Squadron: Park Equity Plan is Not a “Knuckle-headed” Idea

Seward Park.

Seward Park.
Seward Park.

Last week, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times was critical of a plan advanced by State Sen. Daniel Squadron to require wealthy park conservancies to contribute funds to needy parks. In arguing that Mayor de Blasio’s $130 million program to spruce up 35 small parks in low income neighborhoods is far too tepid, he said this of Squadron’s proposal:

…(De Blasio) still at least pretends to entertain the knuckle-headed demand of State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, a Democrat, that private park conservancies fork over money for public parks lacking patron saints. The idea put parks equity on the front burner. But it punishes successful, beloved parks; robs Peter to pay Paul; and flunks Philanthropy 101, alienating the more affluent New Yorkers the mayor needs to enlist. Never mind that few conservancies, Central Park’s aside, have much money to begin with — or that the $44 million raised privately toward Central Park’s $57 million annual budget is $44 million the city can devote to other parks. The Central Park Conservancy already sends crews to help maintain parks in Harlem. And even before the mayor announced his community parks initiative, the conservancy had put together a program to share skilled gardeners with 10 parks across the city. Conservancies can provide expertise the city lacks. Extorting cash from them is a distraction that misses the big picture.

Squadron, who represents Lower Manhattan and sections of Brooklyn, responded today in a letter to the editor:

…(Kimmelman) depressingly suggests that if 20 percent of donors’ contributions go to anything broader, however worthy, they will no longer support their local parks at 80 cents on the dollar. Maybe I am “knuckle-headed,” as Mr. Kimmelman calls my proposal, but I do not believe that donors are so deeply parochial and self-interested. Further, conservancies should be thanked and their viability should be protected, but they are not independent nonprofits. They are the private side of a public-private partnership. The public should get the broadest public benefit from private entities that are being given unique privileges. That is not “extorting cash”; it is responsible stewardship. In many of the most powerful parts of the city, the inequity in the parks system is invisible. It’s hard to dispute that wealthy donors’ interest in fighting for an increase in the city’s parks budget is reduced when their local park is doing better than ever. The mayor’s Community Parks Initiative, with the conservancy involvement that I support, can link the expertise and political clout of the most successful conservancies to the overall system and help fledgling ones get off the ground. That would be a structural solution that goes well beyond 35 parks.

De Blasio allocated more than $8 million for three LES spaces: Luther Gulick Park, the Sol Lain Playground and the Henry Jackson Playground.

Yesterday, Capital pointed out that:

(The mayor’s) actual plan was slightly less ambitious than his rhetoric. It will invest $130 million in 35 of the 215 city parks that have received less than $250,000 in capital money in the last 20 years. The unmet capital needs of all those parks is $1 billion. More than half of that funding was allocated for neighborhood parks at the end of the former mayor’s term.

In public remarks yesterday, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said the initiative announced last month is only the “exciting first phase in our new framework for an equitable future.”  As noted in the Capital article, de Blasio endorsed Squadron’s plan when he was running for mayor. What about now?

De Blasio didn’t end up reaching an agreement with the conservancies before his big October announcement. At the time, he said he was still “in real conversation” with them. On Wednesday, Silver said it was the parks department’s goal to help develop community groups around each of the 35 parks. But he had no further updates on the role the wealthier conservancies would play in helping those groups succeed. “All options are on the table,” Silver said. “Clearly providing in-kind support is one of them.”

At least one local group is not waiting around for wealthy conservancies to come on board. They’ve formed a conservancy of their own to address a lack of maintenance at Seward Park.