New York Times: Parks Department Takes a Seat Behind Nonprofit Conservancies

Today’s New York Times features a piece, Parks Department Takes a Seat Behind Nonprofit Conservancies, by Michael Powell outlining some of the larger issues with private groups being handed the reins at public parks across the city.

Parks Department Takes a Seat Behind Nonprofit Conservancies:

Somewhere along the way, New York City lost its faith in its ability to run a parks department.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is edging nearer to naming his new parks commissioner. That commissioner will take possession of a department with muscles long ago gone flaccid. It has no dedicated capital budget — relying instead on the kindness of City Council members — and few maintenance workers. Last year, a collection of smaller parks in Brooklyn were handed a big bottle of cleaning fluid and told to make sure it lasted the summer.

The grandest parks, the royal courts of Central Park, the High Line, the Battery and Prospect Park, are in the hands of privately held conservancies. These organizations raise hundreds of millions of dollars and have enough people on staff — gardeners, programmers, curators — to keep a permanent shine on the Palace of Versailles.

Their investment portfolios are stuffed with cash. Many salute conservancies as the toast of urban America. A challenge to their writ is viewed with suspicion.

At a round-table discussion held during Mayor de Blasio’s transition, State Senator Daniel L. Squadron spoke of his proposal that the wealthiest conservancies tithe 20 percent of the dollars they raised. This money, perhaps $15 million annually, would go the less well-endowed parks.

It was as if a Bolshevik had scaled the Belvedere Castle in Central Park and screamed of the evils of monopoly capital.

A former parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, sat on that panel and spoke with annoyance: “The whole concept of government saying to a nonprofit, ‘We’re going to tell you how to spend the charitable dollars you have received,’ flies in the face of American history and democracy.”

Yet conservancies are curiously unrepresentative stewards of public parks. The top eight employees at the Central Park Conservancy — four of whom make more than the parks commissioner — are white. Fifty-four of the 58 current and “emeritus” board members listed on the website are white.

Nearly all board members are terrifically wealthy. (Last year, John A. Paulson, the hedge fund billionaire, gave $100 million to Central Park on the condition that not a penny be spent in another city park.)

It’s no different if you jog south to the High Line, which zigs and zags through the sky like an Escher sketch come to life. It runs within sight of Chelsea’s red brick public houses. No member of those houses sits on its overwhelmingly white board.

Jump from the Battery’s conservancy to Madison Square’s to Brooklyn Bridge Park’s. You can count board members in the hundreds, black and Latino members in single digits.

In Brooklyn, the Prospect Park Alliance, while mostly white, has a better racial mix, with roughly 20 percent of its board members black and Latino.

The Central Park Conservancy’s spokesman noted that one woman in its management is black and two are Latino.

Dan Biederman’s organization runs Bryant Park, the most wholly privatized of New York’s parks. It takes no public money. His top staff is white, as is most of his board. He notes turnover is rare and job candidates many.

His board members, he says, often have deeply liberal views and talk of the need to run an inclusive park.

I don’t doubt his sincerity. Bryant Park looks brilliantly better than when I was a teenager and it was the best place in Midtown to buy a nickel bag of weed. But that is the rub: I have to take his word for it. It’s not as if conservancies hold regular public meetings, in which residents bellyache.

Bryant Park rented out much of its space to corporate tents during the run-up to the Super Bowl. The park’s take remains a secret for now.

The conservancies are explicit about the monetized value of their gems. They advise donors that commercial rents and co-op prices rise near their parks.

I asked Mr. Squadron about the argument that it’s antidemocratic to sluice away a small amount of charitable giving. I recalled that Mr. Benepe refused to let Americans rally in Central Park in protest against the 2004 Republican National Convention, as they might have harmed the grass. That struck me as a more grievous wound.

The senator did not go there. “It’s an extreme view that democracy depends on a government that accepts all private contributions, without strings,” he noted. “Each park is part of a broader network of public parks, which means conservancies have a responsibility.”

That sounds like a not terribly radical notion.

Previously at WSP Blog:

Washington Square Park Conservancy Timeline: Road that Led to Community Board “Approval”

Impact of Private Conservancies on City Parks

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