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Winter 1997
   
Set the Parks Free
Richard Gilder
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Central Park is greener, cleaner, and safer than it has been in a generation—far from its threadbare condition in the seventies, which ranked high among the city’s embarrassments. At 110th Street, the Harlem Meer sparkles after a dredging and landscaping. The regilded Maine Monument presides over a new pedestrian plaza at Columbus Circle. A cleaned and restored Bethesda Terrace remains free of graffiti and grime, and the Conservatory Garden blooms like a Monet painting. Every corner of the park bustles: twenty-somethings Rollerblade, sunbathe, and flirt; retirees relax on shady benches; children clamber over jungle gyms; and strollers of every description wander the park’s paths and trails, imbibing the artistry of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the nineteenth-century architects of this urban gem.

New Yorkers are justifiably proud of the newly restored Central Park—but few understand how this renaissance has come about. I’ve had a hand in it as a founding trustee of an organization called the Central Park Conservancy. With thousands of others, I’ve given time and money to the Conservancy to rescue the park from inconsistent management and crippling budget cuts. Seventeen years after it was launched, the Conservancy has invested $165 million in the park for operations, capital projects, and endowing future maintenance. Today it is the de facto manager of Central Park.

But the Conservancy should do far more. It should serve as a model for renewing the whole park system. It’s time for the city to recognize officially the wonders that private groups can accomplish. The city should formally hire the Conservancy to run Central Park, and it should start down the road toward finding able managers—some of them private companies perhaps—for all our parks.

Central Park is no ordinary park. It is 840 acres of peerless landscape sculpture. Olmsted and Vaux spent two years overseeing its construction in the late 1850s, directing some 20,000 men as they moved tons of soil and rock and planted thousands of trees and shrubs. Henry James remarked that passing from “the discipline of the streets” into the “many-smiling presence” of Central Park was “to be thrilled at every turn.”

Olmsted and Vaux’s meticulously arranged meadows, hills, and thickets did not survive Central Park’s first hundred years untouched—the original “Greensward” plan, with its romantic ideals, gave no hint of playgrounds, sports fields, and skating rinks—but maintaining the park beautifully remained a civic priority until the late sixties. Then distress first struck Central Park: it became the scene for a growing number of “happenings”—concerts and rallies that brought crowds thronging into the park, crushing turf and topsoil. Park workers spent so much time on these events that routine maintenance began to slip. Union-dictated work rules and job titles probably exacerbated the problem: a 1974 report by the city’s Bureau of the Budget gave Parks Department labor crews a productivity rating of 30 to 35 percent. By the time the budget crises of the mid-seventies imposed sharp cuts in Parks Department staff and capital investment, Central Park was in sorry shape.

A visitor during these dark days would not have recognized the “many-smiling presence.” Hard-packed dirt stretched across the Great Lawn and Sheep Meadow, making them swirling dust bowls in dry weather and muddy bogs in the rain. Silt and reeds filled the park’s ponds and lakes. An energetic graffitist named Clyde had emblazoned his chalky “tag” all over Bethesda Terrace, where it seeped deep into the limestone. The stone loggia of Belvedere Castle lay toppled in the muck of Turtle Pond, and broken benches disfigured every path. Senator Moynihan was moved to propose a takeover by the National Park Service.

The Central Park Conservancy sprang into existence in 1980. The creation of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, an urban planner and longtime park activist, and Gordon Davis, parks commissioner under newly elected Mayor Koch, the Conservancy was founded to furnish steady, responsible oversight for the park and to raise the money needed to do the job. With Rogers as both Conservancy president and Central Park administrator (a new city position created with her in mind), the organization’s leaders assembled a board of energetic New Yorkers and a professional staff. The city, meanwhile, pledged that its support for the park would be unaffected by the hoped-for influx of private funds.

The Conservancy started out conservatively. During the eighties it contributed to the resodding of the Sheep Meadow and funded plans for restoring Belvedere Castle and the Dairy, turning them into an environmental learning center and Central Park’s main information stop. It brought in trained horticulturists to tend the park’s trees and shrubs, and expert restorers to mend its vandalized landmarks. Near the 72nd Street entrance on the west side, the Conservancy embarked on its first big landscaping project, transforming a badly eroded tract into the marvelous little retreat of Strawberry Fields. The city remained the dominant partner, paying for two-thirds of Central Park’s $50 million in capital improvements and supplying most of its staff of 200.

