Issue 27 Preview: The High Cost of Free Parks

In a feature article from Issue 27, now available for purchase, Patrick Arden asks whether public-private partnerships save parks, or exploit them.

Shake Shack, in New York’s Madison Square Park. mackarus

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This article appears in Issue 27 of Next American City magazine. To subscribe, click here. To see a list of newsstands in your city, click here.

On the corner of Manhattan’s Madison Square Park stands a statue of 19th-century politician Roscoe Conkling, the kingmaker of Gilded Age New York. A mercurial manager of the state’s Republican machine, Conkling twice refused appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, preferring to measure his success in money. The stone Conkling has a hand extended, palm up, as if he’d posed before a payoff.

The statue faces a multimillion-dollar business located under the park’s sycamore trees. Shake Shack, the high-end hamburger chain started by restaurateur Danny Meyer, is one of the best-known examples of how New York City is paying for its most famous parks: Get somebody else to pick up the tab.

Meyer’s formerly seasonal concession has grown into a year-round restaurant that rakes in more than the average McDonald’s. In warmer months, lines barely budge for an hour or more. In 2009 Shake Shack collected revenues of $4.9 million; $220,256 of that went to the city and $348,389 to the park. Concessions in other parks pay as much as 20 percent of their take to the city, but not Meyer, whose company adds to its profits by catering private parties in the park for $15,000 an hour.

When Meyer opened his fast-food stand, he was the director and co-founder of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that oversees the public park. In 2001 the city completed a $6 million renovation of the 6 leafy acres, and the next year Meyer co-founded the conservancy to assume responsibility for the park’s maintenance and programming. That’s the formula followed by the city’s top conservancies, which leverage public land and money to turn parks into self-sustaining enterprises.

Public-private partnerships are widely touted as the new model for cities to build and maintain parkland, but they’re old news in New York. The Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980, has inspired similar groups in cities from Atlanta to San Francisco. Yet even in a time of leaner government budgets, a cautionary tale can be found in New York’s 36-year experience of putting public parks into private hands. The city says private investment allows it to target limited taxpayer resources to the parks most in need, creating what parks commissioner Adrian Benepe has repeatedly hailed as a “Golden Age for Parks.” But others see a Gilded Age instead, an echo of Conkling’s era in the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 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.

“New York has created a two-tier parks system,” complains Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. “One for the rich, the other for the poor.”

On a Sunday afternoon Croft and I are driving near Kennedy Airport on Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway. We pass Fresh Creek Park in Jamaica Bay, an 18,000-acre wetland estuary. Amid invasive plants and garbage, we see a few Parks Department signs that brag, “Forever Wild.” “‘Forever Wild’ means ‘forever neglected,’” Croft says. “Whenever you see those words, there’s a good chance no one from the Parks Department has been in there for a while.”

The 44-year-old Croft started his non-profit seven years ago. Since then he’s never raised more than $20,000 a year, but he has become New York City’s leading authority on park issues, working with elected officials and juggling dozens of campaigns. Croft, who has been quoted by local media hundreds of times, has inspected every park in the city, snapping tens of thousands of photographs as evidence to prove his larger points.

No other parks system in America relies as much on other people’s money. Half of the city’s 1,800 parks and playgrounds now depend on some type of private group for maintenance, according to the Parks Department. These efforts range from conservancies responsible for specific parks to gardening clubs and city-affiliated nonprofits. Few of these groups have the resources of, say, a Madison Square Park Conservancy, which raised more than $3.1 million in 2008 from donations, corporate-sponsored events and Shake Shack proceeds (it also held cash and securities worth nearly $8 million). The conservancy employed 28 maintenance staffers, guards and administrators at salaries as high as $185,000, while the entire 18th community district of southeast Brooklyn — with 1,200 acres of parkland in predominantly African-American neighborhoods like Canarsie and Flatlands — had just one dedicated maintenance worker.

“It’s racist,” Croft says. A ringing cell phone brings calls from reporters and community groups, interrupting his commentary on the decimation of the city’s Parks Department in the decades following the rule of Robert Moses, commissioner from 1934 to 1960.

In 1930 Moses unveiled plans for the Belt Parkway, a boulevard stretching 36 miles along the shore of Brooklyn and Queens, with a series of “ribbon parks,” promenades and paths intended to spur homebuilding. FDR’s New Deal paid for public works, and the city stood ready to cash in. When Moses took over the Parks Department, the city had 119 playgrounds. By the time he retired, there were 777. Moses built 15 outdoor swimming pools, 17 miles of beaches, three zoos, dozens of recreation centers, several golf courses as well as miles and miles of parkways. Total parkland nearly tripled to 35,000 acres, giving New York the nation’s largest urban parks system. As Moses prepared to step down at the age of 72, he must have sensed his empire in peril. He made this case to Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, chair of the Citizens Budget Commission: “Now that the park system has been created, it is the responsibility of the next generation to maintain it.”

Though Parks Department funding has gone up since then, it’s lagged dramatically behind increases to other agencies, and the department has never recovered from the drastic cuts in its workforce beginning in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. 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.) 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 Croft. “Private money will never make that up.”

Former mayor David Dinkins had slashed the Parks Department’s payroll by 41 percent in order to deal with deficits in 1991 and ’92, but rather than restore the agency’s budget when times improved, the administration of Rudolph Giuliani used capital funds to fix maintenance issues and welfare recipients to clean parks.

It’s illegal to borrow money for maintenance, a practice that nearly bankrupted the city in the 1970s. But the city will use bond proceeds for improvements and then not maintain a park, requiring it to borrow capital funds again to rebuild. In the long run, of course, building is more expensive than maintenance. Bloomberg has continued down this path, making greater use of capital borrowing and conservancies. “Public-private partnerships are a priority of the mayor,” says a Parks Department spokesperson, “as they were for the three previous mayors.”

