Expanding Public Access to NYC Parks Sites

Testimony of Moses Gates, Director of Community Planning and Design, Regional Plan Association, before the New York City Council Parks Committee, December 1, 2016

As our city grows significantly over the course of the next few decades – and RPA forecasts that New York City has the potential to reach 9.7 million people by 2040 – we need more infrastructure to meet that growth. We need subways, schools, homes and parks. And we also need more places where residents can go and experience our city. Public access to our city, and the architectural and historic treasures it holds, is a vital part of urban infrastructure as well. The New York City Parks Department has long been a leader on this - opening up places like High Bridge, which was closed for decades – and we encourage them to continue this leadership through both a dedicated effort to provide more public access to the sites on the committee agenda today, but also by instituting a culture of openness and valuing public access as whole – a culture which should be extended to all city, and indeed all governmental, agencies.

We appreciate the fact that public access costs money. But this is money which should be prioritized in renovation and capital projects. Just as a transportation planner will tell you that we need to add new stations and tracks to a transportation system, not just renovate existing ones, so we also need to add to the inventory of our publically accessible places and monuments in New York City. And just as a transportation planner will tell you that the easiest and most efficient way to add more access is to use existing and underutilized rights-of-way, the easiest and most efficient way to add to the public inventory of New York City is simply to open up places that the public already owns. These include famous landmarks, like Washington Square Arch, and entire islands like Hart and North Brother Islands but also include smaller parks and buildings throughout the five boroughs in dozens of different neighborhoods.

Two of the sites we’ve talked about during this hearing – Washington Square Arch and the Prison Martyrs Monument – have recently been renovated: Washington Square Arch in the early 2000s, and the Prisons Martyrs Monument in mid-2000s – and in both cases an opportunity was missed to create more public access as part of these renovations. And really, that’s what we’re asking to change now. We want public access to be understood as a civic good, and a first-order responsibility of our municipal government. It should be one of the goals of every site, every renovation , not the first thing to go when a budget crunch hits.  We understand that different sites have different abilities to accommodate the public, but in all cases we can - and should – do more.  In current renovation projects, such as the Queens Pavilion restoration, we shouldn’t miss this opportunity that we missed before.

It’s true that many of these places were not designed with large-scale public access in mind. But many others – including Washington Square Arch and the Prison Martyrs Monument – have had some form of curated public access in the past. And even if a place was not built with large-scale public access in mind,  we have often times made decisions and been able to overcome this, such as with access to the Crown of the Statue of Liberty. This access is done in a curated and limited fashion, but also in a democratic and relatively inexpensive way.

More public access to public sites is also an equity issue, offering free or inexpensive options for outings and explorations to a great number of New Yorkers. The Statue of Liberty is the cheapest observation deck in town at the moment, a direct result of being owned by the public, through the United States Department of the Interior, rather than a private entity. Because these sites which we’re looking to open up are publically owned, public access an also be done with an eye toward equity, providing opportunity for all New Yorkers to be able to experience the wonder of their city for free,  or at least a reasonable price. For instance, it might cost $37 to go up the Empire State building, but we could open the terrace of our publically owned Municipal Building, and provide a great view for free, or for a fraction of the cost. And this is far from unprecedented. New York could join numerous other cities — Los Angeles, Richmond, Buffalo, Kansas City, Tokyo, Madrid and Philadelphia among them — in offering a public observation deck (Philly’s and Madrid’s charge a nominal fee; all the rest are free). Even Albany has a free deck on top of its state government building.

We understand logistical and budgetary concerns, but many other cities around the world have found ways to balance more public access to with these concerns, and New York has as well in many circumstances. We ask the Parks Department – and New York City as a whole – to keep public access at the forefront of the discussion, and look forward to working with both City Council and the Administration on this issue in the future.