The nineties tell a different story. Vitalized by the $50 million that then-chairman James Evans and trustee Henry Kravis raised in the late eighties, the Conservancy undertook a complete renovation of Central Park, comprehending vastly more ambitious capital projects. First came a makeover of the park’s run-down northeast corner, around the Harlem Meer, where an open-air drug market thrived next to a burned-out boathouse. Soon the Meer had a new naturalistic shoreline, clean waters, a spacious, sunny arts and education center, and more pedestrian traffic than it had seen in years. In 1993, responding to my challenge grant, the Conservancy moved on to the “Wonder of New York” campaign, the massive capital drive that it has just completed. By 1998, Central Park will sport a fully renewed landscape on its west side from 60th to 86th Streets, a replanted Great Lawn with a state-of-the-art drainage system, and restored sports fields and a renovated recreation center in the North Meadow. The Conservancy has funded two-thirds of this $51 million project and, when it is completed, will have paid for just over half of the $135 million in capital improvements in Central Park since 1980.

As for managing the park, the change has been even more dramatic. Since 1991, when the Dinkins administration hit the Parks Department with the first of several budget-driven cutbacks, Central Park has lost 54 city-funded staff. The Conservancy has moved strongly to protect the park, taking up the slack and then some: today its payroll includes 172 of the park’s 244 workers. The city funded nearly 60 percent of the park’s operating budget in 1991; today it pays for only $5.4 million of the $15.9 million total.

Has the city reneged on its understanding with the Conservancy? Has it shortchanged the park’s patrons by withdrawing public support? While the Parks Department has cut staffing in Central Park by over 40 percent since 1990, it has done the same citywide. Central Park, however, is more demanding to maintain today than a decade ago. New grass and gardens, refurbished buildings, and restored landmarks all require a higher level of care. The Conservancy is increasingly alone in ensuring that the premier property in the city’s park system does not again become a humiliating ruin.

What’s more, the city has profited handsomely from Central Park’s renaissance at the same time that it has contributed progressively less to it. In 1984 the city collected $425,000 in concession revenues from the park. Today it receives more than twice that from Tavern on the Green alone! Add the skating rinks and the boathouse, the pretzel and T-shirt vendors and dozens of other sidewalk businesses, and the city today takes in $4.25 million from Central Park, a tenfold increase. Anyone who’s set foot in our sparkling Central Park knows why these concessions have become so valuable. The Conservancy has added enormous value to the park and will continue to do so. Ideally, the city would provide this benefit without any need for the Conservancy; the increased public monies that these improvements have generated should help defray their cost.

After years of remarkable cooperation under an informal partnership, the city and the Conservancy owe Central Park and its 15 million annual visitors a further step. The Conservancy should assume full contractual responsibility for managing the park. In exchange for freeing the city from most of its expenses there, the Conservancy would receive, as its management fee, all of Central Park’s concession revenue, and it would oversee all work in the park with a staff entirely its own. The city would pay for essential services like security and maintaining the park’s lights.

This may not seem such a bargain for the Conservancy and Central Park. Why surrender most of the $5.4 million that the city contributes for $4.25 million in concessions? The reason is this: the city’s contribution could keep dropping, while concession revenues should grow as the Conservancy continues to beautify the park. Just as important, a contract would underline the Conservancy’s responsibility for Central Park. The organization would take on a higher profile, which would help it win still more support from the public.

What most tips the scales in favor of a management contract should be beyond dispute: the Conservancy does a better job running Central Park than the Parks Department can. The Con-servancy’s great advantage comes in staffing. It hires and pays its horticulturists, groundskeepers, and cleanup crews as any private employer would. If they do well, they advance. If they do poorly, they’re fired. Conservancy staffers are flexible enough to do more than one task, so they can be assigned to whatever job needs doing most urgently. And most crucial perhaps, the Conservancy is able to instill a real sense of pride in those who work for it; they come to think of Central Park as their park.

Though the Parks Department has many fine people in Central Park, they work under a bureaucratic, seniority-based union system. Rigid union job descriptions can create a ready excuse for leaving work undone. When scores of fish died of a mysterious ailment in the Rowboat Lake a few years back, Parks Department workers maintained—rightly, no doubt—that retrieving them wasn’t in their contract. Some of the Conservancy’s gardeners took care of the problem while the city workers looked on.

Central Park deserves better. And with money from Central Park’s concessions and millions of privately raised dollars, the Conservancy can deliver it.

