Privatizing Public Space Saving NYC’s Parks

By Dave Lutz

In New York City little planning is done to meet the needs for public space. City government has no idea of what the public needs are, or what it would cost to meet them. There are no studies of how our increasing reliance on the private sector to finance our public space system influences civic choices, or how private sector influence forces public space needs onto the back burner of governmental priorities. Privatization of parks is an increasing responsibility of park administrators.

Paying for Parks

In January, NY’s City Council subpoenaed Parks Commissioner Henry Stern to a hearing to discuss one of his innovations, the fee-for-use event in city parks. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has spoken out against the seat-of-the-pants inconsistency of Parks fees, the capture of the money by private non-profits instead of the city treasury, and the department’s refusal to comply with requests for information on how the money is spent. The funds collected for the temporary rental of parklands go into a variety of boxes, including mayoral charities, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), individual parks conservancies, the City Parks Foundation (which operates like a city-wide parks conservancy), and the city treasury.

The Mayor, on the eve of the Council hearings, released his tightening-up plan, which would set a wide fee range ($10,000 -$500,000) but still allow agency discretion in fees for individual events. While a number of Council members set an angry tone for the hearing, Councilman Phillip Reed noted that the whole fees program brings in only $1 million a year. He asked, “If Council were to raise the Parks operating budget to 1% of city expenditures (it is now 0.4%), would Parks be able not to charge fees, and assign staff to other needs?” Stern answered in the affirmative but noted that another process for limiting the number of events in the most popular parks would be required.

A significant amount of agency effort goes in to meeting the needs of the commercial and non-profit “contributors,” in the form of clean-up, pedestrian management, policing, and site preparation. The personnel costs direct scarce agency staff to the center city parks, which attract the most and biggest events, and stress outer borough facilities. It can be argued however, that since these events bring large numbers of people into the city’s parks, staff power is precisely where it is needed – where the people are.

Parks Closed to the Public

Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan, was recently recaptured from drug dealers with a wonderful redesign that opened the once hidden-by-hedges park to public view from the street. It has again been increasingly “privatized” for trade shows, and now fee-driven programs.

While New Yorkers have gotten used to Bryant Park being closed for the tents of the fashion industry’s trade shows, last December, the “fashions on parade” included lots of pink frills as the overdressed elephants, brightly colored clowns and scantily clad acrobats of the Ringling Brothers Circus

took over Bryant Park for a holiday tent show. The Big Apple Circus was also doing its traditional Christmas run under the big top in Damrosh Park in Lincoln Center. While the specter of two competing circus tents in two Manhattan Parks may be a new one for this city, and using park land in the cooler months for revenue generating events may be sound public policy, revenue from these events does not go to the Parks Department for the improvement of the system. The $140,000 dollar invoice for repairing the parks sprinkler system and lawn will be borne by the local BID and not by either “fashions on parade” producer.

The Damrosh Park band shell at Lincoln Center in Manhattan was deliberately not designed as an admission-charging facility, so its use for a paying event reflects a reversal in Parks planning. Damrosh was intended to be a democratic place where the cultural riches of the city would be offered free of charge to everybody regardless of ability to pay. The park was built partially to justify a huge public investment in Lincoln Center, a facility that would largely be used by the City’s affluent population.

Olympics in Flushing Meadows Park

In the city’s proposal for the 2012 Olympics, two lakes in Queens, Meadow Lake and Willow Lake, would be combined to create a regatta course. The local Jewel Avenue would be in the way of the one-big-lake, so it would be elevated, adding another strap to the circle of highways that girdle and dissect the park. A massive high-powered water roller coaster would be built elsewhere in Flushing Meadows Park to accommodate white water kayaking and canoe events. It would become permanent after the Olympics, presumably for a hefty fee.

In a recent report in The Village Voice, Neil deMause debunks the myth that Olympic games make money. “The Atlanta and Sydney Olympic committees balanced their books by transferring costs – land, Olympic housing, police and fire department overtime – to the public sector. The Atlanta games, according to Georgia Tech planning professor Larry Keating, cost the public $1 billion in housing and infrastructure, while an audit by New South Wales came up with a loss for the Sydney games of about.$1.5 billion.” The Voice reports that projected tourism growth does not pan out.

The Destruction of Community Gardens

After kind words about the value of community gardening, the City Council land use committee voted to allow the destruction of ten more community gardens in one south Bronx neighborhood. With Bronx gardeners watching at a December 14 meeting in City Hall, Council Members promised to attempt to find alternate spaces for new gardens, even as they processed the application that would hand the cherished spaces over to developers. Some Council members hoped out loud that next year the Council would act on pending legislation that would provide a process for determining the future of the small parks.

