The Value of the Public Realm

Next New York: Parks + Open Spaces, May 10, 2013

Connie Fishman 
Alexander Garvin
Meredith Kane
Andrew Lynn
Deborah Marton
Michael Sorkin
Madelyn Wils


DEBORAH MARTON: We have to monetize the value of parks. The New York Presbyterian Hospital has recognized that the services that they deliver and prescriptions you get from the hospital are not adequate if you are not seeing the impact, particularly in low-income communities. So they are moving beyond the boundaries of the hospital to partner with affordable housing developments, for example, to improve air quality within homes, because they know health is not just what gets delivered in the hospital. 

I would suggest that the next step in that progression is to move beyond the hospital. Where health care really gets delivered is the landscape. Those services can be thought of as savings for the future that can fund work right now.

. . .

 MICHAEL SORKIN: Air rights are the urban equivalent of printing money and the Planning Department functions as the Federal Reserve, manipulating supply. I wonder if there’s a way in which we can monetize – and support – our parks by using them to establish a kind of environmental gold standard. If air rights were fully fungible and based on the fixed amount of open space the city controls, a market would be created that would both fund the parks and set limits on growth that were derived from an idea about a rational ratio of public and private space and a balance between building and environment. I’d be interested in seeing a calculation of the FAR derived from calculating the total area of building in the city in relationship to the total area of parks. 

MADELYN WILS: Hudson River Park is very unusual because technically it is zoned mostly M2-3, so it actually has zoning rights, which were restricted in the 1998 legislation. We are actually working out how to get those Air Rights back for the purpose of selling them.

Why are we doing that? Not so much for the maintenance dollars, although that would be helpful. We need a minimum of $275 million to finish the park. At the rate that we are getting money from the State and the City, that is not happening in my lifetime. We are going to have to figure out how to get the capital funds we need to build out the park. 

Unfortunately, most of the land across from the park has already been built, but there are still some sites that are not, so air rights are a very big part of our issue. Parkland has no air rights, so there is no transferring from parkland to adjacent property. The Department of City Planning could offer a special permit or upzoning, which could provide millions of dollars in air rights. It seems the value of that should go into improving our public spaces.

MEREDITH KANE: A lot of the recent re-zonings have done that for capital money. For example, there was a transfer of air rights to Williamsburg Waterfront as developers funded waterfront improvements. The High Line zoning has done that – developers pay into a fund that is reserved for construction of the High Line. Hudson Yards is also using that strategy to fund the open space. It funds the capital but not the operating expenses, which is the general difficulty that everyone is facing here. There are so many public goods that are competing for that operating money.

ANDREW LYNN: While there are a lot of public goods, how do you decide which ones benefit from the creation of air rights and set aside real estate taxes? There are two that make particular sense: one is mass transit and the other is parks. With respect to zoning, there are actual improvements in that area that enable you to have a denser neighborhood.

. . .

CONNIE FISHMAN: If you look at the overall economic impact of well-maintained open spaces and how they can help forego healthcare costs, then you also need to consider the negative impacts of a bad park. A poorly maintained park brings down the value of the neighborhood. It is like the public space equivalent of having foreclosed homes sitting on the block. 

 ALEX GARVIN: The problem you raise is acute because derelict parks are frequently in areas where low-income people live. The problem is that not only do they not have the money to contribute to a surcharge, but also, you cannot charge the owners of the property around it. That is why we have a Parks Department that covers the whole city. 

If you offload Central Park, Bryant Park, Battery Park, and a whole series of parks that can support themselves with Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or community districts, you have to be willing to put up money in the Central Parks Department out of the regular budget, because those communities will otherwise never get the service. It is too easy to say that we are simply going to monetize the development rights near something that is very valuable, whether it is the Hudson River Park or Central Park.

DEBORAH MARTON: Our Parks Department cannot maintain all the parks across the city, particularly parks in the lower-income communities. The social cost of derelict parks is a cost we all bear. The health impacts of our poorest citizens are costs we all bear together. We should figure out a way to understand those future costs as current savings and use that to invest in the care of neighborhoods where there are not private dollars.