Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Agencies, Part II: Public-Private Partnerships

This week in our ongoing four-part examination of municipal agencies we are profiling some NYC examples of public-private partnerships in the capital funding, design, and maintenance of public space in the hopes of noting some lessons learned and examining some future possibilities for mutually beneficial partnerships. Last week's discussion brought up interesting questions and suggestions about the role of innovation in public space and public infrastructure and how those dual aims were furthered through public agencies, points which we hope will influence this week’s post.

[holy lord, that is one "successful" park- Bryant Park
during a movie screening]

The most time-tested methods for public-private partnership in New York City's public spaces are for funding the capital investment and maintenance of public spaces. These came to predominate around the same period of time- the 1970's and 1980's. They were indicative of the empty municipal coffers of 1970's New York and reflected a general attitude- the city was no longer willing to completely underwrite a fully public park system.


Specific to the maintenance of public space, these types of partnerships range from the glamorous and gentrified- Bryant Park and Battery Park City, to name a few- to the mundane and humble community gardens maintained by community groups throughout the city. Bryant Park, in particular, is a good example because of its high profile, long history, and because it is generally seen as a success.

Bryant Park, formerly Reservoir Square, was renamed in 1884 in honor of writer William Cullen Bryant. Architecture Magazine noted in 1934 that the park was considered a danger zone in the city and this was partially attributed to the elevated rail running alongside of it. Robert Moses reconstructed it to little avail, and it was still seen as a derelict place until the Rockefeller Brothers got involved in the 1970's and formed the Bryan Park Restoration Corporation (read Christine Boyer's essay "Cities for Sale" to learn more about the Rockefeller boys during this time period).

In the late 80's that wonderful Hannah/Olin reconstructed the park once again, this time with new entrances to enhance visibility, reconstructed gardens and 2 restaurants and 4 kiosks. These were intended to fund the maintenance of the park. The Urban Land Institute (whose primary focus is the economic aspect of public space) sang its praises, and the business community loved it so much that they now shut it down for 2 prime weeks each year to host the private and exclusive Fashion Week.
[you don't like that Bryant Park is our park this week?
F#@* you, we're glamorous!]

That said, the park is also able to offer a wealth of free entertainment programming- movies in the park in the summer, free ice skating in the winter, concerts and orchestra performances, and occasional live screenings of Yankees games, all at no cost to the city. The exclusivity of fashion week is insulting to the poor and the ugly, such as ourselves here at FASLANYC. Nonetheless, the park’s offerings of beautiful plantings, monuments, views of the surrounding architecture, and constant delightful programming are tough to denigrate, even for curmudgeons such as ourselves.

This model seems to work well at Bryant Park, with civic-minded residents, workers, and business owners as constituents. However, the problems arising from the pressure for exclusive private events, an initiative that this model enables, give rise to serious questions concerning the appropriateness of widespread application of this public-private model for the maintenance of public space.

Capital Investment

Public-private partnerships in the capital funding of projects became widespread in this same period in New York City and are now commonplace (see the questionable proposals along the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn, some of which are finished, or the in-progress Brooklyn Bridge Park by MVVA). One prominent example is Riverside Park South by Thomas Balsley Associates.

Riverside, funded by Donald Trump as a developer concession for the right to construct his banal residential towers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is an integration of social activity through riverbank reconstruction on the sight of an old industrial shipping yard. The variety of activities integrated with subtle and intelligible aesthetic experiences along the edge of the Hudson River stand in stark contrast to the clusterfuck of chaos being built further south as part of the Hudson River Park.

The park is maintained by the Department of Parks and Recreation in the city. Trump’s residential towers stand behind the park, located on the other side of the imposing elevated West Side Highway. The drawback with this model, one discussed by historian Ethan Carr regarding the planning of MVVA’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, is that the programming and form of the public space can be heavily influenced by the developer, turning the supposedly public space into a “front yard” amenity for their new, gentrifying development. At Riverside Park South weak connections to the larger park enhance these fears. The presence of a Dept of Sanitation truck storage lot to the south, a steep grade change connecting to Olmsted’s Riverside Park to the north, and the elevated highway and steep slope between the adjacent neighborhood and the park make it difficult to access unless you live nearby or happen to bike up and down the west side occasionally. Further phases are planned that are meant to enhance these connections and the variety of unique experiences does draw park users, but the park does not fully allay these fears as it currently exists.
[Riverside Park South, the highway and residential towers]

The savvy with which many developers are able to negotiate these agreements- huge banal towers that will gentrify neighborhoods and possibly displace current residents in exchange for a beautiful public space that serves primarily to enhance the marketing efforts of their project- give cause for concern any time one of these partnerships is planned. In this case in particular, all involved parties must place an emphasis on programming that accommodates and attracts a wealth of users, not just future tenants, and on important connections to the larger community. This has occurred at Riverside Park South, and even there it has serious drawbacks (just see the comments at the above link).


