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A Top-Down Program Creates More Parks

A rendering of the North Park Bird Observation Tower,
one of many proposed projects in the Fresh Kills park project.

When I started writing this column in 1999, during the Giuliani administration, the city treated parks as an expendable frill. The parks department always seemed to be at the end of the line when operating funds were handed out, continuing a decline in maintenance funding and fulltime staff that began several decades earlier. Even as an urban parks renaissance was taking root nationwide, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sought to auction off the community gardens reclaimed from the rubble of the 1970s and took the first steps to have the High Line torn down.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg came into office in 2002 with a very different view of the role of parks. He had served on the board of the Central Park Conservancy and understood how open space and greenery can improve a city's quality of life and therefore boost its economy and the health and well-being of its citizens.

Soon after taking office, Bloomberg stayed the High Line's execution and joined former City Council Speaker Gifford Miller in supporting the creation of a park on the defunct elevated railway line. He negotiated a legal settlement with former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer that transferred nearly 200 community gardens on city land to the parks department and created a review process to determine the fate of dozens of others. He opened City Hall Park to the public, and in his first State of the City address announced that he intended to complete the longstanding plan for a recreational path circling Manhattan.

Now, as he runs for a third term, Bloomberg has staked part of his legacy on the creation of new parks, greenways and other open space, much of which he spelled out in his 2006 economic and environmental sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC 2030.

"We are in the middle of our largest parks expansion since the 1930s," he said in an email statement. "In the last eight years, we've added more than 500 acres of new parkland to the city. We have focused on them so intently because they teach our children about the outdoors, clean the air we breathe, encourage exercise, increase property values and boost tourism."

Yet for all its strengths, the Bloomberg record on parks is not unblemished, from the perspective of park advocates. The mayor has set troubling precedents by alienating public parkland. His autocratic style has resulted in a number of projects being imposed over the objection of the affected communities. Maintenance and funding issues remain, especially for outer-borough parks and sports fields. Critics also charge that the Bloomberg administration has gone too far in relying on private and commercial sources of funding for parks, resulting in privatization of and reduced access to our most public of spaces.

The Mayor Giveth...

With the expenditure of $1.1 billion in capital dollars over the past eight years, as well as funding from federal, state and private sources, the Bloomberg administration has presided over a dramatic transformation of the waterfront into parks and greenways. It has launched more than a thousand park improvement projects and added new parkland in all five boroughs, from tiny Greenstreets in traffic intersections to the first sections of parkland being created from the former Fresh Kills landfill. Bloomberg's transportation department, under commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, has carved out new public space from the streets and created miles of new bicycle lanes.

PlaNYC sets forth additional greening and open space goals, although the timeline for reaching them has been stretched out because of the recession. It aims to plant a million new trees; the one-quarter mark was reached this month. Other goals include the creation of eight new destination parks; expanding the greening of the streets; creating or enhancing a public plaza in every community; and exploring natural solutions for managing stormwater runoff, including protecting wetlands.

To help meet the PlaNYC goal of having a park within a 10-minute walk of every resident, the administration aims to open 266 schoolyards after school and on weekends. So far, it has opened 69 yards that do not need capital improvements and 20 renovated sites. It is working with the Trust for Public Land and the education department to turn more than 150 additional schoolyards into community parks.

…And The Mayor Taketh Away

At the same time that the Bloomberg administration has invested heavily in increasing the amount of parkland and open space, it bears responsibility for taking away major amounts of parkland over vociferous community opposition in two cases: the building of a filtration plant underneath 28 acres of Van Cortlandt Park and the construction of the new Yankee Stadium and four parking garages on 25 acres of Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks. Both projects are in low-income, minority communities.

These parkland alienations set a disturbing precedent. The one at Yankee Stadium has been seen as especially troublesome because the community parkland went to a private, for-profit company: the New York Yankees. Instead of the large, centrally located park ringed by mature trees that it once enjoyed, the community will get parks and playing fields scattered around the neighborhood farther from where people live. In both cases, the creation of the replacement parkland has fallen far behind schedule, depriving the community of parkland for years.

To bolster its bragging rights, the Bloomberg administration counts the Yankee parkland that has been completed so far toward its total acreage of new parkland. But it has not subtracted the parkland now buried under the Yankee's new mausoleum.

