Gotham Gazette

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Mayoral Issue Grid: Parks

Mayoral Issue Grid

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation oversees more than 27,000 acres of parks, playgrounds, beaches and other recreational areas, giving New York the largest city park system in the country.

But the figures can be misleading. While the number includes masterpieces such as Central Park and Prospect Park, it also includes areas so decrepit that Park Commissioner Adrian Benepe said they should essentially be abandoned. Even counting those wastelands, New York City has fewer acres of green space per person than any other major American city.


Advocates blame many of the parks' problems on a lack of resources. In response, many want the city to devote one percent of its budget - or about $500 million - to park expenses, almost twice what it spends now. They have asked candidates to pledge that they will work toward this goal.


The parks department licenses about 600 businesses that pay to operate concessions, such as skating rinks, golf courses and restaurants, on park property. In 2003, this generated about $60 million. But instead of being spent on parks, the money goes into the city's general budget. Many parks advocates would like to change this and see the money go for parks – assuming, of course, that the city would not reduce its appropriation to the parks department as a result.


Faced with a federal court order that the city filter some of its drinking water, Mayor Michael Bloomberg authorized construction of a $1.3 billion filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. To offset the loss of parkland - and to mollify Bronx residents angered by the decision - Bloomberg will spend an extra $240 million on Van Cortlandt and other Bronx parks. This has not satisfied many parks advocates, who argue that using parkland for anything other than its intended use sets a dangerous precedent.


For years, the Great Lawn in Central Park was the scene of massive rallies, large concerts and other huge gatherings. But in 1997, the city spent $18.2 million to restore the 13-acre Great Lawn and now the city says it is too delicate to support the trampling of hundreds of thousands of feet. The Bloomberg administration has limited large gatherings on the lawn to six events per year, at no more than 50,000 people at one time. And four of those would be for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, sharply curtailing the opportunities for political expression.

The administration argues that that's not the point – protecting the lawn is. But civil liberties advocates note the issue arose when demonstrators wanted to use the Great Lawn for a massive protest against the Republican convention last summer. The Bloomberg administration denied the request, citing the need to protect the lawn.


<p,>Parks advocates would like the roadways of Central Park and Prospect Park to be closed to automobile traffic 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.


While he says he would like to take the one percent pledge, Ferrer says he cannot do so, given the budget deficits the city faces in the next several years.

The former Bronx borough president said that using the money from concessions for parks is one of three things that any mayor serious about parks would have to do. (The other two are providing minimum staffing levels at all parks and offering a completely transparent and ongoing review of parks operations.)

Ferrer said he would use some of the money from the fees to hire staff to supervise play after school and "make parks a welcoming place again. Not in some of our parks, all of our parks."

At a 1999 hearing on the filtration plant, Ferrer, then the Bronx borough president said, "I'm here to personally convey that the Bronx is unanimous in its unequivocal opposition to the Croton water filtration plant." This, though, was before the Bronx was promised the money for parks - and Ferrer has not been on record as being so unequivocal this year.

At the parks forum, Ferrer said he supported steps that would have avoided the need for the plant. He expressed concern about parkland being used for other purposes, such as parking cars and storage. "That's got to come to an end," he said. "Parks are for people."

While saying he treasured the Great Lawn, Ferrer opposes the policy limiting gatherings on it. "Blades of grass are replaceable. The first amendment is not," he has said.

Ferrer said the United for Peace and Justice, which had sought a permit for the convention protest, had offered to put up a bond to protect the city from damage to the lawn.

The former Bronx borough president told the parks forum, "I lean very heavily in favor of car-free parks...There are alternate means to getting around the city.


The Manhattan borough president says that providing funding to ensure safe, accessible and well-maintained parks would be a top priority for her. As part of that, she says she has signed the one percent pledge because "it establishes something to work toward."

As borough president, Fields says, she allocated significant parts of her capital budgets for the rehabilitation, planning and construction of parks.

Fields says she sees parks not as a luxury but as essential "equalizers" in a city where many people cannot afford to leave town on weekends. As a result, she says, she supports using money from concessions for parks. "Until recognition of the importance of parks is embodied in policy, it is important that they have the benefit of their efforts toward self support," she said in a response to a League of Conservation Voters questionnaire. She says she would use the money partly "to reinvest in the upkeep of the parks."