The last form of public-private partnership, one in its nascent stages, is in the design of a public space. This is precisely the type of work going on at Fresh Kills and is one of the reasons that work is so interesting. In fact, this past Wednesday there was a joint presentation of the design of the “South Park” to the community. South Park is the first of the five parks within Fresh Kills to be constructed and we had hoped to be able to go to the presentation and report to our seven readers. However, the early arrival of Spring necessitates that bike rides and beer-drinking take precedence over sitting in a jewish community center with Staten Islanders listening to FO’s and DPR’s reps stammer through photomontages and “dynamic urban flow diagrams” or whatever. Sorry.

Nonetheless, the Prospect Park Alliance is one such partnership that has been at work for 20 years now. I will let them explain the way they work:

In partnership with the City of New York and the community, the Prospect Park Alliance restores, develops, and operates Prospect Park for the enjoyment of all by caring for the natural environment, preserving historic design, and serving the public through facilities and programs.

The Alliance was formed in 1987 to restore the Park after years of budget cuts and a steady deterioration of both its natural areas and usage. By supplementing the Park’s basic operating budget with private funds, the Alliance has initiated a large array of capital projects and community programs. The Alliance has boosted public awareness of the crucial role parks play in the urban environment, while gaining support from donors and volunteers for the restoration projects that have brought Prospect Park back to prominence.

In the most exciting of their current initiatives, they are currently moving to restore the lake shoreline that was bastardized by Robert Moses (that guy again? Jesus!) in the 60’s with his hideous ice skating rink built on fill dirt which was excavated for the adjacent expansive parking lot. The Alliance is working as some kind of murky client-designer-agency in conjunction with the Department of Parks and Rec and New York architect Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
[the skating center will be visually integrated into the

[the outdoor rink will become an interactive fountain during
the spring, summer, and fall months]

The new project will restore the landscape to Olmsted and Vaux’ original design a process that has already begun. The ground plane will rise up to cover one side and the roof of the building, and it’s open facade will contain two rinks, one indoor and one outdoor, which will convert to a roller rink and fountain, respectively, the other nine months out the year (the current rink is an unusable eyesore those 9 months).

The private nature of the Alliance allows them to hire architects of the quality (read, “cost”) of Williams and Tsien and their public nature gives them a mandate to maintain community programs, lends them the weight of a public agency, and eases some of the financial burdens of maintenance. In addition, they are able to draw on the agency’s ability and knowledge for negotiating with other agencies, construction methods and costs, and maintenance regimes.

In the case of Fresh Kills, the relationship is undoubtedly different, though some of these strengths will be similar. This relatively new type of partnership is also perhaps the most promising. An agency will have an open-ended and vested interest in the project, as opposed to a private firm which is simply under a contract.  The private firm can provide particular methods and ideas for programming, design, and construction they learn by working outside of the particular municipal context. It is short-sighted to bemoan the intrusion of private interests into public space, in our opinion. In fact, it is beneficial to get residents and businesses interested and involved and for them to organize in order to affect change. This taking of responsibility is exactly what is needed. But it must be balanced against the negatives wrought by the influence of moneyed interests and exclusive groups, both of which inevitably exert pressure on any space that is seen as a community resource.

At least that’s how it seems to us.


  1. The only issue that has ever crossed my mind with regards to public private partnerships the issue of ownership. Especially in scenarios you mention like the one involving Trump's development where parkland/public space is being created as part of a real estate deal. In this case who has ultimate say over activities etc? This i suppose though involves easements, lawyers etc.

    I think the third role in the design area (beyond capital, maintainance) is an interesting direction. It seems similar to the High Line scenario?? This isn't bad although one wonders how it might effect the design process. For instance reducing or impacting approaches that are more community driven and/or participatory or responsive in nature.

    As for the spring thing. I feel you, i have meant to be more productive (reading and writing) the last few weekends. But the weather makes it hard.

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