Immediately after the City Council approved the redevelopment of Willets Point early this month, Queens Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras posed at the front of the chambers for a celebratory photograph with the developers. She had brokered the final deal only hours before in the Bloomberg administration’s offices at City Hall—and inadvertently paved the way to a troubling future for New York City parks.
Private money for a neglected park was at the center of Ferreras’ deal with the Willets Point developers, who would be drawing on free land and taxpayer subsidies worth more than the entire annual budget of the city’s Parks Department.
The developers—Related Companies and Sterling Equities, the real estate firm of Mets’ owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz—agreed to contribute $15.5 million over 25 years to the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Alliance, a nonprofit Ferreras had just founded with the Parks Department and the group New Yorkers for Parks.
The Willets Point plan involves the building of a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping mall and multi-story parking garages on 46 acres of mapped parkland at the northern end of Flushing Meadows. Even as the proposed mall encountered neighborhood opposition—Community Board 3 voted 30-1 to reject the plan—Ferreras was actively soliciting funds from the developers.
“They know I expect them to contribute,” she told City Limits this summer, pointing out that the Mets’ stadium was already located in the park. If the team’s owners wanted to build their mall there too, she said, they would have to give money to her nonprofit. “I am knocking on their door.” Months earlier, Ferreras’ park alliance had accepted $10 million over 23 years in exchange for her support of the U.S. Tennis Association’s expansion in Flushing Meadows.
In many ways, the Flushing Meadows deals are emblematic of a larger predicament in city parks: For years, the government has inadequately funded parks, so private money has helped to pay for park upkeep.
That money usually gravitates to affluent neighborhoods, leaving parks in poorer areas behind. This time, in Flushing Meadows, a park in a lower-income area is getting in on the action, but on different terms: Parkland is effectively being traded to a private company for money to maintain the park that’s left.
Our grass, their greenbacks
The amount of private money now paying for New York City parks is staggering. Parks Commissioner Veronica White put the figure at $76 million a year during a recent City Council hearing, but documents obtained by City Limits via the Freedom of Information Law indicated that 26 private groups alone contributed an annual $162 million in 2011 for parks’ maintenance and operations. If accurate, that’s equal to more than half of the city’s yearly tax-levy budget for parks. The Parks Department did not answer questions about these numbers.
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While Manhattan and Brooklyn have ended up with some showplace parks, no one is interested in operating, say, Highland Park on the Brooklyn-Queens border or Ferry Point Park in the Bronx. Donald Trump has struck a deal to take about half of the 413-acre Ferry Point to build a private club and a “world-class” golf course on what had been a garbage dump , but he won’t be sharing the revenue with the park, and it’s unlikely the patrons of his luxury facility will be the residents of the neighboring public housing project.
Even middle-class and well-heeled areas have been forced to pick up the slack, with volunteers maintaining such parks as Juniper Valley Park in Middle Village, Queens, and Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in Manhattan, right across the street from the United Nations. Half of the city’s 1,800 parks and playgrounds now depend on some type of private group to at least chip in on maintenance, according to the Parks Department, but many, if not most, of these groups struggle.
Some people, like Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, have pinned their hopes for more equitable parks funding on legislation proposed by state Senator Dan Squadron that would create a Neighborhood Parks Alliance to take 20 percent from the budgets of large park conservancies and distribute that money to the parks most in need. “It will make for a fairer city,” says de Blasio, “and I think it’s a great idea.”
But the proposed alliance would be blocked from accessing a large part of the nonprofit funds, says James J. Fishman, a professor at Pace Law School. Endowments would be off-limits, and if donors make restricted gifts, then that money can’t be diverted to another use. Nonprofit-law experts consulted by City Limits say the legislation is sure to face legal challenges.
Fact is, the proposed fund would draw from the same private-money system that led to the great disparities it seeks to correct, and the redistribution of money simply won’t be enough to right the deeper wrongs. There is no such thing as a free lunch: Taxpayers still cover a portion of the budgets for even the biggest park conservancies, and that means they would end up funding the Neighborhood Park Alliance too. In the end, most public parks remain the responsibility of the public.
