Friday, October 8, 2010

Shake Shack $$$: Bad for City Parks? by Arun Venugopal - WNYC

Read original...

I've only recently started eating at Shake Shack, and have fallen hard for their frozen custard (the blueberry, so very creamy). And after generally avoiding beef for years, I've made return trips for their cheeseburgers, which I've concluded are superior to those of Five Guys — certainly less unwieldy.
But let us set aside such childish pursuits as all-beef patties, and consider this article by Patrick Arden in Next American City, asking "whether the city’s reliance on private-funding schemes was creating disparities between parks in wealthy and poor neighborhoods."
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 [owner Danny] 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.
Just to be clear, I've never eaten at the notoriously over-patronized Madison Square Park Shake Shack, only the UWS and Times Square locations — but I digress.
Arden gives numerous examples of the "big business" that public parks have become:
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....
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.
Arden also notes that Robert Hammond, executive director of Friends of the High Line, earned $280,000 last year — "$75,000 more than the salary of [Adrian] Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner."
The problem, as Arden sees it, is not so much the fat paychecks in the private sector, it's the continuing cuts in public funding:
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 [Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates]. “Private money will never make that up."
Arden and parks advocates say the “Golden Age for Parks” that Adrian Benepe claims is more like a Gilded Age, "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."