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Private Money, Public Parks

2013-09-01, Feature, by Michael Powell

Private funding is seen as a panacea for public parks, but a closer look reveals equity issues and an alarming decline in public funding.It was an extraordinary moment in the history of America’s urban parks, as hedge-fund billionaire John A. Paulson stepped forward last October in New York and wrote a $100 million check for Central Park.  

The leader of the Central Park Conservancy, the wealthy, largely private group that runs this glistening diamond of an 843-acre park, was left close to speechless.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Doug Blonsky, the conservancy’s president, told the hedge funder.

Paulson’s generosity was noteworthy, as were the restrictions that he placed upon his gift. Not a dime of his money — his 20,000-square-foot townhouse sits just feet from that park — could go to New York City’s dozens and dozens of other parks, many of which are bedraggled country cousins compared to Central Park.

There is perhaps a temptation to assume that Paulson’s gift represents the high-water point in Gilded Age underwriting of America’s urban parks. But that’s likely not the case. In city after city, the long march away from public funding of urban parklands — and the turn toward corporate benefactors and money-making schemes — has turned into a gallop.

Early 20th-century progressives spoke eloquently of parks as the lungs of a city, and leaders took great pride in building up their park departments in hopes that working classes and the poor might gambol across glorious swathes of green. That moment is fading into history.

Nonprofit park conservancies more and more supplant traditional park and recreation departments. These conservancies control public funds, often supplemented with copious private dollars. And their leaders, many quite wealthy, move with alacrity, making decisions and transforming parks in a manner of a year or two.

Harsh economic storm winds have speeded this transition. A long recession and a stumbling recovery have left park officials from Seattle to Baltimore to San Diego scraping for pennies. In Milwaukee, the park budget declined for years, an audit identified $200 million worth of deferred maintenance and officials installed a beer garden in a park to raise revenue. In Atlanta, park officials have closed recreation centers and cut millions from their budget — and already far fewer Atlanta residents live within walking distance of a park than in most big cities.

The state of Ohio, having made cut after cut in park staff, confronts the realization that Cleveland’s pride and joy, its 455 acres of woods and urban beaches along Lake Erie, is so cluttered with trash as to make stretches nearly unusable. The state has explored turning these parks back over to the city.

Setha Low, an anthropology professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, directs the Public Space Research Group, which studies the health of the public commons across the United States. Again and again, she sees a confounding pattern. City dwellers love their parks and view green space as no less essential to the fabric of their lives than garbage pickup and good schools. Wealthy city residents, such as in Denver, Atlanta, Boston and New York, pay a hefty premium to live near a greensward. 

Yet year after year, funding for all but the most prized parks tumbles downward. Parks in poor and working-class neighborhoods, where studies show residents are most passionate about their green space, have been particularly hard-hit. 

“No organized constituency speaks for parks,” Low notes. “So like schools and libraries, parks suffer from chronic underfunding.”

In some cities, officials talk of parks as a commodity fit for the auction block. In Corpus Christi, a consultant recommended selling off 30 “underused” parks, as if its green inheritance was another page in a real-estate portfolio. In Orange County, California, leaders turned over the massive old El Toro Marine Base to Lennar, a housing developer, in hopes the developer would fashion a park in addition to an amusement facility and thousands of units of houses. Then the local economy went belly up, Lennar saw its revenues dive, and the project languished for years.

In Alexandria, Virginia, developers showed spinning word pictures of a Xanadu-like athletic and entertainment center, with restaurants and snack bars, to be built on parkland. The proposed sports megalopolis, The Washington Post reported, would be equivalent in size to three Wal-Mart Supercenters.

Alexandria officials seemed entranced. But residents raised a ruckus, dismayed at the prospect of losing treasured ballfields and wooded trails. And city officials recently discovered that federal strictures appeared to prohibit turning the park into a development without first obtaining new park acreage elsewhere.

New York City, because of the size of its park system and its commanding place in the national media spotlight, has become a leader in the march toward the quasi-public, or as the case may be, the quasi-private. 