Of the record $600 million the administration has spent on parks construction in the Bronx, $200 million has gone so far to replace the parkland displaced by the stadium -- taxpayer dollars that went to save the Yankees the inconvenience of having to play a season away from their home stadium. Another $243 million being spent in the Bronx is in mitigation for the alienation of Van Cortlandt Park.

The city missed an opportunity to compel the Yankees to contribute to the upkeep of the replacement parks, said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "Our biggest concern is that, although it looks great when you open the parkland, in the future, with maintenance needs not being met, it will deteriorate," he said.

No Public Option

Some of the harshest criticism of Bloomberg's approach to parks involves what many residents see as his tendency to develop projects and designs without first creating a consensus in the community and then pushing them through over the opposition of the local community boards. "The biggest complaint we hear is that there is a lack of community-based planning and consultations," said Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates.

Bloomberg's top-down corporate style and impatience for the slow and messy process of public consultation is no secret. While discussing parent involvement in larger school issues recently, he toldThe Villager, "You would never build Central Park, you would never build anything, if you always had nothing but community involvement."

DiPalermo gives the Bloomberg credit for opening the door to advocates in the beginning stages of PlaNYC. "Clearly, under Giuliani, that door was locked tight if not hermetically sealed," he said. "We would like to see, if Bloomberg is elected to a third term, that he takes the next step and brings in more interaction on the local level."

Lack of public involvement was evident in the negotiations with Bronx politicians resulting in the alienation of parkland for Yankee Stadium. The necessary state legislation was pushed through so quickly that people in the community never had a chance to alter the outcome. In addition, the administration has faced opposition and lawsuits from residents who say that the community input was an afterthought in a redesign of Washington Square Park, a plan to put a restaurant in Union Square Park, and the changing of a community-developed plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park to include luxury high-rises.

In Washington Square, opponents of the redesign said it would affect the park's long tradition as a social gathering place and impromptu performance space. Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe said, "Anything you do in New York City is controversial. We didn't kick anyone out. All of the uses continue, but it's just in the context of a much more beautiful park."

Critics say, however, that many of park plans that have been developed under Bloomberg, like those for Williamsburg or Brooklyn Bridge Park, are essentially esplanades around private housing and discourage public access. "These parks are for passing through and looking at, and maybe if you can afford a fancy dinner there," said Judi Francis, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund. The group is fighting the city's plan to build condominiums inside the park to generate revenue for its upkeep, as required by the city-state agreement creating the park.

The Funding Conundrum

City appropriations for parks maintenance, consistently one of the top service priorities for community boards, increased during the Bloomberg years until the economic crash last year, but has never come close to the 1 percent of the overall budget park advocates have been calling for since Bloomberg first ran for mayor in 2001. Most parks without private funding still do not have on-site staff to care for them.

"The big difference from the parks-world perspective is that parks have been treated as an essential service," said DiPalermo. "Bloomberg brought respect back to the delivery of park services, increasing funds when he could and when he had to cut, cut proportionally to the other agencies."

In addition to traditional philanthropy and private partners, Bloomberg has encouraged corporate donations, concessions, the sale of naming rights, and funding mechanisms that link commercial development with the maintenance of public parks.

Conservancies and other partner groups offer many advantages. For one, these organizations can often be more flexible and innovative than government agencies, as has been the case with the Central Park Conservancy, which developed a highly effective zone management system that has become a model for park systems around the country.

Some park advocates, however, find the Bloomberg administration's increasing reliance on private funding problematic, saying that it erodes the public nature of parks. A case in point, they say, is the 2007 deal with the Randall's Island Sports Foundation in which a group of private schools agreed to spend nearly $90 million over 30 years to renovate and maintain fields on the island in exchange for near-exclusive use after school hours. The deal generated tremendous outrage, but was eventually approved with small modifications, including funding for a shuttle service from East Harlem.

Photo (cc) Bricolage
A view of Manhattan from Randall's Island.

"We should always have a maximum amount of transparency for public-private partnerships," said DiPalermo. "We believe it is time to create some general principles and a framework for these partnerships to operate efficiently and effectively, but most important, that the parks remain open to the public.

Looking to the Future

Bloomberg has overseen the largest capital investment in the park system in decades, with more to come if the goals of PlaNYC are realized. "We haven't seen a major official do so much for parks since Robert Moses," said DiPalermo.