The Manhattan borough president opposed putting the filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in 1999 and, at a Bronx forum this year, said she is still opposed – but, she says, the facility is probably a done deal. "In all fairness and candor," Fields told the audience, "unless you have a different way of approaching [the plant], I don't think as mayor I could stop it, as it has been started."

At the parks meeting, she called for more public discussion anytime parkland is to be used for something else. "This is public land and the public should have an opportunity to discuss it, to review it, and the relevant elected body should have an opportunity to vote upon it," she said.

At a hearing in May, Fields spoke out strongly against the administration plan to limit large gatherings in Central Park. "This proposal is an erosion of a free society," she said. "Has our city gone so far as to say: 'Grass -- Yes. Free Speech -- No.'?"

The Manhattan borough president has said she would continue to try to balance transportation and the use of parks. She said this has been successful in Central Park and that she would prefer that to an outright ban on cars.


The City Council speaker says having $500 million to spend on parks "would be great" but he says he does not think the city will be able to afford to this in four or even eight years.

"We can't afford 1 percent because that's more than doubling our Parks Department's budget," Miller said in a recent debate.

Miller says that, as council speaker, he has fought for more funding for parks and worked to restore programs the mayor wanted to cut.

While he support exploring "such innovative options" as earmarking concession fees, Miller has said that dedicating the funds could require state authorization or an amendment to the City Charter.

While he says that perhaps more could have been done to protect the upstate watershed and so avoid the need for the filtration plant, Miller said at a meeting in the Bronx in May that he had voted to use the park for the plant.

The speaker said City Council has introduced legislation to try to overturn the policy limiting gatherings on the Great Lawn and said that he would revoke the policy if elected mayor. While saying the grass is important, he said groups holding protests could post bond to insure the city would be reimbursed for any damage to the lawn.

"As important as the Dave Matthews Band [which appeared in a city sponsored concert on the lawn} is to a lot of people," Miller told the parks forum, "I don't see how it's more important than the right of the people who wanted to protest the views that were being espoused in Madison Square Garden during the Republic convention."

Miller says he would be more inclined to not allow cars in parks than to allow them. He has called for more studies of traffic patterns and says he expects that those studies would indicate that closing the parks to auto traffic would not have the dire effects on traffic that some anticipate, although he would keep roadways like the Central Parks transverse open to cars. "My guess is that New Yorkers will find another way and that life will go on and our parks will be safer and people will be able to better enjoy our parks," he said.


According to the Parks1 campaign, Weiner has said he would work toward committing one percent of the budget to parks expenses. "While the country's 50 largest cities dedicate $88 per resident toward their parks, New York City provides only $45," Weiner said in response to a questionnaire from the League of Conservation Voters. "Park funding has declined for decades, and the parks and greenery of the city have suffered because of it.

To address this, Weiner has said he would focus on reducing waste and inefficiencies to increase parks funding.

However, in a recent debate, Weiner would NOT commit to 1 percent of the budget for parks. "You don't draw line items in the budget here in the context of the campaign," he said.

In response to a questionnaire from the Parks1 campaign, Weiner said he would work toward earmarking fees from concessions. He did not directly answer the question when it was presented in a League of Conservation Voters survey.

As a member of Congress, Weiner says he secured more than $34 million in federal funding for the revitalization of Gateway National Recreation Area in the city.

At the Ben Franklin Democratic Reform Democratic Club's town hall forum in the Bronx in May, Weiner was the only Democratic challenger who unequivocally opposed the filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. Decrying the mayor's top-down management style, Weiner said, "There's no better example of that than the ...water treatment plant in a park that has now led to the destruction of hundreds of trees and a horrible, horrible precedent."


During his four years in office, the mayor has kept funding for parks fairly constant at around $260 million - or, for this year, at only a bit more than one half of one percent of the city budget. The administration says it has tried to use partnerships with private groups and federal and state money to maintain and operate the parks.

Bloomberg says he advocated earmarking concession fees during the 2001 campaign, but that this plan was derailed by the city budget crisis. He says he has instituted a program that allows concession fees above a baseline amount to go to the parks department. This, he said has result in $14 million for the department since 2002.

Bloomberg's department of Environmental Protection chose the Van Cortlandt Park site as the preferred location for the filtration plant and Bloomberg negotiated the deal with Bronx politician to provide the additional funding for Bronx parks in return and so win their support for the project.

The Bloomberg administration has aggressively sought to limit use of the Great Lawn, with the mayor telling protestors they can go elsewhere to express their political views.

The administration has extended the hours that cars cannot use the parks but has not banned auto traffic completely.



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