NYC Parks turned Bryant Park, a green rectangle within the shadow of Manhattan’s grandest public library, over to a local business improvement district. The new stewards polished Bryant Park to a splendid sparkle, even as they took pride in “programming” the park like an open-air television set for a near constant hum of activity. Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, a new park is privately run, its customized lands to be paid for with a hotel and luxury condominiums.

The discussion of partly privatized urban parks raises complex questions. Conservancy leaders can point to stirring triumphs of parks restored. And there are some genuinely happy betrothals with city park departments.

Yet risk is ever-present.

“Conservancies certainly revive some parks and make them look beautiful,” notes Professor Low. “But conservancies are run by wealthy people, and the landscape gets gentrified in an aesthetic way that many poor people come to understand as not for them.”

A few grand American cities continue to chart resolutely public courses. In Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin and Chicago, officials have declined to tiptoe down privatization’s path. Their experience too is worth a look in these tough times.

Not long ago, neighbors in an upper-middle-class precinct of Seattle asked to meet with the Seattle Parks and Recreation staff. They asked if they could hold fundraisers and cough up enough money to reopen a wading pool shuttered due to cuts.

Parks officials listened intently, and made a counteroffer: 

“Our pushback was that we don’t want to privatize our parks and have a rich/poor divide,” says Deputy Superintendent Eric Friedli. “We said, ‘If you raise money to open two wading pools, we’ll open yours and another on the south side of Seattle,’” which is poorer.

“They got it right away, and agreed,” he recalls. “That’s kind of the way Seattle thinks.”

Still, Seattle offers no picture of rosy good-budget health. They’ve cut back on fence repairs and had workers pull out shrub beds that cost too much to tend. In better times, staff paint its community centers on a six-year cycle; tight budgets forced a 17-year cycle upon them. Crews prefer to tend trees on a 15- to 18-year cycle; they now work a 50-year cycle.

They’ve designed new parks with fewer fountains and fewer complicated artworks, as these require much maintenance. And the department slashed hours at popular community centers.

“It’s not really a sustainable course,” Friedli says. “Our recreation staff are very passionate, and they are working themselves into the ground. But morale has suffered.”

Like Minneapolis and Chicago, however, Seattle has an arrow in its quiver that New York and other budget-strapped cities lack. Seattle Parks and Recreation has a degree of autonomy, and officials can enact taxes with the permission of voters. Seattle residents twice voted to provide many millions of dollars to expand and build parklands in the last 15 years. 

Now park officials are championing a ballot measure with a more prosaic goal: to raise taxes to pay for maintenance of all these parks.

 “We don’t want to rely on trusts and conservancies,” Friedli says. “We haven’t gone [down] that road.”

A similar story is heard in Chicago. Park District officials describe their department as a mini-city. Established in 1934, in the heart of the Great Depression (paradoxically, this was a golden age for some city parks, thanks to the Roosevelt administration), the district oversees 580 parks and draws a revenue stream from Soldier Field, home to the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

They have the ability to tax — parks account for seven percent of a Chicagoan’s property tax liability. The Park District is about to go to the bond market, seeking to float bonds to pay for $50 million worth of building and improvements. 

Perhaps as a result, Chicago does a far better job of funding its parks than New York City. The Park District spends in excess of $400 million a year on its 7,800-acre system, plus $80 million in capital improvements. By comparison, New York City oversees a vastly larger park empire, in excess of 29,000 acres. But it spends less than $340 million per year, or about 0.5 percent of the total city budget, on parks.

“We are constantly drawing up master plans,” says Brendan Daley, director of strategic planning for the Chicago Park District. “In the event that a benefactor steps up, we’ve already reached out to the community.” 

OK, fine. 

But what if, I ask him, a public-spirited plutocrat like Mr. Paulson stepped forward in Chicago and offered $100 million, and he had his own very specific thoughts about where and how that money should be invested? Daley offers a snort of laughter.

