by Henry Stern, Opinion, New York Daily News, October 4, 2014
As the gap between rich and poor in New York City widens and a raft of new real estate plans are approved, the public has been losing ground in the tug of war over parks and open spaces. And government, once the defender of public assets, appears all too eager to surrender them for private development.
The most current and painful case in point: the struggle over NYU’s 2031 expansion plan. …
LaGuardia Park, LaGuardia Gardens and Mercer Playground are in NYU’s crosshairs for development. The university claims they’re not really parks — based on the fact that they’re technically overseen by the city’s Department of Transportation.
That argument holds no water. Not every slice of open public land is technically part of the city’s official park portfolio, but it’s how the space is used by the community that determines its status.
In this case, even though the strips of land in question were never formally turned over to the city’s Parks Department — as Parks Commissioner for 14 years, I tried repeatedly to make this happen — they have been used by the community as parks for decades.
A recent decision in state court set back NYU’s plans — by declaring that LaGuardia Park, LaGuardia Gardens and Mercer Playground are, in fact, entitled to basic protections as public space.
The city is now appealing that court’s decision, fighting in court on the same side as NYU. If successful, not only could the already scant open space available in the area become greatly diminished, it would be a continued violation of the Public Trust Doctrine.
That doctrine, which dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, is a crucial part of America’s common law tradition. It maintains that the government holds the titles to certain waters and lands in trust for the people. This has evolved to extend protection to scenic resources, open space in general, energy generation and preservation of ecosystems and historical sites.
In New York State, if an entity wishes to develop or remove a parcel of parkland from public ownership and use, it must follow a legal process called “alienation,” which, among other conditions, requires approval from the state Legislature.
Not only did NYU fail to take these steps, but our City Council then blatantly disregarded its obligations.
For the city to now use the judicial system to protect the rights of powerful institutions over the rights of individual citizens is terrible precedent and bad policy. In fact, it is no policy at all; it’s an abnegation of government responsibility.
The de Blasio administration can begin to change this with one important act: Drop the city’s appeal, and stand up for communities that want to protect and even expand their parks, gardens and open spaces.
City Hall should be the first — not the last — to act in the public interest.
Stern, former city parks commissioner, is co-founder and president of New York Civic.
Photos from a rally/press conference at LaGuardia Park prior to the case going back to court that afternoon, September 24th.
NYU and Private Conservancy and Plans for Washington Square Park
With regards to New York University and its never-ending expansion into Greenwich Village: NYU operates as a real estate behemoth and is regarded warily and not trusted – and with good reason.
Yet, many members of Community Board 2 did not take seriously community concerns in relation to NYU and Washington Square Park, particularly when it came up in relation to the “in formation” (the truth is it was already “formed”) Washington Square Park Conservancy.
Documents obtained by this blog via FOIL (Freedom of Information Letter) request illustrate that multiple meetings took place between the Washington Square Park Conservancy and NYU higher ups – and that is a concern because no information from these discussions that took place – and any agreements that came out of them – has been shared with the public. (More to come on this.) CB2 Parks Committee, as of March of this year, either never viewed the documents or chose to ignore/misinterpret them. The Parks Department and the Conservancy members downplayed (by omission, misrepresentation and evasion) at the few public meetings any role the private organization would play at Washington Square Park – and so we still do not have the entire truth. This is another example of “terrible precedent and bad policy” as well as “abnegation of responsibility.” The Community Board should not be protecting and shielding private individuals from scrutiny over the public’s right to the truth.
Washington Square Park is money to NYU, it is another form of real estate to the University – the public needs as much scrutiny over the corporation’s plans for the park (and what those plans entail), as we do around its mega-expansion.
Jim Walden, attorney for the plaintiffs against NYU’s mega expansion plans, said some illuminating things about conservancies on the Leonard Lopate show in 2013 (“Selling and Giving Away NYC Parks”):
Walden: “Development corporations and conservancies don’t have the same transparency, visibility, sunlight that a city agency would [in theory]. … From a pure public policy perspective, as long as the private interests that are contributing to the park understand that it’s no different than making a charitable contribution, once you give the money, you’re done. [In that case] There wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is control. With the private money coming in to the park, there is some giveaway of control that ultimately allows a foot in the door, ultimately resulting [in] the park either changing, shrinking or going away completely.”