AT lunch time in the Big Apple's newly restored Bryant Park it is hard to find a spare chair on which to munch your sandwich. This small mid-town park of tall shade trees, lush green grass, and beds of phlox and iris is that popular. There are no "keep off the grass" signs. Free chamber music concerts are a frequent plus.
Yet just a few years ago this park, tucked behind the city's central research library, was a neglected haven for drug dealers. The park's transformation involves an experimental mix of public and private funds that may well prove a model for other urban parks from Pershing Park in Los Angeles to Boston Common in Massachusetts.
New York Park Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum calls Bryant Park a "wonderful" example of public-private partnership. The city paid two-thirds of the $9 million restoration. Private donors did the rest. Neighborhood businesses will pay three-fourths of the $1.2 million annual maintenance bill.
"In a complex urban environment ... certain public spaces require an intensive level of care that it may not be reasonable to expect city government to support," says Bryant Park Restoration Corporation Associate Director Andrew Manschel. "It may be worthwhile for those who have property adjoining the park to invest in it, since property values are so closely tied to conditions in the park."
The Bryant Park example takes on a certain degree of urgency when viewed in the context of recent New York City Parks Department cuts. The $150 million budget for fiscal 1993 represents a slash of $45 million over the last three years.
Despite having one of the biggest park systems in the country, New York is "dead last" among big cities in the proportion of city budget dollars devoted to parks, according to Linda Davidoff, executive director of the Parks Council. Less than half a penny of every city dollar goes for parks.
The Parks Council and the Central Park Conservancy, a private support group for the city's largest park, will propose a new land-acquisition and capital-improvement plan for New York City parks in the fall. Included will be a bid to double the Parks Department annual operating budget. "We expect to spend the next several years fighting for the money," concedes Ms. Davidoff.
Noting that the number of park support groups is growing and that such groups partly compensate for city budget cuts, Ms. Davidoff stresses that such groups were founded to supplement rather than replace public dollars for parks.
The Central Park Conservancy, for instance, now provides over half of the park's $10 million annual budget, all of its programs for children, and all of its horticultural care.
Stewart Desmond, a spokesman for the New York City Parks Department, says the city is trying to raise private money for less well known parks through a broad City Parks Foundation and start as many "friends of the parks" groups as possible.
Despite the pinch in the public budget, New York City has been adding to its park space in a variety of ways from the greening of vacant lots to park bonuses in development projects. A number of efforts involve reclaiming virtually lost sites such as Bryant Park and Tompkins Square Park, due to reopen in August.
This latter project on the Lower East Side involved a $2.5 million restoration and the clearing of some 200 homeless individuals who made the park their home. The issue is still one of burning controversy to many New Yorkers.
In a "Take Back the Park" effort sponsored by the Citizens Committee of New York, young people from around the city this summer are working with church, police, and community groups to 'take back' both Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Putnam Park in Brooklyn from drug dealing, vandalism, and misuse. A blitz of activity from movies and board games to concerts and sports events is the focus. "The key is really people activity," insists Citizens spokesman Tim Wall.
"Ideally you do things to bring people into the parks," agrees the city's Mr. Desmond. "Parks that people don't go into get neglected and dirty and used for bad reasons."
"One of the things we're going to call for in our plan is an enhanced role for citizens and neighborhood groups in working to keep parks open and safe,' says Davidoff. "Citizens who live in the neighborhood of parks have got to have a sense of ownership and control."