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