The Ups and Downs of NYC’s Privately Funded Public Spaces

This piece is adapted from City Journal’s original article, Parks and Re-creation.

It’s no secret that the recent recession has pushed New York city into a new fiscal crisis and that the parks department’s operating budget, like everything else, is under the knife. During the 1970s fiscal crisis, the city created public-private partnerships to fund and manage dozens of public spaces throughout New York City.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, a long-term plan proposed in 2007, envisions a city with pleasant, usable green spaces within a half-mile walk of 99 percent of New Yorkers. Is private money the only way to bridge the gap between such ambitious plans and fiscal reality?

Can this model, known as a public-private partnership, restore and invigorate all of New York’s green spaces, including neighborhood parks in less affluent areas? It’s an important question, not only as the city faces tough fiscal times but as urban planners increasingly view parks as tools of economic development and public health.

How do the city’s parks generate revenue from private sources?

Central Park. Flickr/JuntosWorldwide

  • Central Park: It’s hard to believe that 30 years ago, tourists would stand on 59th Street staring north, afraid to venture into the park. In 1980, landscape designer Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and others founded the Central Park Conservancy, whose original purpose was to raise money, stop the park’s decline, and restore several of its major landmarks. The city eventually gave the Conservancy the lion’s share of day-to-day control of the park.
  • Today, the park is now divided into 49 sections, with a master gardener responsible for the condition of each. About 85 percent of the Conservancy’s annual budget comes from private donations, mostly from people who live within a ten-minute walk of the park.

Bryant Park. Flickr/panduh

  • Bryant Park: Bryant Park, located on eight acres behind the New York Public Library in midtown, is also a privately funded public space, but its funding comes more from earned income than from donations. In fact, the park is a multimillion-dollar business and runs like one. With the city’s consent, Dan Biederman, a newly minted Harvard MBA, took control of the park in the 1980’s. He closed it for several years to renovate it and make it more visible from the street, and then reopened it. All this takes serious money — roughly $7 million a year — which Biederman raises through events, concessions, and sponsorships like Citi Pond, the ice-skating rink that occupies the main lawn during winter months. On a recent Thursday, Biederman and his staff of more than two dozen people sat around a table hammering out financial and operational details. Did extending the leases for some of the stores that populated the park’s annual outdoor Christmas market boost those merchants’ sales? (Answer: not really.)

The High Line Park. Flickr/David Berkowitz

  • Highline Park: Over in Chelsea, the Friends of the High Line oversaw the conversion of an old rail line into one of New York’s most popular parks. In 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, residents of the High Line neighborhood, founded the organization — the first section of the park was opened in 2009. Today,  Friends of the High line continues to provide 70 percent of the park’s operating budget.
  • Staten Island’s Greenbelt: A 2,800-acre near-wilderness, is run by the Greenbelt Conservancy, which funds and operates the popular Carousel for All Children. The rationale, according to conservancy president Kathleen Vorwick, is that the park will thrive “outside of the budget process.”
  • Hudson River Park: Outright partnerships with nonprofits aren’t the only way to bring private money into parks. Concession, like hot-dog stands or restaurants, corporate sponsorships and parking spaces are used to generate revenue. Hudson River Park, on the west side of Manhattan, gets some of its operating income from a garage on Pier 40.

Brooklyn Bridge Park. Flickr/idontlikeribena

  • Brooklyn Bridge Park: New York City and State demonstrated another way to tap private money a few years ago, when they created Brooklyn Bridge Park along the Brooklyn waterfront. The plan for the park called for a few residential buildings to be built within the park’s footprint and for the property taxes from those buildings to go directly to fund the park’s operations. The approach is controversial, since it devotes property taxes to something that benefits primarily the locals; further, it may result in the park’s being treated like a backyard for luxury condos rather than a truly welcoming public space. But there’s no denying that it can be effective. The taxes, combined with concessions, will make the new park a self-financed operation. Meanwhile, a nonprofit called the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy has started raising funds for free movie nights, fitness classes, and kayaking.

In New York, city policy generally requires that money from concessions goes not to individual parks or even to the parks department, but to the city’s general fund, but many groups have managed to maneuver around the requirement. The Central Park Conservancy and the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy have won the right to keep some proceeds to fund their own activities and The Bryant Park Corporation gets to keep all concession fees.

Many existing parks could use the financial help now, though people differ politically on whether the public-private partnership is the right model to provide the funding. In a time of budget cuts, neglected parks aren’t generally in wealthy neighborhoods with ready donors nearby. Can the public-private model save parks without rich neighbors?

Read the full post at the City Journal.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of the website, “168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think.” She blogs for and is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors. City Journal is a quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank based in New York City.

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