By Tim Redmond

The Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development is pushing a plan that would allow private entities to “sponsor” public plazas – potentially allowing more commercial activity in public spaces and increasing the use of private security.

The plan, which comes before the Planning Commission March 13, is part of what Lee’s office calls the “City Plaza Program” – and effort to “create an environment where residents and visitors can use public spaces for relaxation and for community supported activities such as art and music events, farmers’ markets, movie nights, local food and retail opportunities, and much more.”

The idea is to “activate” city-owned space – that is, to allow private nonprofits (possibly with corporate sponsorship) to more easily use public space for revenue-generating events and projects, with the money that’s earned going back into plaza improvements.

Planning documents state that the goal is “lowering City barriers to community and economic development-enhancing partnerships for City-owned open space. New standardized agreement forms, systemic processes and customized event permitting tools could make it easier for communities to activate their local plazas and craft long-term sustainable management plans.” The ultimate end-game: “Improve the City’s ability to provide more safe, clean and active City-owned open spaces than currently possible with existing city resources.”

This is a pattern we’ve seen many times before: The city (despite a booming economy) can’t afford to maintain and protect its own parks, so it’s time to let the private sector do it. We heard the same line at the Presidio, and the upshot was a giant office building constructed by George Lucas, who got a sweet tax break on the deal. We fought over a ballot measure aimed at preventing the privatization of Coit Tower. (more after the jump)

Now the city apparently wants to spread that model to other places.

The plan: Change the laws relating to the use of areas controlled by the Department of Public Works or the Real Estate Division to allow private organization to become “stewards.” Those groups would essentially control the use of the space, and could shut out the public for specific events. (Isn’t that what we just voted against at Coit Tower?)

Sure, the space would still be technically public, the documents say:

 Yes, all Plazas must generally remain open to the public. They will feel similar to other City-owned open space, with similar regulations. Some Plazas may have a limited number of private events in order to support their respective Steward’s activation and maintenance obligations.

In other words, when the “stewards” need to make money, the rest of us can be excluded from public space.

There are plenty of events that close off parts of parks to the public – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is free, but Outside Lands takes over part of Golden Gate Park for a couple of days, and charges admission. That’s all regulated and controlled by the city, which gets the money. And while those are large events, they don’t close the entire park; most of the open space is still available to the public.

The plazas are smaller, and the model is different.

In fact, according to City Planning Department documents, the Mayor’s Office is proudly proclaiming that the plan has a great precedent – Bryant Park in New York City.

Now: Bryant Park, in Midtown Manhattan, has had some issues. In the 1970s, it was something of an open-air drug mart. It was also a place where homeless people congregated, and in a pricey area, that wasn’t making the burghers happy. Now, by many accounts, it’s a great success. Its turnaround also happened at a time when a succession of mayors, from Rudy Guiliani to Mike Bloomberg, were finding ways to drive homeless people out of sight and making New York more attractive to the wealthy.

The current park management is pretty happy about its disdain for typical public-sector space. Here’s what a Bryant Park flier says:

“Its public spaces are run by the private sector … it is a non-union island in a union town.”

This is what we are using as a model?

There’s a lot of concern in New York about the privatization model. Moving a high-end restaurant into Union Square is making even the New York Times a bit nervous.     The idea of closing Damrosch Park for “Fashion Week” is stirring up a furor. Geoffrey Croft, a park advocate who is among those suing over the use of the space, recently wrote that

Since the late sixties, locals and tourists alike have flocked to Damrosch Park, not only to admire the noted architectural and famed landscape elements amidst the pastoral beauty and to utilize the park for the many active and passive recreational uses,  but also to enjoy the free performances and take part in a uniquely New York experience.  

Starting in 2010, Damrosch Park – a 2.4 acre public park owned by the Parks Department – became off limits to the general public of much of mid-August to June.  In August, the producers of Fashion Week begin erecting tents for their bi-annual show which runs for eight days in early to mid-September consisting of “invitation-only shows.”  

The Park continues to be off-limits to the general public when the Big Apple Circus moves in after Fashion Week’s exit for a four-month long residency from mid-October to January.  After that, Fashion Week once again comes in for its February event. LPCA then rents out the public Park for a series of private and corporate events including fundraisers that further displace the general public for an additional four months until May/June.

These sorts of precedents have local parks advocates more than a bit concerned. It is, says former Planning Commission member Dennis Antenore, “scary stuff.”

I suspect there will be some opposition at the Planning Commission.