavilion at Union Square. Although it hasn’t been revealed who the donor is, somehow restauranteur Danny Meyer, who is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (the local BID-business improvement district), is the only name bandied about as the choice to helm the restaurant. The restaurant is held off – for the moment – by a judge’s decision; the result of a lawsuit that a community group brought against the Parks Department to stop the privatization of this public space. (Meyer insisted in an affidavit that he has no plans to run the restaurant – but he supports it.)

You can see how much of a slippery slope this whole privatization game is.

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Photo: Cat

* This is an edited and expanded version of a post published April 25, 2008. *

Bloomberg’s Privatization of Washington Sq Park: NYU, Tisch, Who Else?

Washington Sq Park At Dusk

Washington Sq Park At Dusk

* Recycled Entry *

Phase I of the City’s extensive planned “renovation” of Washington Square Park has gone from a projected $6 million to over $13 million. The “renovation’s” TOTAL costs — in two Phases (WSP Blog Note: now three) — were stated to be $16 million at the onset (an excessive sum to begin with) but are now lurching upwards to $25-30 million.

Where will the money come from? Since most everyone believes that Washington Square Park could manage with a few repairs on a relatively minor budget, it seems like a tailor made scheme for future privatization of the Park.

Of course, the elephant in the room is New York University whose advertising pitches and promotional materials all feature Washington Square Park’s Arch (a public space, last we checked) larger than life. On the subway the other day, I saw five ads across the car for NYU’s School of Continuing Professional Studies — the Arch was bigger than anything else in the ad.

NYU is throwing in $1 million thus far for the “renovation” of the Park despite their insistence that they are “not involved.” We received a copy of a letter the University sent from their Community Affairs office to their “neighbors” recently. It stated that “the University believes it (the Park) has been in need of renovation for some time” … “though NYU had no hand in the specifics of the Park’s redesign.” ??

With the Tisch Family providing $2.5 million towards the reconstruction of the historic circular fountain — guaranteeing them the naming rights, thereby “officially” renamed TISCH FOUNTAIN with a plaque on each side — NYU’s $1 million(a small sum, for them, towards this spot that they use in all their advertising and as the site of their graduation ceremonies), will the city ultimately – with costs skyrocketing out of control – commission other corporate naming rights within the Park? (The Walmart Garibaldi Statue perhaps?)

Now, I realize Mayor Bloomberg would not have a problem with this, but I do. I don’t want every last inch of public space corporatized and particularly not Washington Square Park.

Other questions: Will the City set up a Conservancy and further privatize the park enabling them to hold exclusive ticketed events? Will they close off the Park to the public which, of course, will be easier once they erect their proposed four foot fence?

*One of this blog’s first entries! Originally published February 29th, 2008.*

Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) to counteract the far-reaching Business Improvement Districts(BIDS)!

Community Improvement District
It seems every district in New York City has a Business Improvement District, breezily referred to as BIDS. On the face of it, businesses wanting to improve their districts … it sounds so benign, right?

But as artist and activist Robert Lederman outlined in a previous entry Parks for Sale: Business Improvement Districts and the Privatization of our Public Spaces,” the BIDS don’t just stay on their side of the street. In Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, their tentacles spread far and wide, amidst the roots of the trees, up through the dirt or concrete, and busting out into our public spaces.

A new model, Community Improvement Districts(CIDS), works to protect, preserve and promote the well being of the community. The needs of the people are the primary concern, distinguishing the CIDS from the better known and financed groups known as BIDS, whose sole interest is to promote better business and an environment conducive to shopping.

At Union Square Park, the local BID, Union Square Partnership (co-chaired by restauranteur Danny Meyer), runs all the activities in the Park from clean-up to yoga! A significant down side is that they have unrestrained control over what happens at this public space (including cracking down on artists and free speech). Their latest plans to place a restaurant within the historic Pavilion have been met with community disapproval and outrage. It was design plans they initiated that led to fourteen old trees being chopped down for no reason, other than they were in the way of the design. (Apparently the idea of working them into the design was not considered). And our NYC Parks Department, under the aegis of Mayor Bloomberg, supports this, and further privatization of our parks.

It is part of a city-wide pattern. The city underfunds the park, pushes aside public funds and then brings in a BID and a few millionaire friends posing as saviors.

At Washington Square Park, the local BIDS(who have prominent positions on local Community Board 2), along with NYU and the Tisch Family, and with full support and implementation by Mayor Bloomberg and his Parks Department, have played a role in a redesign plan that is destroying the very heart of this beloved and historic Park.

The BIDS’ role in our communities needs to be lessened, not enlarged. The BIDS need to stay out of decision-making related to our public spaces. We need transparency and democracy. What we have in our city parks and public spaces is considerably removed from that at the moment. The Community Improvement District model works to change that and, instead of the well-being of Danny Meyer or NYU or Barnes & Noble, places the well-being of the community first.

