Do Public-Private Partnerships Save Parks or Exploit Them?
On the corner of Manhattan’s Madison Square Park stands a statue of 19th-century politician Roscoe Conkling, the kingmaker of Gilded Age New York. A mercurial manager of the state’s Republican machine, Conkling twice refused appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, preferring to measure his success in money. The stone Conkling has a hand extended, palm up, as if he’d posed before a payoff.
The statue faces a multimillion-dollar business located under the park’s sycamore trees. Shake Shack, the high-end hamburger chain started by restaurateur Danny Meyer, is one of the best-known examples of how New York City is paying for its most famous parks: Get somebody else to pick up the tab.
Meyer’s formerly seasonal concession has grown into a year-round restaurant that rakes in more than the average McDonald’s. In warmer months, lines barely budge for an hour or more. In 2009 Shake Shack collected revenues of $4.9 million; $220,256 of that went to the city and $348,389 to the park. Concessions in other parks pay as much as 20 percent of their take to the city, but not Meyer, whose company adds to its profits by catering private parties in the park for $15,000 an hour.
When Meyer opened his fast-food stand, he was the director and co-founder of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that oversees the public park. In 2001 the city completed a $6 million renovation of the 6 leafy acres, and the next year Meyer co-founded the conservancy to assume responsibility for the park’s maintenance and programming. That’s the formula followed by the city’s top conservancies, which leverage public land and money to turn parks into self-sustaining enterprises.
Public-private partnerships are widely touted as the new model for cities to build and maintain parkland, but they’re old news in New York. The Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980, has inspired similar groups in cities from Atlanta to San Francisco. Yet even in a time of leaner government budgets, a cautionary tale can be found in New York’s 36-year experience of putting public parks into private hands. The city says private investment allows it to target limited taxpayer resources to the parks most in need, creating what parks commissioner Adrian Benepe has repeatedly hailed as a “Golden Age for Parks.”
But others see a Gilded Age instead, an echo of Conkling’s era in the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 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.
“New York has created a two-tier parks system,” complains Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. “One for the rich, the other for the poor.”
THE EVOLUTION OF A NEW MODEL
On a Sunday afternoon Croft and I are driving near Kennedy Airport on Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway. We pass Fresh Creek Park in Jamaica Bay, an 18,000-acre wetland estuary. Amid invasive plants and garbage, we see a few Parks Department signs that brag, “Forever Wild.” “‘Forever Wild’ means ‘forever neglected,’” Croft says. “Whenever you see those words, there’s a good chance no one from the Parks Department has been in there for a while.”
The 44-year-old Croft started his non-profit seven years ago. Since then he’s never raised more than $20,000 a year, but he has become New York City’s leading authority on park issues, working with elected officials and juggling dozens of campaigns. Croft, who has been quoted by local media hundreds of times, has inspected every park in the city, snapping tens of thousands of photographs as evidence to prove his larger points.
No other parks system in America relies as much on other people’s money. Half of the city’s 1,800 parks and playgrounds now depend on some type of private group for maintenance, according to the Parks Department. These efforts range from conservancies responsible for specific parks to gardening clubs and city-affiliated nonprofits. Few of these groups have the resources of, say, a Madison Square Park Conservancy, which raised more than $3.1 million in 2008 from donations, corporate-sponsored events and Shake Shack proceeds (it also held cash and securities worth nearly $8 million). The conservancy employed 28 maintenance staffers, guards and administrators at salaries as high as $185,000, while the entire 18th community district of southeast Brooklyn — with 1,200 acres of parkland in predominantly African-American neighborhoods like Canarsie and Flatlands — had just one dedicated maintenance worker.
“It’s racist,” Croft says. A ringing cell phone brings calls from reporters and community groups, interrupting his commentary on the decimation of the city’s Parks Department in the decades following the rule of Robert Moses, commissioner from 1934 to 1960.
In 1930 Moses unveiled plans for the Belt Parkway, a boulevard stretching 36 miles along the shore of Brooklyn and Queens, with a series of “ribbon parks,” promenades and paths intended to spur home-building. FDR’s New Deal paid for public works, and the city stood ready to cash in. When Moses took over the Parks Department, the city had 119 playgrounds. By the time he retired, there were 777. Moses built 15 outdoor swimming pools, 17 miles of beaches, three zoos, dozens of recreation centers, several golf courses as well as miles and miles of parkways. Total parkland nearly tripled to 35,000 acres, giving New York the nation’s largest urban parks system. As Moses prepared to step down at the age of 72, he must have sensed his empire in peril. He made this case to Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, chair of the Citizens Budget Commission: “Now that the park system has been created, it is the responsibility of the next generation to maintain it.”
