State Funding for City Parks

by Anne Schwartz, July, 2002

New York City has the largest municipal park system in the country -- some 28,000 acres, including parks and playgrounds, as well as tennis courts, ballfields, beaches, pools, recreation centers, and natural areas. A city agency, the Department of Parks and Recreation, runs this green realm. The department even has jurisdiction over the stadiums and the botanical gardens, although it doesn't operate them. It would seem that the state has little to do with parks in the city.

But every borough has at least one state park or preserve, and the state has been adding to its city holdings in recent years. City funding for parks has shrunk over the last few decades; New York City spends just half a percent of its budget on parks, less per capita than most major cities in the country. At the same time, the state has taken on an increasingly important role in protecting natural areas and creating new parkland in the city. So how much money the state spends on open space and parks -- and where it chooses to spend it -- has a significant impact on the green space and recreation available to city residents.

Money for state purchases of open space, both for the city and upstate, has come mostly from two sources. The 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act included about $150 million for open space and parks. That money has all been spent. The other source is the Environmental Protection Fund, a dedicated trust set up in 1993 that receives revenue from the state real estate transfer tax and is supposed to be spent only on environmental projects, including land acquisition and parks. The state has been appropriating about $125 million from the fund every year.

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance analyzed how Bond Act and Environmental Protection Fund money was spent from 1996 to 2000 for all environmental programs, including open space. New York City received 23 percent of the funds available, even though the city has 40 percent of the state's population and contributes 44 percent of the revenue statewide from the real estate transfer tax.

On-the-Ground Results

Although the city receives a disproportionately small share of the state's open space money, state funding has been crucial in protecting some of the few remaining natural areas in the city as well as in acquiring land and creating parks along the waterfront. In some cases, the acquisitions have been added to the state's park system, operated by the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, or become nature preserves under the aegis of the Department of Environmental Conservation. The ambitious new Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge parks are being built by a trust or development corporation run jointly by the state and city. The city has also benefited from a smaller matching grants program in which nonprofits or municipalities apply for grants for land acquisition, park improvement and renovation, wetlands restoration and other park-related projects.

The lion's share of state money for New York City parks has gone to the two large waterfront parks now being developed. The state has committed half of the $300 million cost of building the Hudson River Park, with annual appropriations of around $15 million to $20 million. Governor Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently signed a memorandum of understanding in which the state pledged $85 million and the city $65 million toward the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. To avoid burdening the state and city with future maintenance costs, both parks include commercial developments -- 30 percent in the Hudson River Park, no more than 20 percent in the Brooklyn Bridge Park -- that are expected to cover their upkeep.

The state has also made smaller but significant land purchases. In late 1999, the state began the process of buying scenic Mount Loretto on Staten Island from the Archdiocese of New York for $25 million. One of the last remaining natural areas in the city, with woods, meadows, wetlands, and shore, it is now a state nature preserve. In August 2000, the state announced the purchase of two city blocks at the former Eastern District Terminal along the waterfront in Williamsburg. The land is to become a state park in a community that has had very little access to the water or open space. The purchase agreement (which, like Mt. Loretto and other acquisitions, was brokered by the Trust for Public Land), involves a partnership with New York University. The school is to develop and maintain athletic fields and a waterfront esplanade. The fields will be available to the community when not in use by the university. This July, the state acquired a tiny but key piece of land within Soundview Park along the Bronx River, where efforts are under way to create a greenway corridor.

Shortchanging the Inner City

State funding over the last decade will soon make a dramatic improvement in the lives of city residents who live near the new waterfront projects. But it has had far less impact on low-income minority neighborhoods -- the areas with the lowest ratios of open space per resident.

The state Open Space Plan, which guides the state's land purchases, has been criticized for neglecting the needs of urban areas. In the plan's most recent revision, urban open space advocates have made headway in increasing the priority of under-served areas, but the recommendations have yet to be realized.

There are several reasons for insufficient funding of New York City's open space needs. According to Dave Lutz, director of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, a New York city non-profit, there is a consensus in Albany, in cluding among New York City lawmakers, for protecting natural areas in the Adirondacks and the wilder areas of the state. But there is no such agreement about the importance of making green space available to city residents. "The upstate people need to begin to understand the needs of the people who live in New York City," said Lutz.

Another reason, according to John Stouffer, legislative director of the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club, is that the pot of money for all of the state's needs is too small. "In New York we are misers when it comes to spending on open space protection and parks," he said. Stouffer noted that New York state ranks dead last of all 50 states in total environmental spending, as a percentage of the state budget and per capita, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by the Institute for Southern Studies. New Jersey, a state roughly one-seventh the size of New York with less than half its population, provided $115 million this year for open space programs, including urban parks. New York plans to spend about $40 million.

Many environmental groups credit Governor Pataki with putting a priority on open space acquisition, and hundreds of thousands of acres have been protected during his years in office. Yet he has been very conservative fiscally, and has not always matched his rhetoric with funding.

Last year, the governor refused to approve the annual appropriation from the Environmental Protection Fund (even though there was plenty of money in the fund) because of a disagreement with the legislature about how to spend that money. In this year's budget (2002-2003), the governor and legislature agreed to appropriate $125 million per year for two years (which is less than the $135 million appropriated in 2000 and the $150 million originally proposed for last year). But Governor Pataki also orchestrated an agreement to "lend" $235 million that had accumulated in the environmental fund to the general fund to help balance the state's budget. That leaves the environmental fund with just over $100 million in cash to cover this year's $250 million in appropriations. Lawmakers acted on the assumption that the money would come in by the time the state needed it and promised to repay the "loan" if the fund ran short. However, there are no guarantees or deadline for repayment.

It is not at all clear how New York City will meet the needs of its under-served neighborhoods for open space and recreation, or even the cost of maintaining its existing parks equitably in all parts of the city. The state and the city are facing enormous revenue shortfalls. Creative legislative solutions on the state level are unlikely given the dysfunctional system in Albany.

A number of people involved in park and environmental issues have expressed the view that -- given he low priority of parks in the city budget and the limit on money available from the state -- funding will have to come from some sort of new city tax. The new tax would be dedicated solely to the purchase and upkeep of parks.

All over the country, voters have been approving such proposals, including sales and property tax surcharges. According to Christopher Wells, director of the conservation finance program for the Trust for Public Land's Mid-Atlantic region, 90 percent of such ballot proposals have passed. A number of New York State counties and several municipalities have dedicated property tax surcharges to parks or raised money specifically for parks through bond issues. Here again, however, Albany has a role. If New York City were to propose a tax dedicated to the support of parks, the state would have to approve it.