What about the rest of the city’s parks? They need help. Yes, they’re cleaner than they’ve been in a long time, thanks to the mayor’s Work Experience Program, the workfare initiative that now has more than 5,000 people—WEPs, as they’re called—sweeping up and raking leaves in our green spaces (see “Welfare Reform Discoveries,” page 14). But graffiti, broken equipment, and untended grass and trees still mar most city parks. By the Parks Department’s own measure of overall condition, only 55 percent of its properties got a rating of “acceptable” in 1996.

All of New York’s parks would benefit from contracting and outsourcing, for these would bring competition and accountability, the discipline of the marketplace, to the management of the city’s parks.

Nonprofit groups already connected to a number of parks make excellent candidates for management contracts. In recent years mini-Conservancies have flowered: the Prospect Park Alliance, the Riverside Park Fund, the Greenbelt Conservancy, the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. These groups have modest budgets and staffs, but they could expand considerably if given a management fee by the city and allowed to keep the revenue from their parks’ concessions. Business Improvement Districts could participate too, as the Grand Central Partnership has already done in Bryant Park.

Any management scheme for the parks should also include private companies. The Parks Department already contracts out for services like tree planting and pruning and for overall maintenance in nearly 50 smaller parks in Queens (with mixed success, it must be said), and other firms may well want to enter this business. Such “competitive tendering” has worked for London’s Royal Parks since 1992. Today private companies do more than 90 percent of the work in public spaces like Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, and the garden-loving British are pleased with the results.

The Parks Department’s unions might well become effective managers. In Indianapolis, where contracting has been going on for years, the municipal unions have recovered from the shock of competition. Cutting back on supervisory staff, shrinking work crews, and making job descriptions more flexible, they made winning bids against private contractors for trash collection and road maintenance.

Each sort of manager would bring certain strengths. Nonprofits would be able to count on volunteer help—the Prospect Park Alliance, for instance, logs more than 20,000 volunteer hours a year—while the unions would bring decades of experience. As for WEPs, they are supervised by city staff as things stand now, but they could presumably work in parks run by nonprofits. Private contractors would lack these advantages, but their know-how and already strong presence in the parks would make them competitive

Over time the better managers would emerge and win contracts for more parks. The Conservancy, for instance, should take its expertise into the parks of northern Manhattan—Riverside, Morningside, Marcus Garvey—and should eventually manage all the borough’s parks. Economies of scale may well require each borough to settle on a single large manager.

Does this spell the end of the Parks Department? Certainly not. New York’s parks are invaluable public amenities and must remain under close public supervision. Only the Parks Department can set policy about access, special events, noise regulation, capital investment, and the division of park space between, say, ball fields and meadows.

The department would also have to write precise contracts and ensure that contractors followed through. It would have to bundle parks together for bidding, so that small neighborhood parks get the attention they deserve. And since contractors would be entitled to concession revenues from the parks they operate, the department would have to put strict limits on commercialization: no one wants to see Toys R Us billboards in playgrounds, or park benches covered with advertisements for blue jeans and dental work.

For this new management scheme to work, there is one essential condition: adequate funds in the Parks Department’s coffers. The Conservancy can get along with concession revenues and money that it raises on its own, but other managers will have to be paid a fee that works in the marketplace. Is the department’s operating budget of $150 million big enough to take care of this? Only the bidding process can say. But with few political allies, the Parks Department has been a sacrificial lamb in the city’s budget since 1990, when its budget stood at $195 million. New York already spends much less per capita on its parks than other big cities: just over $17, compared to $72 for Chicago, $57 for Detroit, and $49 for Pittsburgh.

New York’s parks are not just a frill of city life that most of us could do without. We need the parks—for rest, for exercise, for a break from the concrete of our workaday lives. More, we need the grand cosmopolitan ideal that the parks embody: that the city is at its best when it draws its wildly different people together in a vast public drama, scripted by no one, regulated by civility and mutual respect. In a 1993 survey, nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers said the parks are as essential a service as police, fire, and sanitation.

As work began on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted foresaw the time “when New York will be built up,” converted into “monotonous straight streets” and “piles of erect buildings.” Only then, he predicted, would the “priceless value” of Central Park be fully perceived. We live in that day, and it’s time the mayor and City Council took note.

 

 

 
The Central Park Conservancy has made one of the city’s treasures sparkle. Shouldn’t it, and other able managers, do the same for all our parks?
City Journal Winter 1997.
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