Though Parks Department funding has gone up since then, it’s lagged dramatically behind increases to other agencies, and the department has never recovered from the drastic cuts in its workforce beginning in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. 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.) 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 Croft. “Private money will never make that up.”
Former mayor David Dinkins had slashed the Parks Department’s payroll by 41 percent in order to deal with deficits in 1991 and ’92, but rather than restore the agency’s budget when times improved, the administration of Rudolph Giuliani used capital funds to fix maintenance issues and welfare recipients to clean parks.
It’s illegal to borrow money for maintenance, a practice that nearly bankrupted the city in the 1970s. But the city will use bond proceeds for improvements and then not maintain a park, requiring it to borrow capital funds again to rebuild. In the long run, of course, building is more expensive than maintenance. Bloomberg has continued down this path, making greater use of capital borrowing and conservancies. “Public-private partnerships are a priority of the mayor,” says a Parks Department spokesperson, “as they were for the three previous mayors.”
Croft played a primary role in organizing community opposition to the new Yankee Stadium project, in which America’s richest sports franchise grabbed 25 acres of parkland in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts. In return, Bloomberg administration officials have repeatedly sought to discredit Croft. At a March event highlighting the city’s progress on replacing the parks, a spokesperson from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, speaking out of Croft’s earshot, sarcastically announced his presence to reporters: “Geoffrey Croft, the most quoted and least credentialed person I know.”
“They’re going to dismiss him because he’s a thorn in their side,” explains Melissa Mark-Viverito, the new chair of the City Council’s Parks Committee. “But if you check into the information he gives, it’s fact. He does his research.”
Croft has a knack for unearthing information. He’s working with residents of Brighton Beach to battle a $64 million amphitheater that’s replacing a small band shell in a neighborhood park. He learned that a city law forbids amplified music within 500 feet of religious institutions, courts and schools. Two synagogues — one with a night school — are within 302 feet of the arena. “We’re lucky Geoffrey is on our side,” says Al Turk, president of the Temple Beth Abraham. The fight’s been vintage Croft, a moral crusade with a bit of gotcha for officials who dare to ignore the grassroots.
THE FOR-PROFIT PARK
Back in Manhattan, some conservancies have become big business. Few may object to the $364,000 salary paid to Central Park Conservancy president Douglas Blonsky, because his group is responsible for raising 85 percent of Central Park’s $27 million annual operating budget. New Yorkers remember when that park’s 843 acres had gone to seed. The same goes for Bryant and Madison Square parks, which were both known as “needle parks.”
But those two parks now exemplify how lucrative the conservancy model can be. The Bryant Park Corporation took in more than $8.8 million in 2007 and its executive director, Daniel Biederman, picked up $210,000 for overseeing its 9.6 acres. Over at the Madison Square Park Conservancy, president Debbie Landau pulled in $185,000 — and her sister Maggi made $114,962.
When the first leg of the $152 million High Line opened last summer on an abandoned railroad embankment in the Meatpacking District, news reports focused on the $1.2 million founder Robert Hammond pocketed over a 10-year period. Last year he took home $280,000 for overseeing 2.8 acres of the partially completed park as executive director of the conservancy Friends of the High Line. That was $75,000 more than the salary of Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner, who’s responsible for 29,000 acres.
The money-making systems have grown more elaborate. In 1984 a group of Brooklyn Heights residents came up with 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 money for maintenance would be tough to secure. When the plan stalled, residents raised funds; they hired a landscape architect who 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 Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg committed $150 million to build Brooklyn Bridge Park.
In 2004 the city and state released a different plan for the newly created Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC), governed by a board of directors appointed by Bloomberg and Pataki. 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. An itemized maintenance list included 15 dune buggies, 16 Toyota Priuses, 40 sit-down lawnmowers, seven pickups, two garbage trucks and a $100,000 street sweeper. A worker weeding by hand would make $44.01 an hour. A one-hour job to “touch up lines and markings on pavement” would be paid as a $20,000 lump sum. A 31-person security force included eight armed guards. “We’re talking about park maintenance — mowing the lawns, painting the benches — not the cost of the Marines to protect against an invasion,” scoffed Tony Manheim, a retired investment banker who headed the residents’ group that originally pushed for the park. “They ginned up the cost to justify the housing.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton agreed: She called the building of the condos to fund the park “disingenuous” on a visit to Brooklyn. One news report claimed politically connected developers stood to see $700 million from the project, before expenses. “Public land should be public land,” Clinton said. But within days, she backtracked. “Although I believe public revenues should support public assets,” she wrote in an apologetic letter to the BBPDC, “I understand that cities across the nation, including New York, have had to struggle to find dedicated revenue sources to fund park maintenance.” A local paper accused her of bowing to political pressure. “Shillary!” the headline screamed.