The city's parks needed restoring after decades of deferred maintenance. It is much more economical to care for parks infrastructure and plantings on a regular basis than to let them deteriorate to the point where they require major renovation.

Parks, though, compete with other essential services for funding, while fixed costs like pensions and debt service consume an ever-larger chunk of the budget. Although the operating budget for the parks department increased in actual dollars during Bloomberg's tenure (until the recent economic crisis), it is still just under 0.5 percent of the total city budget The greatest challenge going forward will be how to maintain the green empire Bloomberg has done so much to renew and expand, especially in this difficult economic climate.

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

Staycationing in the City Parks

Photo (cc) superk8nyc
A Dutch 'pirate' at the New Island festival on Governor's Island this September

On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, some friends and I went bicycling on Governors Island. We pedaled around and through the small island, along the harbor and past shady lawns and historic buildings. Taking a break at a bright red picnic table at the island's southwestern end, we watched a spectacle starring a massive ocean liner, dozens of smaller craft, the Statue of Liberty and a pod of rapidly crawling swimmers.

We had plenty of company. In some places, the new promenade around the island was so thick with parents and children, tourists and groups of twenty-somethings that we had to stop and walk our bicycles through.

As of Labor Day weekend, more than 180,000 people had come to the island, nearly double the 100,000 who had visited by that time the previous year. To be sure, some of the increase can be attributed to a growing awareness of Governors Island, an increase in ferry service, new amenities like the Water Taxi Beach, and an active schedule of exhibits and events.

But for many city residents like me, it seems that a visit to a park became a mini-vacation in the city, a budget alternative to a weekend in the country or a house at the beach. The New York City parks department does not measure park use, except to estimate beach attendance. But preliminary numbers from some park organizations that do track it showed a dramatic jump this summer in the number of people visiting parks and participating in park activities, despite the second rainiest June and July on record.

The increase in park use indicates that well-maintained and actively programmed public outdoor spaces, so important to city dwellers' quality of life, are even more crucial in a recession. By providing beautiful and interesting destinations for tourists and making a visit to the city more pleasant, parks also give a boost to the city's economy during hard times.

Fresh Spaces

Luckily for New Yorkers, this recessionary summer coincided with the availability of new and newly discovered public spaces, including the High Line, Governors Island and the instant transformation of Broadway at Times and Herald squares into open space with the alchemy of paint, planters and movable tables and chairs. (A notable exception to this trend was in the South Bronx, where Yankee Stadium sits atop a former community park and running track, while residents waiting for the replacement parks got an interim synthetic-turf rooftop track and soccer field whose temperature measured 150 degrees during the August heat wave.)

People also flocked to free events and programs in parks all around the city, from concerts in Springfield Park in Queens to teen art classes in the parks at Battery Park City to the parks department's Learn to Swim programat three dozen pools citywide, which had a 25 percent increase in enrollment.

The free sports, arts and education programs run by the City Parks Foundation in underserved neighborhoods had a significant increase in the number of participants, said Nora Lanning, director of marketing and communication.

The number of children involved in the track program, offered in 37 parks, had grown steadily by about 5 to 7 percent a year over the previous three years, she said, but this summer, the program saw a 27 percent jump in participants. Anticipating the increase, the foundation added afternoon sessions to meet the demand. The year-end track meet, held at Icahn Stadium on Randalls Island, usually brings in 1,200 kids, but had 2,000 this year, said Lanning.

The foundation's free concert program had a 17 percent increase in attendance, attracting not just neighborhood residents but also young people from all over the city, she said, attributing much of the increase to the recession: "When concert tickets are $60, people are willing to travel 50 minutes or an hour to see the same artists for free."

Park by Park

Although the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy offered more free nature education programs, such as seining for marine life in the East River and bird watching, than in the past, classes at the waterfront park filled quickly, and waiting lists had to be established. "We easily could have offered twice as many programs for families and children than we were able to," said acting executive director Nancy Webster.

The Battery Park City Parks Conservancy noted a 20 percent increase in participation in its many activities for adults, families and children, including drawing, tai chi and fishing, according to Battery Park City Authority spokeswoman Leticia Remauro.

