Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Fees for Parks. Also: Making Parks Political

A longstanding Parks Department practice of soliciting "donations" from private groups that want to use city parks for large-scale events has come under increasing scrutiny recently. The issue came to a head when the National Museum of Catholic Art and History protested a last-minute requirement by the Parks department for a $20,000 payment in order to stage a fundraiser in an East Harlem Park.

The immediate crisis was solved when an anonymous donor came up with the money, but the action angered City Council speaker Peter Vallone, who began an investigation. Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and Mayor Giuliani defended the practice, although Stern ultimately apologized for the way the request had been handled, saying that he would draw up new guidelines to clarify the process of soliciting donations. A City Council official confirmed news reports that Speaker Vallone and Mayor Giuliani were negotiating a revision of the system.

New Yorkers generally support charging private organizations for using the parks, especially profit-making companies, or when the event damages or prevents the public from using the park. Criticism has focused on the informal and sometimes vague nature of the requests, and whether the amounts requested are fair. In one article, the Colombian Civic Center and several other nonprofits bemoaned the increasingly steep fees they have been charged to hold festivals in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Another problem is lack of accountability for how the donations are spent. The money goes to a number of non-profits that help city parks, including the City Parks Foundation. If the money were given directly to the Parks Department, it would end up in the city government's general fund (like the $45 million in other revenues the Parks Department raised last year), where it could not be specifically earmarked for parks. But there is no public accounting for how much money is brought in and how it is spent.

Some parks advocates feel that decreasing public funding for parks has put pressure on the parks department to conduct this type of problematic fundraising, a charge that city officials deny. Although the city has had great success in raising private money to restore some of the city's flagship parks, maintenance suffers in many parks. Parks advocates wonder whether the city has gone too far in expecting private donations to make up for lack of public support.

Anne Sounds Off

We New Yorkers love our parks and rate them highly, but without realizing it, we have lowered our expectations for what kind of resources we can expect the city to devote to parks. The parks department operating budget, which covers maintenance and recreational programs, has been declining for decades and is now less than one half of one percent of the city budget. The city has cut the parks department staff in half since 1986. Private donations have made a dramatic difference in a few flagship parks, but haven't begun to close the gap overall. We're used to a shortage of playable ball fields and jam-packed pools and skating rinks. We're pleasantly surprised when the bathrooms work. Most New Yorkers don't even know that the city once had employees in most parks to provide upkeep and youth recreational programs.

This could change.

In 2001, because of term limits, we'll be electing a new mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and 36 of the 51 city council members. It's a golden opportunity to elect representatives who understand the importance of parks and recreation to the life of the city.

The Parks Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, has begun laying the groundwork to make the most of this opportunity. The organization's overall goal is to raise the parks department's operating funds to one percent of the city budget, as well as to make sure that this additional money is distributed equitably to bring parks throughout the city up to the standards of our best parks. As part of its "Campaign for Parks and Recreation: 2001," the council is developing profiles of parks, open space, and recreation facilities in every city council district, and meeting with all the candidates to educate them on park issues. It plans to publicize the position statements of the candidates on its web site. The council is also building s upport from many sectors of the community that depend on parks in some way but don't generally advocate for parks. This includes youth service agencies, sports leagues, real estate and business groups, schools, and the police force.

Just a relatively small additional investment of city funds in parks, with good managerial oversight, would reap significant dividends for nearly every aspect of city life. We can raise our expectations a little. After all, shouldn't a city like New York have a world-class park system?

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

Election Special--THE PARKS AND THE POLS

Few candidates have put a high priority on the need for open space, greenery, or recreation in the city. But there are many issues the candidates could be talking about.



Parks are a top quality-of-life issue for any city, especially a city that is as densely built as New York. Parks and the recreational opportunities they afford are far more important to a city's well-being, economic and otherwise, than is generally recognized. Imagine living without trees; without places to play or picnic; with no view of greenery or open water. Yet according to a recent study, New York City allocates far less money to parks and recreation than most major cities in the country, just $42 per capita. Many people also feel that the state shortchanges the city when it comes to spending money from the Environmental Bond Act and other state funds on city parkland and open space. Federal funding for New York City parks has also declined.



New York City's minority neighborhoods have the fewest and most poorly maintained parks and recreational amenities in New York City. This is one of the many "environmental justice" issues the city faces. In some sections, the only green places are the community gardens, planted and tended by the residents on vacant lots owned by the city. When the city began leasing the lots to gardeners 20 years ago, it was with the understanding the land would eventually be reclaimed. Nevertheless, many of the gardens have come to serve a vital function for their community.

Recently, the city has begun auctioning off gardens to developers, in some cases for housing, which is also a pressing need for these communities. But garden advocates point out that there are numerous vacant lots with no gardens on them, and the communities need both housing and open space. In some neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the gardens themselves have contributed to the increase in property values in the neighborhood, reviving developers' interest in lots that were abandoned decades ago.