At a ribbon cutting for the park in March, Bloomberg said the city would commit another $55 million in capital to start construction on two of the six piers. He mentioned a committee would be formed to study alternatives for financing the park, though one condo building is already open and he seemed ready to accept more private housing to pay for park maintenance. “I think this is the model for a lot of things going forward, where if we’re going to have to fund it ourselves we’re not going to have it,” Bloomberg said. “We’re going to make the capital investments — we’ll continue to do that — but for operating we’re just going to have to look elsewhere.”
Bloomberg called on Croft, mistaking the activist for a member of the press. Croft asked whether the city’s reliance on private-funding schemes was creating disparities between parks in wealthy and poor neighborhoods. Bloomberg threw up his hands: “The city does not have the money to have new parks and fund them.”
“The city just announced it’s no longer obligated to fund parks,” Croft said.
SAVING A HAVE-NOTThe conservancies at Bryant Park or the High Line can raise millions of dollars to essentially privatize their parks and hire all the right people when they need them. That’s not so much an option for a group like ours.”
Anne Saxon-Hersh, Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
Growing up in the 1970s, Croft was one of the last white kids on his South Bronx block. The children played a more menacing version of hide-and-seek called Ring-a-leavio, with players on one side ganging up to hunt down the other team. When his family moved to Manhattan, Croft had to adjust to more organized sports. “The Yorkville kids didn’t understand Ring-a-leavio,” he says. “No one would crawl under a car to hide.” The neighborhood held some advantages, however: He loved to play roller hockey at a rink in the shadow of the Stanley Isaacs housing project near 96th Street and the FDR Drive.
A high school dropout, Croft found success as a professional photographer for magazines including Rolling Stone, Elle, Time and Life. “But I wanted to do something socially redeeming,” he says. In 1994 he began working with low-income kids at the Stanley Isaacs Community Center, which brought him back to the tiny park on 96th Street — this time as a roller hockey coach.
Though the park had been renovated by the city five years before, it hadn’t been maintained. “The rink was in a terrible state,” Croft says. “The boards were broken, and rusty nails stuck out. Crack vials and dog shit were scattered everywhere.” Prostitutes set up shop in the bathroom. “I’d have to ask them to leave so the kids could change into their uniforms.” He wrote to the Parks Department and received an apologetic reply from then-commissioner Henry Stern. “Unfortunately,” Stern wrote, “the city has no money.”
In 1996 Croft started a nonprofit to repair the playground. He approached celebrities he had met as a photographer, including Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who lent star power to one of his charity auctions. He hired an architect, who drew up plans for a refurbished playground with a new rink. He went back to the city after raising more than half of the renovation’s $550,000 price tag. Stern took one look at the blueprints and agreed to match what Croft had collected. The playground was rebuilt.
THE ALTERNATIVE: VOLUNTEERS
On warm days, the after-work crowd descends on Madison Square Park, with nearly everyone heading to the Shake Shack, which sells beer and wine. “They call this a park amenity, but it’s a destination restaurant,” says Croft, standing in the seating area. Six blocks south, Danny Meyer is trying to put a high-end restaurant in Union Square Park. The project, part of a $21 million redevelopment of the park’s north end, has received a $7 million gift from an anonymous donor. As co-chair of the Union Square Partnership, the area’s business improvement district, Meyer has vowed not to bid on the concession, though he says a fellow board member is interested.
A restaurant would make money for the city’s general fund, not the park; this year the Parks Department’s revenue division will hand over $110 million from user fees and park concessions. Some conservancies, such as Madison Square’s, get to keep a portion of concession revenue. The Bloomberg administration has negotiated other special arrangements with favored groups that assume responsibility for park maintenance. Friends of the High Line will keep all of the money from concessions in its park. “That’s a huge deal,” Croft says, “because 99 percent of parks don’t have any dedicated funding.”
Consider Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, where an all-volunteer group raises $80,000 a year to maintain the block-long park, across the street from the United Nations. A service picks up the trash, and members tend to the garden, clean fountains and perform other chores. Anne Saxon-Hersh, one of the founders of the group Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, thinks her park deserves a share of proceeds from its concession, just like the big conservancies. But many fear the city would open the floodgates to concessions to fund parks and to make up for budget cuts. “The conservancies at Bryant Park or the High Line can raise millions of dollars to essentially privatize their parks and hire all the right people when they need them. That’s not so much an option for a group like ours,” says Saxon-Hersh, who adds that “fatigue” has set in among her fellow board members. “The volunteer model is not sustainable.”