More land, less labor
While Bloomberg’s borrowed $6 billion over the last 12 years to build new parks and improve existing ones, upkeep relies on the operating budget, and the mayor has consistently allocated 0.5 percent or less of the city’s tax-levy budget to maintain parks, which account for 14 percent of the city’s surface area.
In contrast, back in the days of Robert Moses, parks maintenance and operations routinely claimed about 1.5 percent of the operating budget. Even under Ed Koch, with the city barely out of the fiscal crisis, roughly 0.8 percent went to parks. Bloomberg has regularly proposed budgets with even smaller shares.
Last year, a Parks Department internal review appealed for the city to hire 682 more workers. In response, Bloomberg paid at least $675,000 for the consulting firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers to evaluate how the department deploys its current workforce and resources to maintain parks. “The mayor wanted justification,” explains one Parks Department employee who requested anonymity in this article. Imagine Bloomberg’s surprise, then, when Pricewaterhouse Coopers found the Parks Department needed to hire even more workers than had been requested.
The reasons why are revealed in e-mails and a PowerPoint presentation, titled “Parks Operations for the 21st Century,” based on the consultant’s report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Law. The publicly financed documents were heavily redacted, but what remained visible among the blacked-out pages painted an ugly picture.
“Over the last five years,” the consultants noted, maintenance and operations staff had “decreased by 13%,” as the agency was “in full attrition,” meaning it was not replacing workers who had left or retired. The mayor’s management report showed a more precipitous drop from 2009 to 2012, with total personnel – including both full-time and full-time equivalent staff – falling by 24 percent. Some parks have always fared worse than others. Over the course of Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, the full-time maintenance staff at Flushing Meadows Corona Park shrunk from 35 to 13.
Most parks depend on roving crews of workers, who spend much of their time in transit. The consultants found that 54 percent of all Parks Department work-order hours were logged by JTPs—or Job Training Participants, the temporary-employment program for people on public assistance—and 91 percent of JTP time was spent on simply “cleaning,” or picking up litter. “JTPs are the majority of the workforce,” Pricewaterhouse Coopers noted, “because their hourly [pay] rate is much lower.”
With 61 percent of work orders more than 90 days overdue, the consultants discovered bleak conditions in neighborhood parks throughout the five boroughs. Photos and eyewitness accounts captured the details: Broken drinking fountains and cracked concrete foundations, “huge amounts of dead trees made into wood chips … lots of homeless people and trash buildup … algae problems,” and illegal dumping.
The Pricewaterhouse report links maintenance deficiencies to safety hazards, zeroing in on the problem of falling tree limbs. That problem appears to have grown worse in recent years, despite attracting a lot of attention. Over an eight-week period this summer, the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates counted 13 incidents of falling limbs injuring parkgoers. Two lawsuits involving diseased trees in Central Park cost the city $14.5 million this year.
According to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the average response time to a complaint like “the branch is cracked and will fall” is 20 days, ranging from 9 days in Queens to 48 days in the Bronx. These endemic delays were unsurprising as well, given that the Parks Department had 91 “pruner” and “climber” jobs to take care of the city’s 2.6 million trees; following the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report, 30 more were taken on. After a pregnant woman was killed by a tree in Kissena Park in August, the city said it would hire another outside consultant to look at the problem.
Pricewaterhouse Coopers ultimately discovered the city needed to hire more workers. Last January, the Parks Department had 3,329 full-time workers, and the consultants advocated a bump up of 1,910. The agency added 1,165 seasonal temps and filled 150 open positions it previously couldn’t fill. In March it announced the hiring of an additional 414 full-time employees, including nearly 100 with trade skills. When all job categories are combined, the new total falls 181 positions short of the Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ recommendation, says the Parks Department. According to the mayor’s management report for fiscal 2013, the number of full-time parks jobs was still below the level of just three years before.
After crime rose in parks by 7 percent in 2012—and after the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report identified staffing deficiencies—the number of Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers was almost doubled this year to 167 officers, still a far cry from a high of 450 in the 1990s, according to Joe Puleo, president of Local 983 of the municipal-employee union DC 37, which represents city parks workers, including PEP officers.
