Prospect Park and the "sad legacy" of public-private "partnerships:" The Brooklyn Paper; Plus Washington Square

Tupper Thomas is the Park administrator at Brooklyn’s beautiful 585 acre Prospect Park but she’s really – at this point- considered the grand dame of the park and credited as being the person who “turned the park around.” She also ushered in, as The Brooklyn Paper points out in an editorial this week, the age of “public-private partnerships,” which current NYC Park Commissioner Adrian Benepe will never turn away from. Thankfully, there are independent media outlets like The Brooklyn Paper, a weekly which covers news in Brooklyn, that see through the rose colored haze of what these entities accomplish and can also take note of the inevitable downside.

Here’s an excerpt from this week’s editorial outlining the “sad legacy” of “public-private partnerships”:

The Brooklyn Paper
Editorial: Tupper Thomas’s sad legacy

April 14, 2010

Yes, when Thomas took over day to day oversight of the park in the 1980s, the place was a shambles, a victim, like so many things in those days, of municipal neglect. There was a Parks Department with a mandate to run the city’s open space, of course, but that agency failed.

Out of that failure came the Faustian bargain offered by the Tupper Thomases of the world: put our struggling public spaces under quasi-public control, set aside some of the normal rules, raise private money from rich people, and we’ll make sure wealthy neighborhoods have a suitable backyard.

Yes, Thomas was indefatigable and seemingly incorruptible. And she was well liked by the very people who should have been doing the job better in the first place. Those personal relationships gave Thomas a level of control that should have simply remained in the hands of officials and politicians who are, at least on paper, accountable to the voters, not their donors.

That’s why we have traditionally been leery of such public-private partnerships. If the city would just do its job, our parks would not need people like Tupper Thomas. Indeed, there would also be no need for business improvement districts or agencies like the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, which are motivated by economic expansion for condo developers, not open-space construction for the public.

At Washington Square, private interests also played a role in the current redesign of this historic park, whether publicly or behind-the-scenes:

— the Bloomberg Administration, NYU, the local Business Improvement District (the warmly named “Village Alliance“), some Community Board 2 Members who manipulated the process, The Tisch Family (donated $2.5 million towards moving, aligning, and renovating the Fountain), and who knows who else all worked to overhaul the old Washington Square Park into the type of park they wanted, catering to a certain type of person they wanted in it.

These people and entities proclaimed publicly to appreciate its free spirited past while in essence obliterating it. This park they strived for (and many would argue attained) is one that would inflate already high real estate values surrounding the park, hopefully improve the “character” of 8th Street for the BID, and give NYU further leeway to take over the Village, and, of course, to continue to consider Washington Square the University “campus.”

It remains to be seen if a private Conservancy (the model now that is used to privately oversee some city parks) — with NYU and the BID having significant influence — will take over Washington Square Park.