“It’s an awful lot of work,” agrees Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, which takes care of a 55-acre park in Middle Village, Queens. His group is proud of its three state-of-the-art baseball fields. The city once told the group to sign a maintenance agreement. “It was supposed to lay out what they were responsible for and what we were responsible for,” Holden says. “But when it came back to us, we were responsible for everything. We’re volunteers, and they were trying to make it legal to hold us liable for problems. They wanted slave labor, so we didn’t sign it.”
TIPPING THE SCALE
The idea of a citywide tax for parks — like systems in Chicago and Minneapolis — has been floated by civic groups in the past. Croft wants funding for our public spaces to come from a place where most think it’s hopeless: government. “I don’t think anyone has a problem with people chipping in to lend a hand, but by neglecting these essential services, the government is forcing its residents to assume responsibility if they want a decent, safe park,” he says.
The Bloomberg administration is relying more and more on the private sector, but a growing number of New Yorkers are concerned about accountability and unregulated money in the big conservancies. The City Council recently passed legislation mandating greater financial disclosure and at least one community member on each board. The requirement for community representation was prompted by the controversy over the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation’s agreement to sell 20 private schools exclusive afternoon use of park athletic fields.
One of the biggest criticisms leveled at the “pay to play” deal was the failure of the conservancy — and the city — to engage the East Harlem and South Bronx neighborhoods, whose residents have long used the island not only for sports but for barbecues, picnics and walks. The legislation’s sponsor, Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, says the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation had no interest in the concerns of East Harlem. “They became very territorial about that piece of public property: ‘We’re raising all this money, so we should be the one to determine what happens here and you shouldn’t question us,’” she says. “This is my concern: Overreliance on private money tips the scale. It’s almost like the community loses control of its park not because they want to — it’s forced upon them.”
At a City Council hearing on conservancies last October, former councilwoman Carol Greitzer, a longtime parks advocate who represented Midtown, Greenwich Village and Chelsea from 1969 to 1991, found she was one of only two people to testify in favor of Mark-Viverito’s bill. Twelve organizations urged the measure’s defeat, including the Parks Department, a soccer league and several of the largest conservancies. Most of the partnership groups already have neighborhood residents on their boards, they said, and all of them must comply with tax and city disclosure rules. They claimed the community-representation bill violated state law and squelched entrepreneurial spirit. “The Parks Department trotted out all these people who said the world will come to an end if they pass this one little bill,” says Greitzer. The bill made the conservancies and the Bloomberg administration nervous, she explains, because it was a precedent: After nearly 40 years the City Council was enacting legislation affecting conservancies.
Greitzer is a big fan of the High Line, and consequently she’s conflicted about its special arrangements with the city for concession revenue and additional security (11 patrol officers for 2.8 acres, twice the number responsible for 6,970 acres in the Bronx). “I understand why people are angry at the money going into the High Line,” she says. “It’s right to question the inequities, but if it hadn’t been for the people who organized the thing and spent years raising money and getting everyone interested in it, we wouldn’t have had it.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT MAINTENANCE
When Croft finished renovating the Stanley Isaacs Playground in 2000, the city urged him to lock the rink.
“I said, ‘We’re doing this for the people of New York City, not for any private gain,’” he recalls. Yet after an initial burst of satisfaction, he became uneasy. “I suddenly realized it wasn’t over yet, and it was never going to be over: If I didn’t keep raising money, the park would all fall apart again. That’s not right. It’s about the city’s responsibility to its citizens, not my responsibility,” he says.
Stanely Isaacs Playground was eight blocks away from Gracie Mansion, the official residence of every New York mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia. “I began to wonder,” Croft says, “if this can happen eight blocks away from Giuliani’s house, imagine what’s happening in the South Bronx and East New York. What are the parks like in these neighborhoods?”
That’s when he picked up his camera again and began his inspection of city parks. He regularly returns to the same locations to find conditions have grown worse. Walking around the Stanley Isaacs Playground on a recent evening, he examined what’s become of his park. “Every single thing here was brand-new,” he said, fiddling with a broken gate to the hockey rink. Holes in the rink’s boards are patched up with electrical tape. “See, it all comes back to maintenance. If you don’t take care of things, they’ll fall apart.”
This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Next American City magazine.