What the City Council Missed in Its Hearing on Equity in New York City Parks

Updated 4:42 p.m.

The City Council

Yesterday, the New York City Council’s Parks Committee held a hearing on parks’ equity at City Hall in the Council Chambers. It was pretty well attended, but, like the hearing on oversight of conservancies last fall, speakers were primarily those who need to keep the existing power structures (and their jobs) in check.

And, of course, it is difficult for people whose parks really are not receiving adequate attention to come in the middle of a work day and attend a three and a half hour hearing at which the public only begins to be heard two hours into it (consider travel time if you are coming from the Bronx or the southern part of Brooklyn, then it becomes impossible). By the time anyone outside of the existing power structure speaks (conservancy bosses don’t have to sign up to speak as they are given priority and no time limit), most everyone has left! This is how most hearings of the City Council are structured. Maybe they should flip the order of how things are done and see how that works out? (My testimony is at the bottom of this post.)

Nonetheless, it’s good that a discussion is happening. The City Council is attempting to address an important issue: the fact that parks in mostly poor neighborhoods have been neglected and inadequately maintained. The Parks Department’s solution overall (particularly under former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe) has been to hand off some of our most important city parks to private organizations (this, as I’ve covered here often, is not really a good thing). That doesn’t really work in the less affluent neighborhoods – hence the larger problem of neglect.

The result: parks with wealthy neighbors donating money to private conservancies have been better “maintained” (these “donations” are via tax-deductible donations from private individuals and corporate interests) than parks in other areas of the city.

The City Council Parks Committee includes Chair Mark Levine along with Council Members Mark Treyger, James Van Bramer, Alan Masel, Darlene Mealy, Fernando Cabrera, and Andrew Cohen. Council Members not on the committee who attended yesterday’s hearing were Brad Lander and Ruben Wills. (A whole lot of men!)

Parks with Conservancies may be Better “Maintained” – but at what cost to the public?

The hearing started off with acting Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh who went into a lot of detail. (Soon-to-be Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver was in the audience.) Chair Levine asked how many conservancies and alliances there are at parks in New York City. Kavanagh replied that there are 20 private conservancies with formal license agreements which means they “manage some or part of” their corresponding parks. They all take different forms he stated. When asked, he said they estimate that those 20 took $90 million in “philanthropic contributions” in 2012.

When asked “What is that money buying that other parks don’t get?” Kavanagh responded that it may mean “more consistent staff present throughout the day, consistent maintenance, more skilled staff.”

While everyone acknowledged the Parks Department budget has been greatly reduced over the years (the figures follow), I think there was a lack of attention or understanding that this “money” ends up selling off these parks in other ways. Yes, the park may be better maintained but – at what other cost to the public ?

Daniel Squadron and his “Neighborhood Parks Alliance”

State Senator Daniel Squadron spoke about his Neighborhood Parks Alliance proposal in which 20% of the money coming into conservancies would be directed towards other parks in the city. Somewhere the figure came up that this would raise $10 or $15 million and he said that detractors are stating that this would be “pointless.” He argued that this amount “could be very meaningful.” People are worried that then donations won’t come in to the big parks if the money isn’t going solely to them which seems a little … sad. Squadron said that if in 1 or 2 or 3 years we see that conservancies have “withered” implementing his idea (which he did not think would happen), he’d “be happy to come back here” to discuss.

(I don’t think everything should be reduced to a conservancy – privatization model but if the donation won’t also have influence in how the money is spent and what happens at the individual parks then that is a departure from what is happening now. Although, really the solution to all of this is greatly increasing the city’s Parks Department budget.)

Biederman, NYRT, Thomas, Landau – the Big Four (sort of)

Limited Data, Limited Details on Private Conservancy Money = “Limited Picture for Each Park”

Parks Committee Chair Mark Levine seems to have a good grasp of the issue of equity but perhaps not the larger context of issues with conservancies themselves. The large conservancies and affiliated parks organizations were given preference in speaking – Doug Blonsky of Central Park Conservancy, Daniel Biederman of Bryant Park Corporation (technically a BID), Eric Landau of Prospect Park Alliance, Tupper Thomas from New Yorkers for Parks, Nicole Johnson Yearwood of City Parks Foundation, New York Restoration Trust. (After they were all done, which took a very long time, smaller groups and individuals appeared at the very end.)

Council Member Levine stated that because there is limited transparency as far as private conservancy budgets, there is “a limited picture for each park.” Brad Lander followed up saying that with more transparency and detail on the money coming in, “getting down to a detailed level, getting down to data,” it would be easier to “get in line with city budget.” This makes sense. How the Parks Department does not have the data by park available is questionable as is the fact that there is no accurate data relating to money coming in from the conservancies/”public-private partnerships.”

Central Park’s “Bad Days” – Will we EVER move past this?

