When the government doesn’t have the money to carry out its chartered duties, it hunts around for a way to shift its burdens to private capital. This is a venerable tradition, and sometimes a good one. The Bloomberg administration prides itself on leveraging private money to improve the public’s life, and the tactic has often worked. Here in particular, the city has been neglecting the basics for so long that it has created a diabolical incentive to shed dusty land in order to get it spiffed up.
But parkland is different. It is the opposite of real estate, an abiding corrective to a rapacious market. Removing it from the public realm requires leaping through an assortment of legislative and regulatory hurdles. The term for this process is alienation, which is apt, since what could be more alien to a free swath of nature than an indoor mall? By legal tradition, alienated parkland must be replaced, acre for acre, and right nearby. But green space isn’t always fungible. A ten-acre chunk in the middle of a park is not the same as a string of tiny parcels on the periphery. The story of the Citi Field parking lot makes it clear that once we let go of parkland, we’re unlikely to get it back.
In 2008, the Parks Department commissioned a study from the landscape architects Quennell Rothschild & Partners and the architecture firm Smith-Miller+Hawkinson that proposed a rich menu of ways to resuscitate the park. The authors decided that the festering pool and its moribund Fountain of the Planets should go, to be replaced by great rolling “festival grounds,” a Queens version of the Sheep Meadow. It was a detailed, ambitious, and expensive vision, which the Parks Department put on its website and out of its mind. That document started a ripple of delusional optimism, while the city continued acting on a different assumption: that we must destroy the park in order to save it.