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.

NYC Parks Dept.-2/3 cuts in workers and endless privatization schemes

According to New York Jobs With Justice: “Years ago, NYC’s public parks were administered by over 7,500 municipal employees of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Today, it’s only 2,500 municipal employees taking care of NYC’s public parks. This number continues to shrink as the years go by. Much of the labor has been privatized through city partnerships with non-profit administrators resulting in a two-tier work force of public servants in the City’s public parks.”

That is a 66% reduction in Parks Department workers. Since so much has been willingly privatized (by the City), it’s hard to know what the actual number of workers is now.

Another result of the reduction in the Parks Department budget and the City government’s focus on privatization of our public spaces is that private entities manage the space and also deem how that space is used.

In addition, the City sells off naming rights to, for example, the fountain at Washington Square Park under the ruse that they can’t afford to repair it otherwise, and they agree to re-name it Tisch Fountain for $2.5 million (and it ends up being moved, unnecessarily “aligned,” along with the deal) …

The Parks Department accepts a $7 million “anonymous” donation with STIPULATIONS – strings attached – that this donation ensures that there is a private restaurant in the historic Pavilion at Union Square. Although it hasn’t been revealed who the donor is, somehow restauranteur Danny Meyer, who is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (the local BID-business improvement district), is the only name bandied about as the choice to helm the restaurant.

You can see how much of a slippery slope this whole privatization game is.

To the New York City Council on NYC Parks Department

The New York City Council Parks Committee held Preliminary hearings on the Parks Department budget yesterday, March 19th. My testimony follows.

We would have liked to have heard some hard hitting questions from the City Council members to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe but that did not occur. Perhaps we can work on this for the Final Budget hearings in May.

Note: I would have liked to have covered the proposed tree destruction and privatization in Union Square Park, dangerous artificial turf in parks across our city, the attempted privatization of Randall’s Island, the mass destruction of trees for Yankee Stadium, etc. — I focused on Washington Square Park as I think it is representative of the Parks Department’s reckless abandon and I think it is an area in which the City Council needs to – and can – intervene.

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I am concerned about the Parks Department and the privatization of our parks but I’d like to specifically focus on what’s happening at Washington Square Park.

The New York City Council needs to hold oversight hearings on what’s transpired at Washington Square Park.

It should not be up to lawsuits to be the only method that holds the Parks Department accountable to transparency and honesty.

The Parks Department did not reveal essential elements of their plans before going before local Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission – and gaining their initial approval. These are part of our checks & balances and if the information is flawed, then the process will be.

The Parks Department went before the community stating that there would only be a 5% reduction in public space.

The existing entire plaza is 51,223 square feet.

The proposed plaza is 39,419 square feet.

That is a reduction of 11,804 square feet.

That is no five percent. That is a 23 % REDUCTION.

The Parks Department is messing with the historic character of this Park which is a landmark. People come from all around to go to this park to see what is happening there each day and each day it is something different.

The Parks Department sold off the naming rights of the fountain to the Tisch family for $2.5 million so that the fountain could then be called TISCH FOUNTAIN. Another fact not revealed to the Community Board.

In addition, I’m sure you’ve heard that they are digging up 18th and 19th century burial grounds. They told the community they would only dig 1-3 feet below grade and they are digging 7-11 feet.

Community Board 2 later rescinded its approval – something Commissioner Benepe does not recognize when he writes to City Council members who question his actions around the Park.

Eleven 50-100 year old trees have been cut down thus far.

It is not JUST, as Commissioner Benepe implied, about cavalierly cutting down old trees and planting new ones — it’s about being STEWARDS for the trees that are there.

The Parks Department let Washington Square Park fall into disrepair and then swooped in with a disingenuous redesign that is unwanted by virtually everyone.

The original plan called for the costs to be $16 million.

Phase I (there are two Phases) was originally $6 million and is now budgeted at $13 million.

Where is that money coming from?

This allows for the further privatization of the park.

I ask the City Council to hold hearings on this issue and apply further scrutiny to the Parks Department.

Thank you.

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–There’s some more we’ll post about what we learned about some other parks — particularly Ridgewood Reservoir in Queens – having major interference from Parks Department – which must be stopped – and some heart breaking details if the plan is allowed to go through. Interestingly enough, Ridgewood Reservoir (which I’d never heard of, and is on the Brooklyn-Queens border) was constructed in 1848 to provide drinking water to the city of Brooklyn! It was taken out of the water system during the late 20th century. According to testimony by advocates for the Reservoir, the Parks Department plans to destroy thousands of trees to build new synthetic turf ballfields on this pristine site. ! More on this to come. Did we mention we think the Parks Department needs some oversight?