The Selling of New York’s Parks

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Photo: Photo-illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: WikiCommons, iStockphoto

Just like condo developments and celebrity-chef restaurant empires, New York’s public-parks system expanded rapidly during the boom years. Prospect Park unleashed plans for a new $60 million complex, Washington Square Park began a thorough face-lift, and the High Line found the substantial funding it needed to transform from an abandoned railway into one of the city’s most hyped destinations. The catch is that the funding for these initiatives has become less public. And as the downturn continues, more compromises could be made to continue to pay for these privatized parks.

When New York began relying on public-private parks partnerships following the fiscal crisis of the seventies, the idea was that private philanthropic groups would pick up the slack. And they did. Groups like the Central Park Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance, and the Bryant Park Corporation rose to respond to that crisis. But the city’s newest parks, paid for and operated largely by nonpublic dollars, are girded tightly by their private patrons.

The High Line was invented as a park by Friends of the High Line, which raised $44 million in donations and helped select the design. Celebrity endorsements (Edward Norton, Diane Von Furstenberg), caps on visitor attendance, adjacent real-estate development, and a dense police presence compared to other parks have all contributed to the appearance of something less than fully public. Elsewhere, the Parks Department has met with a local interest group called Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park, which offered to hire its own security and maintenance forces for the newly renovated green. Parks turned them down but did “discuss the designs of the next phase of renovation.” And in order to build the $350 million Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, a public agency, is using the private developers of luxury condos like One Brooklyn Bridge Park to pay for the maintenance of its public front yard (never mind what’ll happen if the condos don’t sell).

Expect more of the same. “What’s happening on a basic level is that the city does not feel that parks are its responsibility anymore,” says Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates. “But every community deserves to have healthy parks, not just ones that have wealthy benefactors.”

Earlier this month, the city approved exclusive negotiations between the Parks Department and Friends of the High Line for the contracts to run all concession stands on and below the park for the next ten years. (The review process will be public.) The Prospect Park Alliance plans to sell naming rights to two new rinks to be built as part of its Lakeside Center development, and the sale of such rights has been proposed for McCarren Park Pool. The Tisch family marked its name on the Washington Square Park fountain after donating $2.5 million for its renovation. In coming months, the Parks Department is considering selling ten-year naming rights to existing ballparks and skating rinks, with the money going to the city’s general fund.

“Even with the budget cuts, the Parks Department is in decent shape, but you never know what might happen in the future,” says Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe. “In the past, there have been times when, in very bad fiscal times, the Parks Department was badly cut. And so if we can lock in some funding to make sure that things stay whole, that might not be a bad thing.”

But more and more private control — you can purchase time in a “public” basketball court for a fashion show, as happened in May with designer Joseph Abboud in Greenwich Village, or pay to park a branded exhibition in Central Park, as Chanel did last fall — has become the norm. The question is how much more that means. “While privatization has brought some very good management techniques, like at Bryant Park, the nice thing about it so far is that we don’t have ‘Exxon Bryant Park,’ ” says Christian DiPalermo, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. Well, not yet.

Editor's note: This story has been amended from an earlier version, which claimed that the Parks Department had already awarded the concession stand contract to Friends of the High Line.