Public Parks Landing Private Owners

Los Angeles Times
February 11, 2007

by Robert Lee Hotz

New York's Bryant Park runs on commercial support. Critics warn the concept could disenfranchise the poor.

NEW YORK -- On any sunny day, thousands flock to Manhattan's Bryant Park, drawn by the shaded flower beds, the carousel, the free wireless Internet, and the hundreds of comfortable cafe chairs all painted the same soothing shade of ivy green.

Since October, 148,000 people have visited the 7-acre city park to skate -- for free -- on what many judge New York's finest outdoor public ice rink.

To some, Bryant Park is a vibrant town square. Others contend that it is merely a frame for product placements.

Supported entirely by commercial sponsors and fees, Bryant Park is an ambitious experiment in the private operation of public places, one that is being watched by urban planners and city managers worldwide.

The survival of urban parkland across the United States depends heavily on private largesse. Parks in Atlanta, Boston, and St. Louis are managed by nonprofit foundations. In San Diego, officials are considering a private conservancy to refurbish Balboa Park. Nonprofit groups may help manage aspects of the $2 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River.

Last week, President Bush announced plans to seek $1 billion in private donations to fix up the nation's 390 federal parks and monuments. The 1,400-acre Presidio National Park in San Francisco already is managed by a nonprofit trust rather than directly by the US Park Service. The contract requires it to be self-supporting within five years.

But in New York, some activists worry that the public parks are becoming too private. They say wealthy donors may have influence over who gets access to park facilities, while efforts to make parks self-supporting can turn them into commercial developments. And civil libertarians worry that parks are becoming fiefs where political gatherings are discouraged.

Corporate donations, concession fees, and funding schemes linked to commercial development are feeding New York's most expansive park-building boom in decades. Central Park is the prototype. It is tended by a private conservancy with a staff of 300, aided by 1,300 volunteers. Donors raised $300 million to refurbish its 843 acres, and contribute $23 million a year to pay for upkeep.

With all that renovation, park planners also built in a double standard, activists say.

To protect the park's new grass, officials denied permits to antiwar groups that wanted to use the 13-acre Great Lawn for protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention, prompting lawsuits and public hearings. The New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, however, use the same space for free summer concerts .

"If you walk south from Central Park, every public park you encounter is under some form of private management," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an independent citizens watchdog group.

The trend began in the 1980s as a rescue effort, with neighborhoods and business improvement districts banding together to save parks that were decaying from government neglect.

Now, New York officials are promoting two major waterfront park projects on the condition that they pay for themselves, with space set aside on public land for stores, restaurants, luxury condominiums, and even a hotel.

The 550-acre Hudson River Park is the largest open-space development in the city since the completion of Central Park. The Brooklyn Bridge Park would be the first major park built in the borough since 1843. Critics worry that they will become commercial malls in all but name.

City Council members say the result of the outsourcing may be two park systems -- one funded by wealthy neighborhoods and business districts, and the other in less affluent areas shortchanged by wavering public support.

"This is an insidious thing," said Judi Francis, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund. She has sued over plans to build a thousand high-rise apartments on the Brooklyn parkland in order to subsidize its upkeep. "As soon as you ask a park to pay for itself, you will not have parks in poor neighborhoods," she said.