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Funding the Parks Boom

by Gail Robinson, Aug 07, 2006
 

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Artists conception of the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park

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The docks on the 1.3 miles of Brooklyn waterfront sit largely abandoned, their cavernous sheds empty, with only an occasional truck rattling by on rutted roads filled with weeds. But if all goes according to plan, by 2012 this remnant of the industrial New York of the 1950s will boast smooth pathways, playing fields, vibrant greenery and paddling kayakers along the shore.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is among the many new parks being constructed around the city. And like many of the others it will depend not just on taxpayer dollars, but on private funds.

Increasingly the city and state expect private groups to come up with the money to operate new parks. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, the plan is for this money to come from private luxury apartments within the park's boundaries. This proposal has sparked heated exchanges, angry rhetoric and a court fight. While an extreme case, the fight over Brooklyn Bridge Park is emblematic of the debate over how to pay for the city's green space.

ACRES OF NEW PARKS

The city is in the midst of a parks construction boom. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that, during his first term, the city added some 300 acres of parkland to the approximately 27,000 it already has. And more are on the way. Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe has predicted that 2006 will be the biggest year for parks construction in New York City since the 1930s. To help fund this, the parks department's capital budget has climbed from $550 million last year to $850 million the current fiscal year.

The projects are all over the city. A few examples:

-- The High Line: This abandoned elevated freight line in Chelsea will become one of the city's most unusual parks - a raised walkway with sidewalks, benches and landscaping.

-- Elmhurst Tanks: Using land donated by Keyspan, the city is converting another industrial site into a recreational center. (See related story.)

-- Fresh Kills: The plan to take the huge former garbage dump and make it a 2,315-acre park over the next 30 or 40 years is "the biggest and largest park project in the city's history," Benepe says.

-- The Bronx waterfront: The city's plan for Hunts Point calls for various waterfront parks and piers. While some of this is still just an idea, Barretto Point Park, also on a former industrial site, is set to open soon, complete with a beach, albeit off limits for swimming.

At the same time, the city is making improvements to other parks.(See related stories on Washington Square Park and Hell's Kitchen Park.)

This boom is the result of a number of things happening at once, said Benepe. Some projects long in the planning, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, are finally coming to fruition. And, he said, the city has been actively seeking out new land, encouraging development of parks as part of new housing developments and considering even the unlikeliest of locations as a possible park site. The strong economy has also helped, Benepe said. (For more on planning parks, play Gotham Gazette's "Plan Your Future Park" game.)

Fresh Kills

FUND THE PARKS

The department has seen its budget reach about $220 million, up from about $150 million 10 years ago. "Quietly, the operating budget has been growing," Benepe said, "and the expectation is that it will continue to do so." As the amount of parkland increases, he said, so will spending and staff.

But parks advocates say the spending is not sufficient to meet the city's demands. As evidence, Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, cites a 60 percent decline in park staff over the last 20 years. And advocates say that New York spends less than other cities on park related expenses: $78 per resident, far below the $276 spent by San Francisco, which ranked first in a study of city parks by the Trust for Public Land.

Most of the advocates say the city has managed to stretch its money -- helped by private contributions, volunteers and use of temporary workers. But that can only go so far, they say.

And so, they charge, a shortage of funds has resulted in poor conditions at dozens of parks. In the Report Card on Parks by New Yorkers for Parks, 38 of the 220 parks reviewed got a D or an F. Although this is fewer than in the previous year, the group says, "The gap in performance in the highest and lowest scoring parks in New York City continues to grow." The differences among parks, it said, are "staggering."

But Benepe rejects such criticism. "By every indication, the parks of New York City have gotten better over the last 30 years," he said. "Citizens have become more engaged in their parks, and the parks have improved as a result."

THE SELF-SUSTAINING PARK

The proposed visitor center at Fresh Kills

In exchange for acquiring land for and building a new park, city and state officials now often want private groups to fund part, if not all of the yearly operating expenses.

This "privatization" effort goes back to the 1980s when the Central Park Conservancy was created. It gave rise to other private groups that raise funds for and work with the city to maintain a specific park.

But some parks have been left behind. In an article on the city's worst parks, Timothy Williams of the New York Times concluded, "What these parks have in common is that they rely almost exclusively on city money, while the city's best-maintained parks... are managed in part by private conservancies that raise money and hire workers."

SOURCES OF MONEY

Since parks do not charge admission, how can they raise funds? And with so many parks being renovated and constructed, how can the city insure that restrooms remain open, play equipment works and that all of New York's parks remains safe and inviting? In other words, how will New York keep today's new parks from falling into the disrepair that characterized so many parks in the 1970s?

A number of methods are being used or considered:

Money from Controversial Projects

Bronx parks are receiving $200 million in extra city funds. But to get it, borough officials had to let the city build a water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. The money will fund some 70 projects in the Bronx, including renovation of St. James Park and a $1.1 million project, with landscaping and a new fence and lighting, at Grant Park. Residents also hope some of this money will go to develop the Bronx waterfront.

Renting Facilities

Bryant Park plays host to fall and spring fashion showings and a Christmas gift market, among other events. This has proved so successful that the park is entirely self-sustaining; it does not require any city operating funds.

Hudson River Park hopes to generate revenues from a banquet hall in its boundaries. But few other parks have Bryant Park's advantages -- a midtown Manhattan location next to the42nd Street library and on top of several major subway lines. And for those that do, this approach can work too well and then limit the general public's access to the park.

