The Parks Renaissance

by Anne Schwartz, Mar 11, 2004

The plans might seem like science fiction -- making parks out of a garbage dump, abandoned railroad tracks, old gas tanks -- but they are real. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced his intention to convert the former Fresh Kills landfill into a 2,200-acre park. He negotiated an agreement with Keyspan to buy the site of the Elmhurst gas tanks and make it a neighborhood park. He endorsed the idea of greening the High Line, a 1.4-mile abandoned elevated track in Chelsea. (See story on plans for the High Line).

New York City is experiencing a renaissance in parks, and it is not just because of the mayor. Thanks to tens of thousands of park lovers, innovative parks and greenways are going up throughout the city and along the waterfront. At the same time, parks in neighborhoods that long had been ignored are being restored.

While some New Yorkers dream of making sports fields, esplanades and gardens out of underused islands and piers, former dumps and parking lots, others gleefully imagine the amazing parks and recreation facilities that would be built if the city wins its bid to play host to the 2012 Olympics.

Since 1991, the parks department has spent more than $1.6 billion in capital funding to fix up and build parks, and it is now developing plans for more spending over the next decade. The paradox of this unprecedented revival of the parks system in New York is that it is happening when the parks department has lost more than half of its full-time staff over the last 15 years; when its annual operating budget in the past decade has decreased by more than a third; when 20 percent of neighborhood park received a failing grade from the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. So how can there be so much park restoration and innovation at the same time that there is so little public funding for upkeep and when some parks still suffer from neglect?

Citizen support

One answer is that New Yorkers have a sense of ownership of their public parks that simply did not exist 30 years ago. Some 60,000 New Yorkers have registered as park volunteers. Just under half of all the parks in the city now have their own support groups, made up of local people and organizations that raise money and serve as stewards and activists on behalf of the parks they have adopted.

Citizen involvement is, of course, the heart and soul of community gardens. Residents carved these patches of green from the rubble of abandoned lots and stood in front of bulldozers to save them. Some of the nearly 200 gardens spared in a 2002 settlement negotiated by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer could eventually be added to the park system.

That same spirit that fostered community gardens is present among the residents and civic groups in downtown Brooklyn, who organized, educated, planned, lobbied and sued for 15 years to get a park on the waterfront -- and in the alliance that is aiming to string together new parks and greenways to bring the Bronx River and its waterfront back to life. (See related stories on Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Bronx River.)

Private Funding

Citizens are not doing this alone. Non-profit, community-based conservancies have been raising money to fix up and maintain -- and sometimes even manage -- major parks in Manhattan and some of the other boroughs. And this movement has revived and even created some small parks as well. The New York Restoration Project, for example, has brought in private money to create a boat house and other facilities at Swindler Cove park in upper Manhattan. (See related story on Swindler Cove)

The Bloomberg administration wants to take this private involvement even further. It has launched an unprecedented effort to attract private money for all kinds of public services, including parks. The parks department has established special funds -- or endowments -- to which people can donate to pay for the improvement or maintenance of specific gardens or other facilities. Individual private donations, some given in memory of people, helped build a $1 million maintenance endowment for the recently restored Heather Garden in Fort Tryon Park, as well as for several smaller neighborhood parks.

Shortly after becoming mayor, Bloomberg suggested that the city might sell naming rights to facilities in the park. While critics complain this could commercialize the few remaining places where one can go to escape advertising, the initiative recently led to a $10 million gift from Carl Icahn for a track and field stadium on Randall's Island, part of a large planned recreational complex that will include 65 new and refurbished sports fields and a water park. The centerpiece of the complex will now be named Icahn Stadium.

At the same time that the city is exploring such controversial revenue-producing schemes, it wants to increase traditional corporate and foundation largesse. A program recently launched by the non-profit City Parks Foundation and Partnerships for Parks, using $25 million raised from corporations and foundations, focuses on improving 16 neighborhood parks in Harlem, Highbridge, Astoria and Red Hook. The city is committing some capital funding toward restoring these parks. The private funding pays for hiring community organizers and initiating activities like concerts, sports instruction and puppet shows in the parks. The overall aim is to build constituencies that will use, take care of and fight for their parks.

