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.


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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