Would-Be New York City Mayor Would Gut Central Park
2:36 PM, Oct 30, 2013 • By EVAN SPARKS
The conservancy model works especially well for large, complex urban parks with multiple uses and extensive programming. A two-acre neighborhood park with a playground and picnic area, or a lightly used wilderness area on the edge of town, has relatively straightforward management needs. Big center-city parks with historic landmarks, complex landscaping, athletic facilities, water features, performance venues, zoos, food and beverage services, and other interactive features require specialized management and funding.
Across the country, cities have found that conservancies also work well for generating the funds and interest to build new parks from scratch and for turning around city-managed parks that have fallen into decay or neglect.
The conservancy model has supported a renaissance of creative urban green space, from a new park on decking over a Dallas freeway to filling in a drainage basin in Houston to reclaiming an abandoned railway in Manhattan. Economic development often follows--as Richard Florida has pointed out, parks are part of the “people climate” that attracts jobs and entrepreneurs.
Donors have responded enthusiastically to these creative ideas, and in New York, that philanthropic money has become a target for de Blasio.
Turning Off the Spigot
“So for anyone who wants to donate to Central Park, they’re still going to be helping Central Park; most of the money is still going to benefit Central Park,” de Blasio said in the aforementioned interview. “But some of that has to be moved to where the need is greatest, in neighborhood parks that, right now, are really suffering.”
Sadly for de Blasio (and New York), this plan isn’t likely to work. Central Park is uniquely positioned to attract donors because it serves so many people from so many walks of life. Many of the hedge-fund titans who donate to the conservancy played in the park as working-class kids. They want to give to a particular park.
The parks bill is a tacit 20 percent tax on all gifts to New York’s big park conservancies. Donors are wise enough to recognize the ploy for what it is and to direct their tax-exempt philanthropy to organizations that can use all of a gift. The parks bill is also an assault on the principle of philanthropic freedom—the liberty that all Americans have always enjoyed to choose the objects of their private giving. By endorsing this plan, de Blasio is substituting his policy preferences for the charitable choices of thousands.
Finally, the bill is likely to hurt parks across the five boroughs. If you’ve run a business or a nonprofit, ask yourself: could you manage with a 20 percent across-the-board cut to your budget? I’m not sure even the Central Park Conservancy could; certainly smaller conservancies over the threshold—such as the Battery Conservancy or the Prospect Park Alliance—could be in grave financial danger.
Moreover, the parks bill would likely cut off future conservancy efforts—after all, what donor will take a risk on a big project that could be vacuumed up by the New York City government? The Central Park Conservancy proved the success of the model, which continues to spread to smaller parks across the city. Why would de Blasio want to stymie the private wealth already spreading--voluntarily--to parks across his city?
New York is ground zero for a huge and successful policy experiment: vibrant parks run by conservancies. By commandeering donors’ funds and constricting existing conservancies, New York would walk away from one of its signature successes. That would hurt New Yorkers—and all Americans—who cherish parks.
Evan Sparks is a contributing editor at Philanthropy magazine.
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