What Parks Need to Make the Grade

On Aug. 6, Mayor Bloomberg and Park Commissioner Adrian Benepe opened the renovated Rockaway Park in Queens. Photo courtesy of the mayor's office

On Aug. 10, City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe unveiled an extensively renovated J Hood Wright Park in Washington Heights. The revamped lawn, dog run, drainage system and playground were funded not through the City Parks Department budget, but with $1.7 million through Rodriguez’ office, and $50,000 through Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer.

This is the same neighborhood park that in 2007 received a “D” rating in the report card by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, due to poorly maintained facilities.

Rating Parks, City-Wide

In 2011, New Yorkers for Parks released a report card for 45 of the city’s large parks, excluding the 14 largest parks such as Central Park and  Prospect Park because of resource constraints.

The report — based on the conditions of lawns, bathrooms, drinking fountains, courts and other variables — gave 80 percent of the larger parks an “A” or “B” grade, and failed only one park, the Coney Island Boat Basin. The most pervasive problems throughout the parks tended to be non-functional drinking fountains, poorly maintained lawns and low-hanging, often dying trees. In July, City Council added $2 million to the $1.45 million Bloomberg had allotted for tree pruning in order to fix the problem of sometimes deadly falling tree limbs, reported the New York Times.

According to New Yorkers for Parks, surrounding neighborhood wealth and geography weren’t the largest determining factors in the grades given. Manhattan’s average score was 84 out of 100, beaten by Queens (87) and Staten Island (93). Brooklyn and the Bronx, often said to have the most underserved parks,  did receive the lowest average ratings — 82 and 81, respectively — but those scores don’t suggest pervasive inequality.

“If I had gotten this report card in school, I’d be very happy,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the New York Times in 2011. “It echoes pretty much what we’ve been seeing. Over all, I think it reflects a positive story in the parks. It debunks the myth that parks are only nice in Manhattan and well-heeled neighborhoods, with the fact that you can find highly rated parks across the city.”

So what factors determined whether a park was or wasn’t adequately maintained and replete with good quality facilities?

“Certainly there is not a single answer,” said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. “We were surprised, given that there’s this mantra of inequality between parks in poor and rich neighborhoods. We found that’s way oversimplified.”

Instead, New Yorkers for Parks found that the topography and other unique features in a given park play a role, but the central determining factor was whether a park had a group of advocates who could draw volunteers to compensate for Parks Department’s limited maintenance budget.

“Even if they’re fairly informal groups, they just have periodic cleanups and a relationship with the park’s staff, those parks tend to be better maintained than parks that don’t have a group of people invested,” explained Leicht.

Phil Abramson, a spokesperson for the Parks Department agreed that these groups make a difference, and highlighted the agency’s Partnerships for Parks division, which fosters and supports these community groups.

Parks Rely on Friends

To understand the central role volunteers play, you have to look at the history of the city’s parks.

In the early 60s, the Parks Department had a far more significant budget than it does today. It also had a dedicated staff at every park in the city. Now only 2 percent of parks have a dedicated staff, according to NYC Parks Advocates, the NYC parks advocacy organization operated nearly single-handedly by activist Geoffrey Croft.

Abramson said he didn’t think think those numbers were accurate, but that he wasn’t sure about the actual percentages. He added that many of the city’s parks, public pools, recreation centers and playgrounds have full-time gardeners, maintenance workers and other staff dedicated exclusively to a single site.

Fresh Kills in Staten Island in 2011. The area was once a sprawling landfill, but in 2001 the city decided to turn it into a 2,200 acre park over the course of the following 30 years. Flickr/east.hudson

Leicht, of New Yorkers for Parks, wasn’t certain about the statistics, but said that general funding and staffing trend is accurate.

“There certainly is evidence that there was a more robust parks budget up through the 70s, when the whole city budget was decimated,” said Leicht.

From that point through the late 90s, New York City’s parks were often first to the chopping block during budget cuts.

Private conservancy groups, beginning with the Central Park Conservancy in 1980, began springing up to fix, clean and monitor what the Parks Department couldn’t afford to. Some, like the Central Park Conservancy, are official public-private partnerships, while others effectively operate as such, but entirely through volunteers.

“In the beginning, our mission was to focus on restoring and raising money for capital projects,” Paul Nelson, director of the Prospect Park Alliance, founded in 1987, told Brooklyn Based.  “We’ve since taken on more and more of the day-to-day operations and costs. Now we raise money to supplement and bring in, for example, additional trash pickup, so we deal with both maintenance and implementation.”