As the vote was being taken, a report was released that showed the south Bronx is not lacking in blighted vacant lots to use for housing sites. The report, “Achieving Balance,” was sponsored by the Design Trust for Public Space, Bronx Community Board 3 and The Trust for Public Land.

According to Council Member Adolfo Carrión who, with two other committee members, voted against the destruction of gardens, “It is past time to challenge HPD to do better than package the gardens with other development sites.” Perhaps the full Council should see this report before their final vote on snuffing out the gardens. Meanwhile, the gardeners continue to rely on legal restraints won by State Attorney General Spitzer to support their efforts. Until the present judicial hold is lifted, bulldozers cannot destroy a single green oasis.

Luxury Highrise Displaces Harlem Ballfield

A Harlem field of dreams built by a group that uses baseball to reach city kids is again in danger of being replaced by a high-rise. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is reviewing proposals to use half the site for market-price apartments. The 3.5-acre park with two baseball diamonds at 100th Street and First Avenue was a garbage-strewn lot and hangout for drug peddlers until the NY chapter of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) took it over in 1991.

“The situation is similar to that of [building on] the community gardens except it’s two-thirds of a city block and it’s used by about 500 kids,” said Rich Berlin, executive director of Harlem RBI. RBI offers year-round educational programs, mentoring, college preparation and internships — using baseball to connect with local youngsters.

While Parks Crumble, They Play Golf

A recent dispute between the Parks Commissioner and Mayor Giuliani points to the increasing role of private interests in the funding priorities of the Parks Department. Apparently unhappy about the slow pace of a $19 million pet project to install irrigation systems under city golf courses, the mayor appointed pro-shop manager Richard McDonough to a $60,000 a year Parks job after meeting him while playing at the Randall’s Island Park Driving Range. Now, the Mayor seeks to move the management of the city’s links from the Parks Department to the City’s Sports Commission, knocking the Parks Commissioner out of the decision making loop entirely.

There is no public discussion of the efficacy of spending millions on golf course irrigation for the private concessionaires who run the City’s courses, or the environmental consequences of additional runoff into our waterways caused by watering the heavily fertilized golf lawns. Also not discussed is the legality of alienating park land to another agency. Golf is among the least intensive uses of City parkland and the courses are only available to people who can afford the approximately $30 a game in fees.

In NYC, many other parks lie abandoned, fenced off, or undeveloped. Park structures and infrastructure are in desperate need of repair. Natural areas suffer from lack of care. Parks programming is virtually non-existent and community gardeners are at risk of losing their recreational spaces to private developers. While the mayor has the right to set city priorities, one would hope it gets done after due consideration of all needs of citizens.

A Two-tiered Park System

Walking tours and field trips sponsored by the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition reveal that while Manhattan’s Central Park is now polished almost to perfection, other parkland around the city is shut off from the public. A recent bike ride through Highland Park on the Brooklyn-Queens border found new fences and graffiti sprayed buildings in the reservoir area. On the Coalition’s recent uptown walking tour, we found that Highbridge Park’s playgrounds and ball fields are open or under reconstruction, but the forested cliff-side trails are uncleaned, uncared for, overgrown, and fenced off. And Highbridge itself – the magnificent landmark aqueduct/walkway across the Harlem River – continues to be off limits to strollers and cyclists. On another walk we weed-whacked our way through undeveloped parkland on the Bronx River, until we were dead-ended and “rescued” by waiting rowboats. Many park areas, almost always in low-income areas of our city, are closed off and abandoned.

There is no doubt that the Central Park Conservancy has succeeded in showing that it can maintain a city park. But there is no evidence that private money can care for all of New York’s parks and, as the Parks Council’s Elizabeth Cook repeatedly points out, the polishing of Central Park has required public match money that was diverted from diminishing total Parks resources for the whole city.

Are Parks the Lowest Priority?

The city’s parks are for sale and high quality parks are available for those neighborhoods that can “contribute” to their upkeep. Less affluent communities tend to have less park land and parks that are less well maintained. Poor maintenance leads to the sense that the spaces are out of control and in communities that have a multiplicity of needs, sometimes partially caused by overcrowding, park land is sometimes feared rather than welcomed.

The city doesn’t even know what it would cost to bring the all our parks up to a state of repair, or what facilities are desired. We methodically count the acres of parkland in our inventory, including underwater acres in our harbor, and brag about how much park land we have. But we haven’t a clue as to what it would cost to develop the inadequate land acres that we hold as accessible and usable park space. When park activists call for spending 1% of the City’s budget, the assumption is that things have to get better if more money is spent. My guess is it will be marginally better, but far more will need to be done.

Dave Lutz is Executive Director of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition. For more information subscribe to Urban Outdoors, NOSC’s free monthly e-letter, from which most of the information in this article is drawn. To subscribe visit

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