Bryant Park takes a daily count of visitors, but the full tab won't be available for several months, said park spokesman Joe Carella. Anecdotal evidence indicates more people coming to the carousel, Monday night movies and other events, but the only numbers available so far are for the outdoor library called the Reading Room, he said. With 53,000 visitors so far, up from just over 38,000 last year, it appears to be heading for record attendance. "Whether it has anything to do with the current economy is speculative," he said, "but one thing we know is that use has been increasing."

Prospect Park has also seen a rise in visitors, Prospect Park Alliance spokesman Eugene Patron wrote in an email, though it is difficult to quantify because it has so many entrances. But the Lefferts Historic House and the Prospect Park Audubon Center does count visitors and saw a significant rise, he said. In June and July '09, for example, 18,184 people visited the Audubon Center, compared with 13,334 the year before; at the Lefferts house, visits increased from 7,387 to 10,608 during the same period.

The trend was visible nationwide as well. A poll conducted in July for The Trust for Public Land found that one fifth of American park users have increased their visits to local parks and playgrounds during the recession and a third of families with children have upped their park use.

"The poll results indicate both a strong, consistent use of local parks and playgrounds and a renewed recognition of their value in tight economic times," said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land. "This poll underscores the importance of maintaining and enhancing parks and playgrounds in cities, even during tough times."

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

When first published, this story said the Bryant Park carousel was free. It actually costs $2.

A Public-slash-Private Park

Photo (c) Geoffrey Croft
One of the new ball fields on Randall's Island. By the end of construction, which the parks department estimates will be in 2011, Randall's Island will have 66 new or improved ball fields.

When State Supreme Court Judge Shirley Kornreich annulled a concession agreement between the Randall's Island Sports Foundation, the Department of Parks and Recreation and a consortium of 20 private schools last winter, Geoffrey Croft, one of the plaintiffs, was pleased.

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"We felt good about it," Croft, the president of the watchdog group NYC Parks Advocates, said. He says he thought the ruling would "make sure that the community is at least informed about the project. We also thought that the construction would stop."

However, construction went on, and in June the city signed off on a new, and some say better, deal. The new deal has reduced the amount of fields reserved for private school use -- a major criticism of the city's first plan -- from two-thirds to half.

But Croft and other critics of the plan, scheduled to go into effect this September, continue to contend that community input from East Harlem and the South Bronx, low-income areas that surround the East River island, has been sorely lacking. Opponents of the concession plan say that none of the members of the sports foundation's board, which runs the island in partnership with the city, live in East Harlem or the South Bronx, and that some members of the board have or had children enrolled in some of the private schools that were part of the concession.

The old accord called for the private schools to pay $2.6 million annually to the Randall's Island Sports Foundation in exchange for the use of two-thirds of the 66 new or improved athletic fields, currently under construction. Under the new agreement, the private schools will pay $2.2 million for the use of 50 percent of the fields. The sports foundation keeps $400,000 from the private school money, and the rest goes to the city.

While the new concession agreement has won over some critics, other community activists continue to voice opposition.

"Children in [East Harlem] and the South Bronx... have [high] asthma rates, there's no quality food supermarkets, so we have the fast food, so we have diabetes and obesity," said Marina Ortiz, a critic of the concession and president and founder of East Harlem Preservation. "People need access to parkland to combat these health issues, and we also have a right. And we're being denied that right, and it's unfair."

A Private Solution

Opponents charge that the Bloomberg administration and the sports foundation are favoring private schools over the surrounding communities, and that the concession amounts to privatizing the island. Critics also say the city has stymied community involvement in the planning process by bypassing the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

About 80 percent of the construction on the island is completed, and the remainder should be done by 2011, according to estimates by the Department of Parks and Recreation. While the parks department has slated $61.5 million for the field construction, the total cost of the project skyrockets to $190 million, according to the Independent Budget Office. The Economic Development Corporation has committed $115 million for the project's infrastructure through 2010.

The latest accord has not placated critics. "It's the exact same deal. They've lowered the percentage to 50, [but] they're just trying to do an end-run," around the court order, Croft said.

Ortiz agrees.

"Ramps are being built from various sections of the [RFK Bridge] accommodate this commuter park they've designed," she said. "It's not about local access. It's great, everyone should be able to come to Randall's Island, but that means everyone."

At stake is who, when and how much students and community residents get to use the fields on Randall's Island. The island is a vast 273-acre piece of land that sits on the East River and is surrounded by the communities of East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Astoria, Queens. It's sprinkled with facilities from tennis and golf centers, which you have to pay to use, to a homeless shelter, ball fields and more.