“First we would jump up and down and shout with joy,” he says, noting that they work with conservancies. Then he turns more serious: “The answer is that it sort of depends. We have a project to put artificial fields in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. Would he be willing to have the money go to that?”  

Chicago has proven inventive. Of late, the Park District started a rewards program, known as Park Points. Sign your child up for a parks program, catch a movie in the park, and eventually you might accumulate enough points to go to NBA All-Star game or get free golf lessons.

The idea isn’t to raise money so much as to reinvigorate a mass constituency for Chicago parks. 

All of which brings us back to New York City. What happens here often spirals outward to the rest of the nation. When Major League Soccer, with vigorous support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, proposed to build a $340 million soccer stadium on 13 acres smack in the middle of a densely populated, 800-acre working-class park in Queens, the ensuing battle drew media attention on two continents.

Community opponents waged a vigorous battle. They appear to have prevailed, as soccer proponents now eye other locations.

 In the 1930s, New York’s greatest mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, insisted that parks are central to city life, and he worked the funding levers in Depression-era Washington to pour money into park coffers. His parks commissioner, the master builder Robert Moses, was at his greatest in building or refurbishing the parks that define the city, from Central Park to Riverside, Pelham Bay and Orchard Beach in the Bronx. 

So we had a Golden Age of city parks. By the 1970s, the parks were a ball tumbling quickly down a hill. Every year, mayors cut the park department budget, which has no independent source of revenue. By the early 1980s, Central Park was a shambles and other parks little better. 

It was in this arid soil that conservancies took root, as citizens both wealthy and middle class stepped forward. They can point to great successes. Prospect Park, an Olmsted grand dame, with rolling hills and streams, was forbidding in 1980, its grand oaks and sycamores sitting like beached whales, roots exposed to the elements. It is again a grand park.

The flipside is that the wealthy became accustomed to running vast public patrimonies. New York park officials make no feint toward funding equity. The High Line, with 6.7 acres, has a workforce of 70, with three curators and 10 rangers. Flushing Meadows Park, with 12 times the acreage, has 19 staffers. Central Park, with a $220 million endowment, has just three city officials among more than 50 members.

Steve Hindy is a public-spirited businessman who owns Brooklyn Beer, and he sits on the board of two park conservancies. He is no Jacobin. But he sees public funds as a stream running dry.

“Someone should really blow the whistle on what’s happened to our parks,” he says. “Conservancies and alliances have been critical to fill the gap, but I fear that’s why there’s no public outcry about elected officials cutting the fiscal throats of our parks.”

The pressure in New York to create new conservancies increases by the month. For the past few years, the Parks and Recreation Department has led an expensive renovation of Washington Square Park, a historic and cacophonously diverse park in Greenwich Village.

Now they propose to turn it over to a hand-picked baby conservancy.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who represents this neighborhood, cowrote a passionate letter to the NYC Parks. 

“I understand the department is confronted with shrinking resources, but privatization of public spaces is not appropriate,” she writes. “Once a conservancy is established, the transparency associated with Parks Department oversight will be diminished.”

The sense, at least here in New York, is that Glick is shoveling sand against the tide.

Michael Powell is a columnist for The New York Times.

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Great article. I hope that some day in the near future politicians can once again see the value in investing in these spaces as they benefit all and are part of what makes America great.

Cheri Briscoe

This article really resonates with me. At this time Northwestern Mutual Insurance is proposing to buy O'Donnell Park, a 6.1 acre park in Milwaukee with a view of Lake Michigan on the East and the whole cityscape all around it and a parking garage built in the 1970's underneath it. They say they will "improve" the somewhat neglected park but they are not willing to guarantee that the park space will not be redeveloped in the future. The county is contemplating calling the property "excess property" to enable the sale. So, which park is going to be the next "excess property"? Is this the beginning of the end for our vaunted park system? The sale will net a mere $5,000,000 for Milwaukee County and the permanent loss of a county park space. Cheri Briscoe, Chair, Milwaukee County Parks Advisory Commission