Croft played a primary role in organizing community opposition to the new Yankee Stadium project, in which America’s richest sports franchise grabbed 25 acres of parkland in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts. In return, Bloomberg administration officials have repeatedly sought to discredit Croft. At a March event highlighting the city’s progress on replacing the parks, a spokesperson from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, speaking out of Croft’s earshot, sarcastically announced his presence to reporters: “Geoffrey Croft, the most quoted and least credentialed person I know.”

“They’re going to dismiss him because he’s a thorn in their side,” explains Melissa Mark-Viverito, the new chair of the City Council’s Parks Committee. “But if you check into the information he gives, it’s fact. He does his research.”

Croft has a knack for unearthing information. He’s working with residents of Brighton Beach to battle a $64 million amphitheater that’s replacing a small band shell in a neighborhood park. He learned that a city law forbids amplified music within 500 feet of religious institutions, courts and schools. Two synagogues — one with a night school — are within 302 feet of the arena. “We’re lucky Geoffrey is on our side,” says Al Turk, president of the Temple Beth Abraham. The fight’s been vintage Croft, a moral crusade with a bit of gotcha for officials who dare to ignore the grassroots.

Back in Manhattan, some conservancies have become big business. Few may object to the $364,000 salary paid to Central Park Conservancy president Douglas Blonsky, because his group is responsible for raising 85 percent of Central Park’s $27 million annual operating budget. New Yorkers remember when that park’s 843 acres had gone to seed. The same goes for Bryant and Madison Square parks, which were both known as “needle parks.”

But those two parks now exemplify how lucrative the conservancy model can be. The Bryant Park Corporation took in more than $8.8 million in 2007 and its executive director, Daniel Biederman, picked up $210,000 for overseeing its 9.6 acres. Over at the Madison Square Park Conservancy, president Debbie Landau pulled in $185,000 — and her sister Maggi made $114,962.

When the first leg of the $152 million High Line opened last summer on an abandoned railroad embankment in the Meatpacking District, news reports focused on the $1.2 million founder Robert Hammond pocketed over a 10-year period. Last year he took home $280,000 for overseeing 2.8 acres of the partially completed park as executive director of the conservancy Friends of the High Line. That was $75,000 more than the salary of Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner, who’s responsible for 29,000 acres.

The money-making systems have grown more elaborate. In 1984 a group of Brooklyn Heights residents came up with a plan for putting a park on a 1.3-mile stretch of piers, warehouses and parking lots on the East River. City officials said capital funds were available, but money for maintenance would be tough to secure. When the plan stalled, residents raised funds; they hired a landscape architect who formulated a $3.4 million annual maintenance plan, and paid consultants to figure out ways to raise more than $4 million a year, mostly through a restaurant and a small hotel with a conference center. In 2002 Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg committed $150 million to build Brooklyn Bridge Park.

In 2004 the city and state released a different plan for the newly created Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC), governed by a board of directors appointed by Bloomberg and Pataki. Gone were the playing fields, pools, skateboard half-pipe, recreation center and amphitheater. In their place was a kayaking area, “dune landscape” and berths for 180 yachts. The new plan had high-rises in the park, with 1,250 luxury condos, as well as a hotel, retail and restaurants — all meant to pay for upkeep. The cost has since ballooned to $350 million.
This article appears in Issue 27 of Next American City. To subscribe to Next American City, click here. To find newsstands in your city, click here.

The operating budget jumped to $15.2 million. An itemized maintenance list included 15 dune buggies, 16 Toyota Priuses, 40 sit-down lawnmowers, seven pickups, two garbage trucks and a $100,000 street sweeper. A worker weeding by hand would make $44.01 an hour. A one-hour job to “touch up lines and markings on pavement” would be paid as a $20,000 lump sum. A 31-person security force included eight armed guards. “We’re talking about park maintenance — mowing the lawns, painting the benches — not the cost of the Marines to protect against an invasion,” scoffed Tony Manheim, a retired investment banker who headed the residents’ group that originally pushed for the park. “They ginned up the cost to justify the housing.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton agreed: She called the building of the condos to fund the park “disingenuous” on a visit to Brooklyn. One news report claimed politically connected developers stood to see $700 million from the project, before expenses. “Public land should be public land,” Clinton said. But within days, she backtracked. “Although I believe public revenues should support public assets,” she wrote in an apologetic letter to the BBPDC, “I understand that cities across the nation, including New York, have had to struggle to find dedicated revenue sources to fund park maintenance.” A local paper accused her of bowing to political pressure. “Shillary!” the headline screamed.

At a ribbon cutting for the park in March, Bloomberg said the city would commit another $55 million in capital to start construction on two of the six piers. He mentioned a committee would be formed to study alternatives for financing the park, though one condo building is already open and he seemed ready to accept more private housing to pay for park maintenance. “I think this is the model for a lot of things going forward, where if we’re going to have to fund it ourselves we’re not going to have it,” Bloomberg said. “We’re going to make the capital investments — we’ll continue to do that — but for operating we’re just going to have to look elsewhere.”

Bloomberg called on Croft, mistaking the activist for a member of the press. Croft asked whether the city’s reliance on private-funding schemes was creating disparities between parks in wealthy and poor neighborhoods. Bloomberg threw up his hands: “The city does not have the money to have new parks and fund them.”

“The city just announced it’s no longer obligated to fund parks,” Croft said.

To read the rest of this article, please click here.

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