Federal, State, and Local Government Involvement

The parks department and park advocates have also sought help from different levels of government and an array of public agencies, opening the way to a wider range of expertise and funding. The alliance working on the Bronx River, for instance, includes almost a dozen government agencies, such as the city and state transportation and environmental agencies, theNational Park Service and even the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The city hopes that federal transportation dollars will continue to provide much of the funding to complete the 350 miles of greenways planned for the five boroughs. And the National Park Service, which manages historic forts on Governors Island, and a new city/state public corporation are collaborating on the planning of new parks on the island.

Another strategy involves the creation of independent city/state authorities. In 1998, Governor George Pataki created Hudson River Park Trust, a state-city partnership, to plan, design, construct, operate and maintain the large new part on Manhattan's West Side. The state and city have committed half of the $400 million cost of building the Hudson River Park.

In 2002, Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg formed the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation to create the new park on the downtown Brooklyn waterfront. To construct the park, the state committed $85 million to the project, and the city will provide $65 million.

Commerce in the Parks

Once Brooklyn Bridge Park opens to the public, however, the source of funding will shift. Commercial activities, possibly including stores, restaurants and an amphitheater, are supposed to cover maintenance costs. A similar arrangement will support all of the city's part of Governors Island, which is slated for educational and recreational use, as well as the Hudson River Park.

This strategy, though, remains unproven. No one can be certain that the commercial development will generate enough income to maintain the parks. And, although cafes, sports facilities and other amenities can attract and entertain people, too many can overwhelm the park. "It's got to be at the right scale, the right balance, from a parks-first perspective, not a revenue-generating perspective," said Robert Pirani, director of environmental programs at the Regional Plan Association and the director of the civic coalition monitoring the development of a plan for Governors Island.

The parks department continues to seek new opportunities to attract parks-related businesses. Operators of these concessions, including golf courses, skating rinks, restaurants and catering halls, pay a fee to operate in the park and often must also pay for improvements to the facilities they run. "There are a number of odd corners where you can have an appropriate form of business that provides a service and generates funding," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. These could include marinas, ferry services, restaurants, boat rentals and sailing schools -- "stuff you see in the waterfronts of Chicago and other cities," he said.

Concession revenues do not go to the parks department, however, but to the city?s general fund. New Yorkers for Parks, the advocacy group, wants the parks department to keep its concession revenues -- as long as it also gets to keep its regular city funding as well.

But not all parks advocates agree. Depending so much on concessions, they say, could encourage the parks department to use public space for recreational activities that many people cannot afford. Dave Lutz, director of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, points out the parks devote a sizable amount of land to golf -- which costs a lot to play but generates concession income for the city -- when the city has a shortage of facilities for other sports.

Making a park available for special, private events also can produce revenue. This has been highly successful in Bryant Park. Although an assessment on nearby property owners originally paid for much of its restoration and maintenance, revenues from concessions and special events now cover all of the park?s annual operating costs. The downside, however, is during some events, such as Fashion Week, ordinary New Yorkers cannot use the public park.

What Guarantees?

Unquestionably, both future and existing parks will rely on support from private individuals, organizations and businesses. But can private sources really provide New Yorkers with the park system they want -- and need?

The increasing importance of the private sector will not diminish the need for adequate public funding from the city, state and federal governments. On the contrary, as the parks department expands and improves facilities, it will need increased resources to meet the public's rising expectations. Faced with this, some parks advocates say parks need a steady, consistent source of funds. And so, they want the city to establish a so-called dedicated funding stream, such as a specific tax for green space, for the park system.

Whether such a guaranteed source of funds ever becomes a reality, some mix of public and private funds will be required for parks to thrive. Joseph Pupello, president of the New York Restoration Project, likens the park system of the future to a diversified portfolio with a mix of public parks, privately run parks and "parks that live in between." He said, "We have to keep inventing new partnerships and models that enable both the private sector and the municipal department to grow."

Certainly, private support will remain a key part of the equation. "There's no going back on the idea that these open spaces demand public-private partnerships of various kinds, whether they be community involvement or private commercial interests in parks supporting them," said David Rivel, executive director of the City Parks Foundation. "The future of parks is increasingly going to be about balancing those things."