Legislation is before the City Council that would require a thorough public review before a community garden could be developed, and provide a way to transfer gardens to the parks department or a land trust. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has filed a lawsuit to stop the city from auctioning off gardens without following the established public-review process he contends is already required by law. In the State Senate, John Sampson of Brooklyn introduced a bill that would, among other things, dedicate community gardens as parkland. Senator Velmanette Montgomery sponsored another bill that would allow non-profits to apply for Environmental Bond Act Funds to purchase community gardens. Neither bill made any headway in Albany.


Last winter, Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani finally reached an agreement about what should be done with Governor's Island. Their plan includes a significant amount of open space. Legislation introduced by Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Schumer, and Representatives Benjamin Gilman, Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, would transfer the island at no cost to the Governor's Island Redevelopment Corporation, which is in charge of the preservation and development effort. The bill would place the historic sites on the island in the National Park System. But time is running out. If the bill is not passed in this session of Congress, the city could lose the chance to regain the island at no cost.


Two new waterfront parks are in various stages of progress -- the Hudson River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Although both parks have widespread support among area residents and local civic and environmental groups, there are also vocal opponents who object to the scale of the development and the inclusion of commercial elements to help finance the parks' upkeep. Opponents see the parks as development in disguise; they want to see more traditional green spaces. Supporters of the parks take a pragmatic approach, believing that with the current reluctance of government to fund and maintain parks, plans that make room for sports complexes, restaurants, and other money-making enterprises are the only realistic way to reclaim the waterfront as parkland.


Battles are being waged in different parts of the city over plans to use public parkland for private concessions or for what some believe are inappropriate public uses. Although the specific issues are quite different in each situation, the larger concern is that this sets a dangerous precedent of taking away, rather than adding to, public open space.

The city wants to build a chemical water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The plant would filter water from the Croton Aqueduct, satisfying the requirements of a federal water-quality lawsuit against the city. The city plans to build the plant underneath 30 acres of the Mosholu Golf Course, rebuilding the course on top when the project is completed in about five years. Opponents of the plan contend that the filtration plant will actually rise 30 feet above existing ground level, and increase noise, traffic, and pollution in the area. In May, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by the Parks Council and community groups against the plant. The groups are appealing the decision.

At Ferry Point in the Bronx, a former city dump that was transferred to the parks department is being turned into a luxury golf course by a private developer. Seven of the 400 acres will become a public park near a low-income housing project on the east edge of the site. But a 30-foot-high wall will block access to the rest of the park, including a waterfront esplanade, from the residential areas. The New York Environmental Justice A lliance opposes the plan as the privatization of public space that excludes low-income residents. Aside from the environmental justice concerns, there are also many troubling environmental questions, beginning with the toxic chemicals still remaining from the site's previous use.

Environmental groups in Staten Island are opposing the city's plan to build a complex of sports fields in a natural wetland area in Bloomingdale Park. They say there are other potential recreational sites that are not wetlands and have lower associated construction and maintenance costs. Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari has pushed the plan, citing the need for soccer and other fields for the borough's increasing number of young families. Because the Department of Environmental Conservation has not designated the area as a state-regulated wetland, construction can proceed; environmental groups are contesting the DEC ruling.



Most of the candidates have not campaigned on issues relating to parks or community gardens. Few responded to inquiries about their positions on the issues, although a number of incumbents have records in support of parks.

One of the exceptions was Liz Krueger, who is challenging Senator Roy Goodman for the Manhattan district he has represented for 32 years. She called back herself to discuss her strong support for parks and community gardens. "We have way too little park space and open space throughout New York City," she said, "and it's a true quality-of-life issue for the future of our city."


Also responding to our inquiry, an aide to State Senator Eric Schneiderman said that getting more green space in the city was a high priority of his. Senator Schneiderman, who represents parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, is ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation.


The elections that could make a difference in the city's financial commitment to maintaining and expanding its parks will not be held until next year, when a new mayor, new borough presidents, and a largely new City Council will be elected. Some of the incumbent state senators and assembly members have supported state funding for city parks or worked to get funding for parks in their districts, including Senator Martin Connor and Assemblymen Joseph Lentol. State Senate candidate Liz Kreuger supports increased state funding for urban parks. She is also particularly interested in working with community groups to make the waterfronts more accessible, and sees the need to coordinate federal, state, and city efforts in that area.

Both Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio have made general statements supporting federal funding for urban parks (available on the web site of the League of Conservation Voters). They support the federal Conservation and Recreation Act now being considered by Congress. The Act would establish a separate trust fund for open space conservation, including money for urban parks and recreation.

The presidential candidates also support the concept of a federal land conservation trust fund, although George W. Bush takes care to emphasize his belief that any federally funded land acquisition must not trample private property rights. Audubon magazine published the candidates' statements on this and other environmental issues.


Two state senators have introduced legislation in Albany: Velmanette Montgomery and John Sampson. Liz Kreuger says she is a strong supporter of community gardens, and although she is not yet familiar with the details of the past legislation, she would support state efforts to promote the gardens.

The Green Guerillas, a garden advocacy group, has begun a campaign called Plant the Vote. By registering voters and educating people about the community garden issue, it hopes to get garden supporters elected in next year's citywide elections.

