“Public-Private” Partnerships at NYC Parks Leave “Public” Behind While Lack of Media Scrutiny Continues

Brooklyn Bridge View
Brooklyn Bridge View

Updated 10/30, 11:37 a.m. – In NYC, there once was more significant coverage of “public-private” “partnerships” – and the issues that come along with them. 2013 seemed to be the height of media attention. Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, the public-private seems to be receiving far less scrutiny and … it’s all good, if we believe the press and elected officials.

Loss of Key Reporters Covering Private – Public Conflicts

Key reporters who had written excellent pieces on this topic are sadly no longer doing so – such as Patrick Arden who was at Metro and Next American City, Michael Powell at The New York Times who was moved to the Sports section !! – such a loss for us, a gain for sports, where writers are often more strategic and outline better, and Kate Briquelet at The New York Post; she recently moved to Daily Beast. (She covered the arrival and secrecy around the creation of the private Washington Square Park conservancy. Briquelet also covered the “hot dog” vendor ouster hoopla. Links to be added.) The writer who covers parks the most in New York City right now, Lisa Foderaro at The Times, seems to not weigh in or or consider that there is debate around private entities and public parks.

One park and its affiliated private entity has received some in-depth scrutiny in the last year: Brooklyn Bridge Park and its Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.

I’ve Got a (Brooklyn) Bridge to Sell You?

The latest from DNAinfo, Brooklyn Bridge Pierhouse Violates City-Protected Scenic View, Survey Finds:

Brooklyn Bridge Park’s embattled Pierhouse intrudes upon a city-protected scenic view from the Promenade by nearly 20 feet, according to a new surveyor’s report commissioned by opponents of the project.

The Pierhouse, a luxury hotel and condo building constructed on public land along the East River, rises too high above the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, breaking the city’s zoning rules by encroaching on the scenic view, the report, commissioned by Save the View Now, found. …

The six-story Pierhouse will include 108 condos priced between $1.1 million and $11.1 million as well as a hotel, according to state documents. …

“This is the latest example of how the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp (BBPC), a not-for-profit outside of normal New York City government and controlled by the mayor, has failed to provide any meaningful oversight to the construction by Toll Brothers and Starwood on Pier 1,” the group wrote in a press release.

In response to the story at Curbed, commenters tell much of the history and reason for the contention, including:

The BBPC and the developers agreed, after 20 years of negotiations, to build to 100ft INCLUDING the mechanicals within the building envelope. Otis Pearsall, a giant in NYC preservation, and one of the few people who beat Robert Moses, negotiated the agreement in 2005.

NYC zoning code specifically does NOT apply per the documentation. The DOB has limited control over most of The Pierhouse but they DO have control over things like whether The Pierhouse has pierced the Scenic View Plane.

Public Spaces + Privatization = Public Problems

Why this private situation even exists to begin with usually comes down to the same thing. Similar to Hudson River Park and Washington Square, it is the redesign of the spaces, elaborate redesigns which could, of course, have been less … elaborate, and therefore less contentious.

A little less elaborate = easier and less costly to maintain = less chance of private entities taking hold = less chance of commercialization and sanitization of the spaces, less chance of change in use, restricted public access, less chance of overly programmed places, and the host of other problems – oh, a big one: lack of transparency and accountability — that we see at places like Bryant Park, Union Square Park, Central Park, Randalls Island, Madison Square Park, Prospect Park, where private corporations have taken reign.

A note: The private group that formed behind closed doors with no public input at Washington Square Park does not run the park; The Parks Department does – and has for over 20 years. The four affluent women who secretly formed the organization had more ambitious plans to manage and program the park, hoping to procure a license agreement – something which was left out in public statements, just one of many items they misrepresented and obscured. The information behind their larger long-term plans was uncovered and first reported by WSP Blog (see Timeline here and Documentation Concealed by Washington Square Park private conservancy founders).

When forced to meet with community members and park-goers to discuss the now-public documentation (in a limited fashion – the Community Board controlled what and how it was discussed), they stated that, despite written emails saying otherwise, they never intended to go for a license agreement or do programming or any of the items they wrote about in emails.

So, for now, they play a quiet role: they do not program, manage or run Washington Square Park. But because they are a private organization, and their meetings are not public – no one knows really what they are planning or doing.

The extensive redesign of the park gave a wedge in for this type organization to materialize (the community had shot down the idea for over 12 years of any conservancy-type organization at Washington Square Park so, in order to get Community Board “approval” for a new organization, Parks Department honchos and the four socialites met privately for over two years to put together their plan).

At Brooklyn Bridge Park, DNAinfo found out, the private corporation board members bought condos in the properties they were advocating be built in the park.

What goes on behind-the-scenes? The public will be the last to know – if they ever do, when a private entity is placed in charge.

The reason people have known things were more than a little amiss at Brooklyn Bridge was due to community members and advocates dedicated to the cause alerting the media, not because the media was independently investigated.

Now, can we see more coverage again of the problematic public-private elsewhere?

Photo: Rosa Goldensohn/DNAinfo

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