Is the revenue-generating park a good thing? Commissioner Benepe says it 'depends on who's in charge'
5:28 pm Aug. 11, 2011
“I guess, in general, every city is trying to figure out how to fund parks,” said Catherine Nagel to the panel. “Municipal budgets are being cut. Certainly in Washington there has been very little funding for parks and I think we’re going to see less of that in the future.”
Nagel, director of the City Parks Alliance (and, as moderator Susan Henshaw Jones pointed out, initiator of Philadelphia’s “Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival”), was one of four panelists at the Museum of the City of New York yesterday, discussing park funding in an age of municipal austerity.
An introduction traced the development of the city’s parks through Bowling Green, Olmstead and Vaux’s design of Central and Prospect parks, and Robert Moses’ mass acquisition of parkland in the mid-20th century. The older, well-to-do crowd was there on a sold-out and soggy Tuesday night to hear a conversation about a question for which there is apparently no one correct answer: How to pay for them?
Over the last couple of decades, and particularly during the Bloomberg years, new and ever-more complex models for funding the city’s expansive park system have been introduced. Public-private partnerships like the Central Park Conservancy and Friends of the High Line have been responsible for creating or maintaining the city’s most celebrated parks, but their existence is contingent on contributions wealthy New York individuals and institutions.
The other panelists were Alyson Beha, director of research, planning and programs for New Yorkers for Parks, former lead planner for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and head of the City Planning Commission Alex Garvin and, right at the center of every discussion, parks commissioner Adrian Benepe, who has run the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation just about since the start of the Bloomberg administration.
“He was appointed by Bloomberg in 2002, which means Adrian should be pretty tired by now,” Jones said, and Benepe laughed.
Jones said parks have always been magnets for controversy and to prove that point, the panel was interrupted several minutes later by serial arrestee Robert Lederman, an artist who gained notoriety for his dozens of arrests for selling art in parks.
“This is a public-service announcement,” Lederman said to the room. “Adrian Benepe is a criminal, a real estate agent privatizing and selling off public parks to help Bloomberg’s richest friends get even richer.”
Audience members and museum staff yelled for him to leave, but Lederman kept shouting. City council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was in the front row audience, repeatedly urged him to stop. After 12 minutes, the panel restarted though Lederman still held up an anti-Bloomberg sign.
“I guess in the 1970’s, there was a civility of discourse,” Benepe said when the panel resumed, riffing on an earlier question about how New York has changed.
Back to park funding, Nagel brought up Minneapolis’ funding model which has an elected Parks and Recreation Board that mostly pays for things with property taxes. She said it isn’t typical, but the great advantage of that system is that parks don’t have to compete with schools and libraries.
Beha said since New York parks have to fight for funding every year, the city should look at more creative ways of finding money for them. She suggested tax models like Park Improvement Districts, in which neighbors of parks pay into upkeep (an idea floated for the much-debated Brooklyn Bridge Park). And she suggested revenue from profit-generating concessions should be diverted back into the parks system instead of going to the city’s general fund.
Nagel also mentioned ideas in other cities, such as Post Office Square in Boston, where a parking garage subsidizes a park above it. Benepe said new parks like Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park will use new financing models. In fact, he said, the new parks have only been undertaken on the premise that they will eventually earn enough revenue to cover their own maintenance.
It’s an expansion of the definition of “sustainability” when it comes to parks: it’s a measure of fiscal, as well as environmental, soundness.
“People say, ‘Why should we self-sustain? The city government should pay for it,’” said Benepe. “And you could say that’s a perfectly valid mission. Except the city government probably won’t pay for it. And you have a choice between doing something unusual—government-to-government partnerships, funding mechanisms, park improvement districts, special taxing districts, public-private partnerships—or not doing anything.
“And what’s happening in New York is that they decided to do these things and it’s not one size fits all. People say, ‘Why can’t we have a Central Park Conservancy for every park?’ And the answer is you can’t because we have this unusual concentration of very philanthropic people living in large numbers in tall buildings surrounding the park.”