Although both United States Senate candidates have made general statements in support of environmental justice initiatives, only Rick Lazio specifically mentioned the need to redress the lack of open space in the inner city. His statement to the League of Conservation Voters said, "Ă…Ăł|we need more parks and recreational opportunities throughout this land, but the need is highest in our crowded urban areas. That is why I have consistently supported funding for the Urban Parks and Recreation Program." Ralph Nader calls for an Urban Policy Initiative, but its various recommendations omit any mention of investing in urban open space or recreation.


Rick Lazio is a cosponsor of the legislation to turn Governor's Island over to New York. In answer to a question at a recent Manhattan environmental forum, Hillary Clinton said she was hopeful for the bill's passage. If the bill doesn't pass, she said, "I would certainly take up this cause in the next Congress."


Hillary Clinton has issued a statement opposing the Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant. At the environmental forum, she said, "I have stated that I am not in favor of the filtration plant." She expressed her belief that the water quality problems should be solved instead by stronger efforts to protect the watershed. Rick Lazio has not responded to inquiries about his position on the plant. Both State Senator Eric Schneiderman and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who represent the area, oppose building the plant in Van Cortlandt Park. Both worked to stop a previous effort to put the filtration plant at the Jerome Park Reservoir, and have proposed legislation in Albany to designate Jerome Park as official parkland. The land around the park is now closed to the public. The bill, however, did not advance because of opposition by the mayor and other Republicans. Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

In the News: Garbage Out, Parks In; Also, rating New York City's parks

A new State Park will be created along the waterfront in Williamsburg, a neighborhood with the dubious honor of having among the least open space and the most waste transfer stations in the city. Through an unusual agreement, the State will lease the land to New York University, which will turn part of the park into fields for its outdoor athletic program. The fields will be available to the community 5l percent of the time, including the summer. The state will develop the rest of the park, which is expected to include some sort of promenade along the waterfront and the rebuilding of existing piers. The agreement calls for NYU to maintain the entire site.

"This particular site has been on a lot of people's radar screens for a long time," said Eric Kulleseid, New York State Director of the Trust for Public Land. After closing down a nearby waste transfer station that planned to expand to the site, local groups began organizing to turn some of the land into a waterfront park. They succeeded in getting the land listed for acquisition on the state's 1998 Open Space Conservation Plan. Because the state had funding only to purchase the land, the deal was finally clinched by the agreement for NYU to develop and maintain it. The partnership was brokered by the Trust for Public Land, which also negotiated the purchase and will own the site until the state can take title.

The park site, a former rail-to-barge depot called the Eastern District Terminal, has been abandoned for decades. Its dilapidated condition, and the fact that it is fenced-off private property, hasn't stopped residents from using the site for years to fish, sunbathe, walk their dogs, and take in the spectacular river and skyline views. "It seemed so self-evident to everyone here that this is what should happen," said Peter Gillespie of Neighbors Against Garbage about the park. "We wondered why it took so long to get everyone else to realize it." Looking to the future, he said, "There is a lot of potential for other projects like this to happen. We're hoping that this is the first step."

Anne Sounds Off: Insights from a new parks book

The Urban Land Institute and the Trust for Public Land have just published an invaluable new study, Inside City Parks, which describes the park systems in 25 major cities, including New York. Published for the first time are statistics about the cities' park acreage, staffing, and funding, among other things. Author Peter Harnik covers the history of each system, provides successful examples and cautionary tales, and discusses parks in the context of each city's political and economic milieu. His look at the New York City park system, its strengths and shortcomings, could help spur new action to improve our parks.

New York has a higher proportion of parkland than any other city in the book, and among the many wonderful parks are two that set the standards for all others, the Olmsted gems of Central and Prospect Parks. Yet New York ranks toward the bottom of the list in the amount it spends per person on parks and recreation -- just $42. Only four cities spend less. Some cities, including Seattle, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon spend from two to four times as much per resident. New York also spends a much smaller portion of its park department budget on recreation than many cities. Per capita, it has the lowest number of recreation centers, public swimming pools, and public tennis courts. For example, New York, with a population of about 7.4 million, has 35 recreation centers, 54 pools, and 860 sports fields; Chicago, population 2.7 million, has 260 recreation centers, 89 pools, and 1,019 sports fields. Harnik reports that adjusted for inflation, New York's overall spending on parks dropped 31 percent between 1987 and 1996, and the recreation program's budget shrank by 65 percent.

Nevertheless, Harnik is optimistic about the future for New York City parks, citing among other things the public-private partnerships that have revived many parks, the new waterfront parks in the works, and the efforts of scrappy and inventive park activists. In New York and all over the country, Harnik sees a new appreciation for parks taking root, with parks either newly opened, under construction, or being planned in most of the cities profiled.

One of the conclusions Harnik draws is that the successful city park systems have flourished because of a mayor or other powerful civic leader who cared about parks and had a vision for what parks could do for the city. Because there are so many other urgent priorities, parks are often last to get funded. It takes a leader who understands that trees, lawns, flowers, lakes, open vistas and river views, places to stroll or play ball -- things that feed the part of the human soul that responds to the natural world -„ all affect the "hard" urban issues, like crime, business development, real estate values, tourism. That's something to think about for the next mayoral election.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

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