Private Contribution

The Bloomberg administration has increased efforts to seek out private donations to fund public services. In 2003, City Hall launched the Adopt-a-Park program, aimed at smaller parks and spaces outside of Manhattan. It encourages individuals or groups to sponsor a park, a facility or even a lawnmower by donating money or labor. Now, taking a cue from concert hall seats and church pews, the department is encouraging people to "buy" park benches and, in return, get a plaque commemorating a loved one. New York park lovers can also support a tree and at least one resident has purchased granite stones, inscribed with the name of a friend or relative, in Tompkins Square Park.

Concessions

Some 600 businesses -- skating rinks, golf courses, restaurants, etc. - operate in the parks and produce about $60 million a year to city coffers. But the money from these concessions is not designated for parks; it goes into general revenues. DiPalermo would like to see that change - as long, he says, as the shift is not used as an excuse to cut general city funds for parks by a similar amount.

Energy Projects

While Staten Island hardly holds the prospect of being the next Saudi Arabia, Fresh Kills does provide some energy resources. Pumps extract methane gas, which can be used to provide heat and electricity, from the now capped mounds of decomposing garbage. According to the master plan, "harvesting of methane could provide a significant source of revenue to offset operating costs."

And engineers are evaluating whether the landfill - which even on a stagnant summer afternoon enjoys a fairly stiff breeze--could be a good place for windmills. Even if technically feasible, the plan could face a number of political obstacles but it has the support of Staten island Borough President James Molinaro who has said he wants to "to erect a wind energy facility at the Fresh Kills landfill [that] will tackle tomorrow's energy challenges today, right here on Staten Island."

Despite the money from energy production and facilities such as restaurants, a banquet hall and golf course, the city anticipates that Fresh Kills, which will cost hundreds of millions to build and millions to operate, will require government funding.

Real Estate Development

New parks, and provisions for funding them, are key to some real estate developments, such as Battery Park City and the rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenport Waterfront in Brooklyn.

Friends of Hudson River Park is considering taking this a step further. Some of the money to operate the park, now being built along Manhattan's West Side, will come from rents, concessions and eventually a banquet hall and marina. But many doubt whether this will cover all operating and maintenance expenses.

And so, the New York Observer has reported, supporters of the park are investigating whether area businesses and property owners could be required to pay a fee, similar to the kind of assessment levied in Business Improvement Districts, to finance the park. One rationale for this is that proximity to a park has been shown to increase property values. If that effort fails, advocates could press for some kind of voluntary contribution.

BROOKLYN BRIDGE PARK

The planned shed for Pier 2 in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Brooklyn Bridge Park also hopes to rely on real estate development to support the facility - but with a difference. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, the apartments will be not on private land on the park's periphery but within the boundaries of the public park itself.

The plans for the park go back to the 1980s, as the Port Authority mulled what to do with the largely abandoned piers south of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Port Authority initially wanted to sell the piersto private developers so that most, if not all of the area would be built up and off limits to the general public. But many neighborhood residents, concerned about the paucity of green space in the area, pressed for the site to become a park. In 2002, the state and city agreed to build the park for about$150 million. In return, the park would have to fund its $15 million in annual operating and maintenance costs itself.

Various option were weighed but eventually the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, a state agency, concluded the best idea would be to build private residences at either end of the park. While people debate the numbers, the three buildings, ranging from 95 to 315 feet high, would cover about 10 percent of the park's total area.

Marianna Koval of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, a citizens group that supports the park, said the development corporation should have consulted with the community on the plan. Despite that, she said, her group has concluded the residential development offers the best solution to funding the park. "It's a great plan and a great vehicle," she said - with private space occupying less of the park than it had in previous proposals.

Noting that the land where the park would be is zoned for manufacturing, she said the site could have been converted to a residential development. Instead, in exchange for private buildings at either end of the long, skinny space, residents will get a park with more than 74 acres of open space and an array of recreational facilities.

But other Brooklyn residents object so strongly to the private buildings that they have filed suit to block the plan. They say they want a park but think expensive private housing in the park undermines the very nature of a public facility. "This became overnight a housing development with green space," said Judi Francis of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, a coalition which opposes the plan. "They have manufactured this very, very expensive park to justify building housing."

Opponents contend the private housing could create problems, such as traffic in the park. But more fundamentally they worry that turning over public space to such a private use creates a bad precedent.

Francis said her coalition is open to other means to financing the park - creating a more economical plan, charging fees for certain park facilities or somehow taxing people who live closest to the park extra to support it.

PUBLIC VERSUS PRIVATE

A promenade along a marshy inlet, slated for Brooklyn Bridge Park.

For better or worse, these kinds of choices are not open to many New Yorkers. Park advocates and residents of geographically remote or poor areas worry that the rush to private funding will only widen the already sizable gap between parks in rich areas and those in poor ones.

"Real estate developers like the fact that they can charge more for park views and are willing to pay into a fund," Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx has said, discussing plans for parks in her neighborhood. "We don't have that luxury here."

Benepe says parks will be built in poor areas - and they will be maintained. "At the end of the day, taking care of parks is a city responsibility," he said.

Francis agrees. Just as we have police and fire protection and mass transit, she said, "We can have great parks that are supported by the public."

Koval, though, dismisses such comments as "nai"ve." "I would like the government to pay for these parks," she said, "but it's not going to."

 


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