I don’t doubt Central Park Conservancy head Doug Blonsky statements that the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) helps other parks. That’s great. But, these conservancy CEO’s are also making money for themselves and it’s a business. The CPC board is comprised entirely of real estate, Wall Street, finance, banks, etc. It’s true that they are not the worst of the conservancied-parks by any means (I’m looking at you Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, Union Square Park and even Prospect Park).

Yes, Central Park had tough times in the ’70’s, ’80s (note: I have met more than a few people who told me some wonderful stories of the park at that time) but when do we move past that? EVER? Does that mean that park is privatized forever more and that that is the model all parks should take? Can’t we be a little creative?

Some of the conservancies retain concession money. At most city parks, the money goes back into the general city fund (something this City Council seems to want to change so the money goes back into the Parks Department’s budget). At first, Blonsky said that concession money from Central Park goes into the general fund but then he said that 50 cents on the dollar “stays in Central Park” (meaning the Conservancy). Chair Levine challenged him a bit on this. Blonsky said in 1984, money coming in from concessions in Central Park was $300,000 a year, he said the number is now $10, 11, 12 MILLION a year from concessions (so the conservancy should get its share back was the implication / statement).

The Agency’s Budget Over the Years

It is certainly true that the Parks Department’s budget has been very much cut over the years. A hand out from the City Council outlined it as follows:

The fiscal crises of the 1970s started a trend of diminished public spending on the park system. For example, park spending represented about $1.4 percent of the City budget in 1960, 0.86 percent in 1986, 0.65 in 1991, and 0.52 in 2000. Currently, DPR’s (Department of Parks and Recreation) expense budget for fiscal year 2014 is $380 million, which by dollar amount is the largest operating budget ever for DPR, but only represents about 0.5 percent of the City budget.

(Remember when former Parks Commissioner Veronica White stated about 3 times that this was the largest Parks budget ever in her testimony before the City Council? This puts that statement into perspective.)

It was really Tupper Thomas (who I’ve sometimes been critical of, and contrary to Brad Lander’s gushing over the Prospect Park Alliance, there are certainly issues with that organization; Thomas once led that organization and now heads up sometimes controversial group, New Yorkers for Parks) who put it into perspective. Thomas said, “Government has to take the first step [and increase the agency’s budget]. Government created the equity issue by not funding the parks. … It’s not really the private sector’s responsibility to manage the parks of New York, it’s the tax payer’s.”

“Equity” issues exist *with* private conservancies

The issue is not just “equity” as far as money. There seems to be an assumption among Council members that once parks are well-funded by private money, all is good. The reason a large increase in the Parks Department budget would be welcome is perhaps we could at last push back against the over-reliance on conservancies and the privatization of our public spaces.

The City Council members seemed somewhat unaware of the larger issues around these private entities – almost assuming that if every park had wealthy donors, that would be a solution. Another kind of “equity” issue exists with parks that have private conservancies and that is what I attempted to address in my testimony before the Council yesterday which follows.

*   *   *

My Testimony, Cathryn Swan:
(They said you only had 2 minutes so this was brief but you get the points I hope. Alas, they then gave people three minutes.)

My name is Cathryn Swan and I write the Washington Square Park Blog, an independent hyper-local blog which I started over six years ago. I’ve written often about the privatization of public space and private entities’ impact on our city’s parks.

The conservancy model is part of the problem.

The solution is not more conservancies.

Conservancies are too often corrupting our public spaces by:

– decreasing public access 

– decreased transparency and accountability

– increasing commercialization and

– increased corporate and real estate influence

– no public involvement overall.

At Bryant Park, Community Board 5 is continually fighting against the commercialization of that park.

The community around Prospect Park has a lot of concerns about the Prospect Park Alliance.

And at Union Square, the BID pushed through a restaurant against community wishes.

Washington Square Park has never had a conservancy. The community has voted the idea of a conservancy down for 12 years. Recently, the Parks Department colluded with four wealthy individuals to form a conservancy that they said was not really going to be a conservancy. This was formed behind closed doors with no transparency, no community involvement or public input. They misrepresented their intentions and deceived the public. Information was only revealed — about plans for a future license agreement, secret meetings with NYU, NYU’s $500,000 “Gift to the Park,” grand plans for programming for park “patrons” and more — because I FOILed and obtained 501 (c) (3) documents and emails which revealed their true intentions and plans.

The community around the park did not want a conservancy so Bloomberg Administration Parks officials painted a deceptive picture to the public, misrepresented the organization, and manipulated the process.

The first thing that has to be done is to roll this back. Let the community decide the model for this park.

As for the larger issues around parks:

1. The Parks Department budget needs to be increased.
2. There needs to be a review of existing conservancies addressing the issues I outlined before.
3. There need to be creative solutions with community involvement.

Thank you.

(A note: Afterwards, a woman who was on the panel with me from the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance said to me “Those were some serious allegations you made.” I said, “Yes.” She said, “They should have had some questions about that.”)

*   *   *

* Timeline of Washington Square Park Conservancy

* Documentation: FOIL documents re: Washington Square Park Conservancy

Photos: Cathryn

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