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A caution on public-private partnerships when it comes to parks

Atlantic Yards is supposed to be a public-private partnership (or, more likely, a private-public partnership), but developer Bruce Ratner famously told Crain's last November, "Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project."

So the public-private balance is tough to navigate--and not just with development projects. And it tells a story about city mayors, including Mike Bloomberg.

Public-private parks

In The Next American City, Patrick Arden (formerly of Metro), in an article headlined The High Cost of Free Parks: Do Public-Private Partnerships Save Parks or Exploit Them?, writes:
Public-private partnerships are widely touted as the new model for cities to build and maintain parkland, but they’re old news in New York. The Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980, has inspired similar groups in cities from Atlanta to San Francisco. Yet even in a time of leaner government budgets, a cautionary tale can be found in New York’s 36-year experience of putting public parks into private hands. The city says private investment allows it to target limited taxpayer resources to the parks most in need, creating what parks commissioner Adrian Benepe has repeatedly hailed as a “Golden Age for Parks.” But others see a Gilded Age instead, an echo of Conkling’s era in the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with wide — and growing — disparities between lavish, showplace parks for the haves and cast-off parcels for the have-nots. For every Madison Square, Bryant Park or High Line, there are hundreds of parks that depend solely on the city, and many suffer from scandalous neglect.
He offers some sobering statistics:
In 1960 parks maintenance and operations claimed 1.4 percent of city funds. Mayor Bloomberg’s new $63.6 billion budget would send parks’ percentage to a record low of 0.37 percent, or $239 million. (Chicago spent almost $150 million more last year on 21,000 fewer acres.) The mayor’s cut would drop the full-time workforce below 3,000, less than half the number employed by the Parks Department in 1970. “No other city agency has lost a greater percentage of its workforce over the last 40 years,” says Croft. “Private money will never make that up.”

Former mayor David Dinkins had slashed the Parks Department’s payroll by 41 percent in order to deal with deficits in 1991 and ’92, but rather than restore the agency’s budget when times improved, the administration of Rudolph Giuliani used capital funds to fix maintenance issues and welfare recipients to clean parks.

It’s illegal to borrow money for maintenance, a practice that nearly bankrupted the city in the 1970s. But the city will use bond proceeds for improvements and then not maintain a park, requiring it to borrow capital funds again to rebuild. In the long run, of course, building is more expensive than maintenance. Bloomberg has continued down this path, making greater use of capital borrowing and conservancies. “Public-private partnerships are a priority of the mayor,” says a Parks Department spokesperson, “as they were for the three previous mayors.”

Flashback, 2001

In 2001, there was an effort to elevate parks funding, as Gotham Gazette's Anne Schwartz reported in June 2001:
Parks 2001, a coalition that includes advocacy groups as well as business, real estate, sports, youth, labor, and law-enforcement organizations, is campaigning to increase funding for parks to 1 percent of the city budget from the current 0.4 percent.
Project for Public Spaces provided a fact sheet.

Schwartz followed up in Gotham Gazette in September 2002:
The day they looked forward to was September 11, 2001; that was primary day in New York. A coalition called Parks 2001, made up of groups connected to sports, law enforcement, real estate, environmental and community gardens, persuaded most of the candidates, including Michael Bloomberg, to support its goals, including doubling the money allocated to the parks department to one percent of the city's budget.

These hopes were dashed after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and its devastating effect on the city's economy. The budget for parks was cut six percent, and Mayor Bloomberg has asked the parks department (and every other city agency) to shave an additional 7.5 percent from their expenses. There was also a reduction in the four-year capital budget for 2002-2005, which put on hold, perhaps indefinitely, a number of smaller park renovation projects that were already in the works.
So the upshot was that the 9/11 attacks scotched the one percent pledge, and even as the city recovered, public funding for parks did not.

Update

Today's Daily News, in an article headlined Harlem's Highbridge Park is a poster child for neglect by city after condoms wrappers, needles found, backs up Arden's argument, and that of his protagonist, Geoffrey Croft:
In Harlem's Highbridge Park, condom wrappers and used hypodermic needles litter a path not far from a playground at 190th St. where a mom rolled a ball to her toddler...

"I don't think you're ever going to see this in Central Park or on the High Line," said Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, pointing to a partially filled needle.

The park stretches along the Harlem River Drive from W. 155th St. to Edgecombe Ave., and is the only major swath of green space in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

It does not have a large private conservancy raising money for upkeep, security and beautification - and locals say it shows.

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