Benepe said parks of the last 30 years were a series of laboratory experiments, a crucible for people around the world to see.
When a young man in the audience asked about the controversial, administration-backed plan to put housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Lederman again heckled the parks commissioner and the panelists. Nearly an hour after he first interrupted the panel, he was accompanied out of the auditorium by police officers who had responded to a 911 call. Lederman yelled and played up the theatricality of the arrest, and yelled “Bloomberg sucks” as he was leaving.
“If you hadn’t mentioned Brooklyn Bridge Park, he wouldn’t have done that,” Benepe said to the audience member. “You know the good thing about that is he makes you guys seem reasonable.”
The audience member continued his question: “Do you think cities around the country should copy this model and start building luxury apartments within the footprint of public parks? Is that a park-friendly idea?”
Nagel, stepping in to answer, refocused the question on the merits of environmental sustainability.
“So let me take out the adjective ‘luxury,’” she said. “I think that we’re all looking at how we can deal with less. And people are moving to cities. Young people want to live within walking distance of parks. We have a huge group of people who are retiring who want to be living in walkable communities.
”So I think there is going to be a greater need to have parks that are within walking distance from where you live. And I think developers are actually beginning to see that they need to be thinking about the green space around their buildings. So I think the question is a little bit flawed.”
There were other politely critical questions. Parks advocate Geoffery Croft asked why the budget for parks was 20 percent of what it was in 1960, as a proportion of the total city budget. Mark-Viverito, chair of the City Council’s parks committee, stood to advocate a more diverse panel to get more community input from less wealthy areas of the city.
“I think a lot of times some of these decisions, people feel the community is being taken out of the decision-making process,” said Mark-Viverito. “I would look forward to working on an alternative panel where we can really represent more of the controversial aspects of these partnerships and what it means for usage of the larger community.”
An audience member asked where parks would be 40 years in the future.
“There isn’t a lot of vacant land sitting around to turn into parks,” Benepe said. “There’s very little. So you have to nip at the edges. You have to convert brownfields. So, a lot of former factories that will never be factories again. Or waterfront that will never be used for shipping again. Because the shipping has moved to the deepwater ports—it’s all containerized.”
“It’s not likely you can tear down people’s homes and build parks. Though that has happened. The city has used eminent domain to acquire land for parks. But one of the ways, a very ingenious way of adding more recreational space, which we did recently, was the Department of Education school playgrounds, which were used only by the schools between nine and three on weekdays and then locked up most of the time. And we’d sort of stand and look at these places and look at neighborhoods like Brownsville and Borough Park and other parts of the city that had very few parks and say, ‘Couldn’t we just open these up?’
”And for many years the answer was no, because the Department of Education didn’t want to be bothered in cleaning up the playgrounds after busy weekends. And so, once the Department of Education was brought under mayoral control, it was much easier to work with them and say, we will work with the Trust for Public Land and take almost 300 school yards and convert them, improve them, work with the schools and kids to redesign them and convert them to full time playgrounds.”
Benepe ended his remarks, and the event, by issuing a sort of warning to (presumably) future mayors about the dangers of going too far with the idea that parks should collect and spend their own money.
“The risk, I think though, is if you become dependent on that revenue, then you start to exploit the parks as much as you can for that revenue, because that’s your basement … I think the risk is that if a lot of our budget is dependent on how much revenue we bring in, that will start to turn the parks into a cash cow. We have a little bit of that now. We have some parks where revenue stays in the parks. As a long-term model it’s hard to say.
“Is it a good model or a bad model? I suppose that depends on who’s in charge, who’s running things and how much oversight there is. The answer is that there’s no perfect answer.“
More by this author:
- Director Andrew Bujalski celebrates 10 years of 'Funny Ha Ha' with a big fan, Lena Dunham
- A festival built on the hope that film can bridge the deep political divide over Israel