Institute for Local Self-Reliance Weighs in on Privatizing of Public Parks

Corporatized Bryant Park
Corporatized Bryant Park

I have written about the issues with privatization of public space here and here and also at The Huffington Post, and so, this article from The Institute for Local Self-Reliance news feed, The Public Good, is a bit like a Cliff Notes version of all of that (in fact, some of the links link back here); it is a good overview and reminder:

Privatizing Public Parks

After the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, funding for parks was slashed. Public parks were falling into disrepair and becoming drug and crime havens. Some described Central Park’s Great Lawn as “more like a dust bowl.” Cities began to create “public-private partnerships”, private non-profit groups often called Conservancies, to pick up the financial slack.

The Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980, rejuvenated that great park, inspiring cities from Atlanta to San Francisco to create their own private-public partnerships. Bryant and Madison Square parks in New York City, once known as “needle parks” became other widely cited examples of successful urban renewal.

But these private public partnerships have a dark side. They seemingly inexorably begin to emphasize the private while diminishing the public. Bryant Park, located behind the 42nd Street Library is a case in point. As one observer describes the situation, “With a CitiBank ‘CitiPond’ ice skating rink, a Southwest Airlines ‘The Southwest Porch’ cafe, and exorbitant fees for events that discourage non-profits and can only be afforded by corporations, Bryant Park has become more of a corporate playground. Its over-commercialization and selective policies lend to a park that is something less than a true public commons.”

“Bryant Park has become more of a corporate playground. Its over-commercialization and selective policies lend to a park that is something less than a true public commons.”

While Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, Central Park and the newly created Highline benefit enormously from private investment, New York City’s other 1,700 parks big and small suffered from continued neglect as the City slashes its public park budget.

In 1960 New York City parks maintenance and operations claimed 1.4 percent of city funds. In 2013 this had dropped to 0.5 percent. As Patrick Arden has noted, the full-time workforce of the Parks Department had dropped by more than half since 1970, 25 percent just since 2009.

The result? According to Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates, “New York has created a two-tier parks system. One for the rich, the other for the poor.”

In 2008 Madison Square Park Conservancy, Arden observes, employed 28 maintenance staffers, guards and administrators at salaries as high as $185,000, while southeast Brooklyn — with 1,200 acres of parkland in predominantly African-American neighborhoods like Canarsie and Flatlands — had just one dedicated maintenance worker.  …

[WSP Blog note: But it is not just about the rich vs. the poor; it is about the impacts of these private organizations on everyone:]

Southwest Porch Bryant Park
Commercialized Bryant Park

The history of Brooklyn Bridge Park demonstrates the process by which successful citizen activism morphs into significant commercialization. Arden tells the story. In 1984 a group of Brooklyn Heights residents designed a plan for putting a park on a 1.3-mile stretch of piers, warehouses and parking lots on the East River. City officials said capital funds were available, but not for maintenance. Determined residents raised funds, hired a landscape architect, formulated a $3.4 million annual maintenance plan and paid consultants to figure out ways to raise more than $4 million a year, mostly through a restaurant and a small hotel with a conference center.

In 2002 Governor George Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg committed $150 million to build Brooklyn Bridge Park but while doing so created the private Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC) governed by a board of directors appointed by Bloomberg and Pataki. In 2004 the city and state released a different plan.Gone were the playing fields, pools, skateboard half-pipe, recreation center and amphitheater. In their place was a kayaking area, ‘dune landscape’ and berths for 180 yachts. The new plan had high-rises in the park, with 1,250 luxury condos, as well as a hotel, retail and restaurants — all meant to pay for upkeep. The cost has since ballooned to $350 million. The operating budget jumped to $15.2 million.” This included a 31-person security force with eight armed guards.

In the best of all worlds cities would see upgrading and maintaining their public parks as a high budget priority. Private money can be an excellent complement to public funding, but as attorney Jim Walden explains, “(A)s 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. 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.

[New York Times writer] Michael Powell asks, “The question is whether in this densest of American cities, privatized parks serve the broadest public good.”

WSP Blog Ed. note: The concept of Madison Square Park being known as a “needle park” is not known to me: there is some myth-building that goes on by those who want these public spaces to remain privatized. I also believe Central Park Conservancy’s role has been overblown and the negatives obscured – I plan to get into all this in another piece soon.

You’ll notice Washington Square Park is specifically not mentioned in any of these articles because the community was able to keep the privatizing forces away – although this unique and favorable status is at risk.

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