He welcomes the additional hires, but thinks they are still far too few to patrol the city’s 29,000 acres of parkland. “Everybody knows the Parks Department is massively understaffed, but Bloomberg had to spend all of this money to identify the obvious,” he says, referring to the pricey Pricewaterhouse research.
Last year, Bloomberg put White, the former head of his Center for Economic Development, in charge of the Parks Department. At the announcement, he stressed the central role of public-private partnerships and corporate sponsorships in future park operations: “Otherwise we won’t be able to afford all the things we’re trying to do.”
But at the same time Bloomberg was refusing to hire more workers, in 2009, parks were generating in excess of a record $110 million a year from concessions, lease agreements, recreation fees, and special-event rentals. All of this money went into the city’s general fund, not into parks.
Meanwhile, the administration permitted some private entities to profit handsomely off parks. For ten months a year—from August to June—the city allows Lincoln Center to rent out the 2.4-acre Damrosch Park and to keep all of the revenue from it, estimated to be about $9 million annually, according to a recent lawsuit by residents near the park.
Over at the Madison Square Park Conservancy, founding board member Danny Meyer runs a multimillion-dollar business in the park. His Shake Shack pays a percentage of its revenue to the city and the conservancy, but that share is a fraction of what park concessionaires normally pay. Even with his sweetheart deal, Meyer picked up an additional $47,080 from the conservancy in 2011, according to the nonprofit’s last available tax filing.
By law, all concession revenue is supposed to go to the city’s general fund, but the Bloomberg administration has increasingly allowed select nonprofit park groups to take a cut. Back in 2006, the Central Park Conservancy renegotiated its contract to keep a greater percentage of its park’s concession revenue, which has resulted in millions of extra dollars. The High Line effectively gets to keep all of its concession revenue, even from concessionaires on the street below the park.
Bloomberg continues to push for more commercial enterprises in parks. Back in 2004, the mayor responded with a shrug to protestors of another Meyer-related project—a plan to establish a high-end restaurant in Union Square Park, backed by a multimillion-dollar anonymous donation. Bloomberg asked, “How do you expect us to pay for parks?”
In Queens, fears of a precedent
Though Ferreras compared her new nonprofit to the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance, she had created a new model, funded not by philanthropic contributions but by extracting money from businesses that want parkland.
When Ferreras told City Limits of her plans to ask the Willets Point developers for money, she listed other businesses located in the park, including the Mets and the Terrace on the Park banquet hall, noting that all of these businesses already operate under agreements with the city—the Terrace on the Park, for example, pays the city $2.5 million a year, or $100,000 more than the U.S.T.A.
But some park advocates fear Ferreras’s forging of separate deals will now set a dangerous precedent, encouraging more development in underfunded parks. The Willets Point deal was “shameful,” according to Richard Hellenbrecht, president of the Queens Civic Congress, an umbrella organization of 106 civic and community groups. The Congress opposed the mall plan not only for its taking of parkland but for the harm it could cause to local small businesses, not to mention the likelihood of more traffic and congestion.
“It’s taking parkland, mapped parkland,” Hillenbrecht says of the “Willets West” shopping mall. “It makes me angry. I worry about this in a lot of ways, and it upsets me that it could have been approved so quickly, ignoring all the concerns of Queens residents. We’re going to have a new administration in a few more months. Why couldn’t it wait?”
Several community groups have told City Limits they’re contemplating a lawsuit over the city’s claim that the shopping mall is permitted under a 1961 law that allowed for the financing of Shea Stadium. They claim the administration wants to avoid the burden of alienating that parkland, which would require state legislation to strip the land of its legal protections. Alienation legislation mandates the replacement of lost parkland or a payment for other park improvements equal to the land’s fair market value.
As for the combined $25.5 million for Flushing Meadows from the mall and tennis projects, more than half of it will be spent on one-time capital improvements while the rest gets spread over two decades. That might sound like a lot of money, but it amounts to an annual $550,000 over most of the life of these two deals.
“That really won’t do much,” Hellenbrecht says. “It might pay for some more staffers, but not many. It’s not enough to make a dent in what needs to be done, either operationally or even capital-wise. It’s better than nothing, but I’d rather not have somebody taking parkland.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute with support from the Puffin Foundation.