After four days in New York City, off on a Seattle Chamber intercity study mission, I could tell you about dozens of experiences: How to survive two days bucketed by torrential rain. Or about how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched Applied Sciences NYC, instantly expanding sciences and engineering campuses. Or about how significant the arts are to the Big Apple’s quality of life (and sometime I’d like to do just that).
But my biggest take-away from the jam-packed, fast-paced tutorial was in learning about the New York area’s crown jewels, its varied parks and recreation facilities, some located in nearby burbs (think Brooklyn). Many of these amenities, invitingly programmed and culturally captivating, are managed by public non-profits, not dependent on municipal funds.
Hearing about New York success stories was helpful, particularly at a time when Seattle is preparing to vote on a Metropolitan Parks District and is undertaking major redevelopment of the city’s Central Waterfront.
For example, take Bryant Park, a popular public park, located in the heart of Manhattan. Although part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Bryant Park is managed by a private not-for-profit corporation. With some 600 mostly free events per year (ranging from Shakespeare to knitting lessons), it attracts six million visitors annually and has become the poster child for self-sustaining parks.
Last Thursday, Dan Biederman, one of the founders, led a small group from Seattle on a private tour of the park. Some years before, he had cooperated with sociologist William H. Whyte to transform the park from a dangerous haven for drug dealing and prostitution into one of the world’s premier people places. The founders made two initial decisions. First they insisted on placing movable chairs in the park. Whyte believed that this allowed people a sense of empowerment. (If you want a chair to take home, you can buy one in the Bryant Park Shop).
The second decision was to lower the park itself. Until 1988, the park was elevated above the street and isolated by tall hedges, a design that encouraged illegal activity. The 1988 renovation lowered the park to nearly street level and eliminated the view-obscuring hedges.Originally, Biederman thought that they would need $1 million a year to operate and maintain the park. However, eventually they discovered that they would need $13 million annually to keep the nine-acre site safe, comfortable and entertaining.
Today the park is financed and operated by the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), a private, not-for-profit company founded in 1980. The company is funded by income from events, concessions and corporate sponsors, as well as an assessment on neighboring properties. It does not tap any government monies. In addition to providing security and sanitation services and tending the park’s lush lawn and seasonal garden displays, BPC provides public amenities and activities, including those movable chairs, tables and café umbrellas. There are restaurants, food kiosks and a wide range of public events, some 600 of them programmed each year.
One of the decisions made by the founders was that there should be first-class restrooms and there are. Biederman insisted that the Seattle tourists inspect the comfort facilities and I am pleased to report that the women’s restroom was well maintained and appointed, no wavy mirrors or leaky faucets. In fact, there was an attractive floral bouquet displayed at the entry.
As we moved through the attractively landscaped park, we saw hundreds enjoying the lush green lawn, many others engaged in al fresca dining in the spring sunshine and still others playing games. There are free ping-pong tables, a putting green, an open-air reading room with book cases filled with contemporary fiction and non-fiction, and a handsome carousel in the French classic style ($3 a ride).At one table we saw four gentlemen intent on a card game. Biederman introduced us to the foursome, a group of aging but spry Italian-Americans who have been a park fixture for 20 years.
In another corner, there were shirt-sleeved men playing Kubb, a Scandinavian lawn game, also known as Viking Chess. To win, you have to knock over your opponent’s blocks with wooden pins. If you are a beginner, the attendant will teach you how to play.Biederman pointed out that studies show that certain areas of the park attract particular ethnicities. For example, darker-skinned visitors tend to cluster in areas where there is full sunshine. Paler visitors seem to prefer more shaded vistas.
During winter and spring Fashion Weeks in New York, the park is tented, causing some of the regulars to grumble over limited access. However, as park managers point out, the fashion industry pays $1 million for the privilege. As Biederman says, “It is money that we use to provide the many free events.”
Another source of income are fees paid by film and TV producers who like to use the park as a setting for their productions. Think of a film set in New York City and it probably includes Bryant Park. There are corporate sponsors, as well, who provide subtle sponsored amenities.
The attractions at Bryant Park clearly have been an amazing success. Filled with office workers on weekdays, revelers on holidays and tourists on weekends, the park even attracts an after-hours crowd with popular dance lessons and film screenings. Bryant deservedly is the most densely occupied urban park in the world.
There’s no question that there are lessons to be learned from the success of Bryant Park. But, as was made clear by consultants meeting with Friends of Waterfront Seattle earlier that same morning, founders of Seattle’s Waterfront Park need a unique blueprint for operating, programming and security.
The key to success is maintaining and preserving the flavor of a city. What’s wanted here isn’t simply another Bryant Park but something that is equally clean, comfortable, safe and exciting. We need the Waterfront to be like no other park, a people place that’s authentically Seattle.