New York City’s Public Parks: To Rent or Not to Rent‎?

Queens – a.k.a. “The World’s Borough” – has increasingly become a premier destination for entertainment, culture and tourism. So much so that several big-name for-profit companies like AEG Live, Madison Square Garden and others in recent weeks have filed applications with the City to shut down major portions of our parks to the public next summer in order to accommodate large-scale, paid-admission, multi-day events.

It would be precedent-setting.

In this particular case, it means that Flushing Meadows-Corona Park – which hosts thousands daily in the summer for outdoor activities like soccer, softball, baseball, tennis, cricket, bicycling, family picnics, BBQs, birthdays, weddings and other special events – would ostensibly be shut off to the public for up to two weeks at a time during the peak season of the summer months.

But the real question is a citywide dilemma: What is the policy for renting our parkland at the expense of public access? At the very least, city policy ought not be decided upon by a single application. Policy and public vetting must come first.

Let’s put aside for a moment the strain that an additional 75,000 people – shelling out upwards of $300 a ticket and, to be clear, not to the City but to the for-profit companies – would place on our over-capacity municipal transit system, roads and infrastructure.

Or the struggle of getting thousands of locals in and out of CitiField right next door for the New York Mets’ already-scheduled 2016 home games, with which the proposed festival dates conflict.

Or the fact that the borough’s not-for-profit culturals residing in the park – including the New York Hall of Science, the Queens Theatre in the Park, the Queens Museum and the Queens Zoo – all would have to change their public programming calendars and effectively shut down to transform into “staging areas” as requested by the big-name companies.

This is about renting out huge portions of city parks to for-profit companies without a public review process. It flies in the face of the very principle behind our public parks in the City of New York, which is space specifically designated for access and equity; in effect, for the people and by the people.

At the very least, there must be meaningful engagement with the affected community and a real accounting of the adverse and residual impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

The use of our public parks – especially one as highly-utilized and in-demand as Flushing Meadows-Corona Park – must be coordinated and planned under a fair and consistent citywide policy. The absence of one renders the entire process arbitrary and unfair.

At the end of the day, we have a litmus test for public policies at Borough Hall: if it’s good for families, it’s good for Queens and, by extension, good for New York. Renting parkland at the expense of public access fails to pass this test.

-Melinda Katz is the Queens Borough President