The dispute is a classic example of the debate over the proper use of private groups and money that finance public parks. Public-private partnerships, like the one between the sports foundation and the parks department, are seen as one solution to pump money into an underfunded budget for city parks. In the midst of a fiscal crisis, the Bloomberg administration recently slashed $13 million from parks maintenance, making the cuts to parks since 2007 a total of $24 million. However, at the same time, private money has helped to plug holes in the dearth of public money for parks.

"Public-private partnerships that invest in our communities are always appreciated, but especially now, during a fiscal crisis," Phillip Abramson, a spokesman for the parks department, wrote in an e-mail.

The reliance on private money, though, fuels charges of "pay to play" schemes and undue private influence on public and open space.

The City's Position

On the other hand, the city and the sports foundation say the new deal will widen access and create thousands of hours of additional playing time.

Recent testimony given by Richard Davis, the chair of the sports foundation, in front of the Office of Contract Services' Franchise and Concession Review Committee, applauded the deal.

The agreement will give "scores of new first class fields used by all our kids, a greater ability to meet the extensive needs for weekend fields and, for the first time, very meaningful after school use by public school kids," Davis said.

The latest deal has won over some past dissenters, like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who originally voted against the deal with the private schools.

In an opinion piece for the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario, Stringer wrote, "This new agreement is designed to ensure that the people of the South Bronx and East Harlem have real and meaningful access to all of the Island’s resources."

Stringer also applauded the $100,000 that was secured for 10 sports teams from public schools, and the fact that the teams will be transported with shuttle buses from 125th Street to the island. A spokeswoman for Stringer says that Stringer’s office gave $75,000 for transportation.

The new agreement will create opportunities for healthy activity, "especially for residents of East Harlem and the South Bronx," said Aimee Boden, executive director of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation. The foundation is working "to bring community people out to the park, and to advise them every step of the way," Boden said.

When asked about criticism over the amount of community engagement within the plan for Randall's Island, Boden said the sports foundation has been working with local community boards and residents, and pointed to the existence of a task force on Randall's Island that includes local representatives.

Another Day in Court

A new lawsuit, with many of the same plaintiffs, including Croft and Ortiz, was filed in late May, using largely the same arguments.

The crux of the legal argument against the concession agreement is that the city needs to go through a review process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure because the deal amounted to a "major concession." One of the criteria for determining whether a concession is major is if the concession involves more than 30,000 square feet of open use. The plaintiffs say the parks plan involves more than that. The procedure requires the plan to be submitted first to the community board, and then the borough president, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

When Kornreich ruled on the original agreement, she wrote, "the court disagrees with this strained interpretation of the concession, an interpretation designed to evade ULURP review."

The city argues that the new concession is not a "major concession" because the new sports fields continue an existing use that existed for the past two years, which is an exception to having to go through the land use procedure. The plan has only gone through the Franchise and Concession Review Committee, where a majority of that committee's members are appointed by the Bloomberg administration, which supports the deal. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is an "honorary trustee" to the board of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation.


The committee has approved the concession agreements, both the annulled one and the newest incarnation.

"Obviously this is another effort at evading [the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure]," said Gavin Kearney, environmental justice director for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. "Basically, it's the same thing with cosmetic changes, and they're basically trying to avoid the letter and the spirit of the court's ruling," he said.

Also at issue, critics say, is an inadequate environmental review process.

The parks department labeled the ongoing 209-acre construction at Randall's Island a "Type I" action--meaning that actions on the island would have a significant impact on the environment and may require a full environmental review process.

But the department filed a "negative declaration," and argued that construction will not have a big impact on the environmental quality of the island.

Kearney disagrees, and accused the parks department of a "cursory" look at the impact the construction will have.

"We don't think that they have adequately evaluated the impacts and we don't think they have adequately addressed how they're going to mitigate the impacts," he said.

In an e-mail, Abramson of the parks department wrote, "The petitioners' claims are without merit... Based on [our] study, we reasonably concluded that the Randall's Island project has no potential to create adverse impacts."

Kearney remains confident that the plaintiffs will get a favorable ruling.

"I think we're pretty confident that the court will see this for what it is, which is basically another effort to get around the city's legal requirements."

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