Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks

Last year there were numerous creative actions by Save Union Square/Union Square Not For Sale aiming to stop the placement of a private restaurant within Union Square Park‘s north end pavilion. The pavilion had long been closed. It was the focal point of the first Labor Day parade and other historic events, and later used extensively for musical, children and community activities.

The model for all things successful about a city park concession often leads people to point to Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. But is that such a good model to follow? set out to find out with the piece, Shake Shack $$$: Bad for City Parks?. It reveals what the “executive directors” of conservancies at some of the tonier parks get paid (Friends of the High Line head Robert Hammond takes home $280,000 a year) and how the popular Shake Shack, as a concessionaire in Madison Square Park, has paid a smaller amount of its $4.9 million a year revenues to the city than most.

City park concessions typically return up to 20% of their revenues back to the city. Meyer’s deal allows him to pay only 12%. In addition, Meyer caters private events at the park from which his company makes up to $15,000 an hour, according to the WNYC piece by Arun Venogopal which references Patrick Arden’s well-researched article “The High Cost of Free Parks.”

Due to the Bloomberg Administration’s over-reliance on private funding in city parks and the administration’s overarching belief that this can take the place of proper funding allocated from the city budget, the Parks Department is in sad shape. This is greatly affecting parks in poorer areas, which don’t have the good fortune of being in high value destinations for real estate and commerce.

Some alarming information follows:

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.)

WSP Blog Note: Really…? Do we want Chicago outpacing us?

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 [Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates]. “Private money will never make that up.”

[Patrick] Arden and parks advocates say the “Golden Age for Parks” that Adrian Benepe claims is more like a Gilded Age, “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.”

There’s been no news for awhile on the status of the restaurant at Union Square Park (Danny Meyer is on the Board of Directors of both the Madison Square Conservancy and the Union Square Partnership) but, in all likelihood, it is moving forward.

At Washington Square Park, the community has argued fiercely against the creation of a private conservancy. There is a new concession at the park, Cake & Shake, but its services are located within a robin’s egg blue truck (it sells cupcakes, shakes, iced coffee) located on the park’s sidewalk and it does not interfere with park activities. The concessionaire pays the city $27,000 a year.

The emphasis on privatization seems to give an illusion that New York City parks are well off and don’t need dedicated substantive funds from the city budget allocated to their maintenance and upkeep.

Instead, money is dedicated to elaborate and costly redesign schemes at the higher profile parks, such as what is ongoing at Washington Square, losing sight of the larger picture which is the actual enjoyment of the parks – for all people, in every borough, even the ones Mike Bloomberg doesn’t frequent.


For more on the privatization of Madison Square Park, visit the recently launched Save Madison Square Park Blog.

Also, see: The High Cost of Free Parks: Do Public-Private Partnerships Save Parks or Exploit Them? by Patrick Arden in Next American City

Photo: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

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