In the same Brooklyn Based story, Amanda Atlas, a member of the Fort Green Park Conservancy’s board of directors, said that without the conservancy, “We’d have a lot more garbage and less pruning. The park would not look the way it does, and the safety level would be much lower.”

Trimming Parks During a Recession

In the past five years, over 300 acres have been added to the some 29,000 acres of land overseen by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The parks essentially come in three forms. There are the 14  flagship parks that span over 500 acres, like Central Park and Prospect Park; the neighborhood parks that range from the tiniest playgrounds to multipurpose ones that offer sport facilities, relaxation and arts events; and the eight massive capital projects called for in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative, announced on Earth Day in 2007.

However, the Parks Department, already operating on a thin budget, was hit particularly hard by the recession. Since 2008 it has received several significant budget cuts and lost nearly 40 percent of its staff. The latest budget plan called for a $33.4 million cut, but City Council worked with the mayor to restore $30 million at the last minute.

Not only did parks need to rely extensively on conservancy groups, but the capital projects lagged behind, like most other development in New York City.

In June of 2012, the New York Post reported that all of the regional parks projects had experienced major delays, or had to be scaled back from their original designs.

“There was no planning, no realistic cost estimates. It was fantasy mixed with p.r.,” Croft of NYC Parks Advocates told the Post.

Last week, Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Benepe unveiled one of the projects announced in 2007, a totally transformed Rockaway Park in Queens. The $30 million development spans features a new 15,700-square-foot skateboard park, a ball court, playground, climbing wall, synthetic field and a new public bathroom, but plans for the second phase of the park, near Beach 9th Street, have yet to be released.

Maintenance vs. Improvement Projects

Leicht said that the Parks Department has a lot of control over its maintenance budget, even if that budget is limited, and that the agency seems to be allocating its maintenance staff fairly evenly throughout the park system.

Central Park's Great Lawn in the 1970s. With large barren patches and high crime rates, the park became a symbol for the city's decay. Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

“We did an analysis of the budget a couple years ago and it’s not exactly comparable to what the amount of parkland is per borough. There’s a little bit of skewing toward Manhattan, which they [Parks Department] would say is because those parks get more use. Staten Island gets less funding even though it has a lot of parkland, but that parkland gets less use because so much of it is natural [as in dense forest area],” said Leicht.

Abramson, the Parks Department spokesperson, said handling maintenance issues and allocating funding is a constant process.

“Priorities are established through meetings with elected officials, community boards and community organizations on an ongoing basis. The public is an essential part of all processes at parks, from including schoolchildren in designing their vision of a schoolyard to playground design to public forums at which the public is invited to speak and have their comments reviewed on new or changed rules and regulations,” said Abramson.

Leicht also said she’s confident the regional parks projects will eventually be completed, but that the success and speed of other non-PlaNYC renovation projects can vary wildly depending on resources outside of the Parks Department.

The Parks Department doesn’t have much of a discretionary capital budget, which is a big problem, said Leicht. Whereas capital budget dollars are slated for specific projects ever four years, discretionary capital budgets are allocated to a city agency for whatever improvements need to be performed.

“I think that’s inherently problematic because it makes it more difficult for them [Parks Department] to do planning for neighborhood parks, and they’re very dependent on borough presidents and city councilmembers,” said Leicht.

Sometimes that means a park will undergo a smooth reversal of fortunes, like with renovated J Hood Wright Park in Washington Heights.

It can also mean disappointment. Look at the case of the Williamsbridge Oval in Williamsbridge Park in the Bronx. The public space, with it’s non-functional bathrooms and drinking fountains, was scheduled for total renovation back in 2004. As the New York World reported at the end of 2011, when the ribbon was cut on the oval, even though $13.5 million had gone into the improvements, the area still lacked bathrooms and hoops for its new basketball court.

“When it comes to Manhattan, things get done. When it comes to the Bronx, it just doesn’t seem to be as high on the priority list,” State Assemblyman Jeffrey Donowitz (D-Bronx) told the New York World.

While the discretionary budgets of city councilmembers and the political will backing borough presidents does in many cases determine how fast new parks and improvement projects are completed, Leicht said she worries that very success could eventually have a negative impact on the Parks Department’s ability to maintain its properties.

“I do worry that we’re adding and have added a lot of new parkland and the maintenance budget is not getting increased. That could catch up with us,” she said.

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