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Old Posted Dec 8, 2014, 4:06 AM
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sparkling sparkling is offline
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I just came across this opinion piece from November 30. Misplaced criticism or not is for you to decide.

The Billionaires’ Park
NOV. 30, 2014

CAN billionaires remake the Manhattan shoreline? Apparently so, in light of the news that a new park will be just offshore in the Hudson River, largely financed by the media mogul Barry Diller and situated, conveniently, a short walk from his office in Chelsea.

The new park will also be near the High Line, allowing for an easy tour of how private wealth is remaking the city’s public spaces. This trend isn’t unique to New York: Philanthropists are also busy reshaping the riverfront of Philadelphia and building a green corridor through Houston. In Tulsa, Okla., a vast new park system is being financed in part by the billionaire George B. Kaiser.

While it’s hard to argue with more parks, or the generosity of donors like Mr. Diller, this isn’t just about new patches of green. It’s more evidence of how a hollowed-out public sector is losing its critical role, and how private wealth is taking the wheel and having a growing say over basic parts of American life.

The new era of parks philanthropy began in the 1980s, when private donors created the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that has since taken a central role in shaping the park. Starting in the late 1990s, Friends of Hudson River Park, a likewise privately bankrolled nonprofit, has helped expand what is now the second-biggest park in Manhattan. Diller Island (although it won’t be called that) will further transform the shoreline.

One result of this influx of funds into putatively public parks is that the city’s more affluent sections have nicer open spaces and playgrounds. Central Park is now a gleaming jewel thanks to $700 million in private investments, and two years ago a hedge fund manager — who lives in a mansion steps from the park — gave $100 million to shine it further. Private money now covers 75 percent of the park’s annual operating budget.

Meanwhile, many parks, starved of funds, have fallen into disrepair. This fall Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to spend $130 million to upgrade 35 parks in poor neighborhoods — the same amount Mr. Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, pledged for the new 2.7-acre park.

And who will use this pricey new island park, in one of the most expensive and least densely populated parts of Manhattan? Take a stroll on the High Line, which was also heavily financed by Mr. Diller and Ms. von Furstenberg, and you’ll get a sense of the likely visitors: out-of-town tourists and locals who can afford lunch in the Meatpacking District.

The plans for Mr. Diller’s park, like the High Line, illustrate the sorts of recherché spaces that such projects prioritize: amphitheaters, footpaths, gardens. While these are all nice, they fit most neatly into the lifestyles of the affluent, who don’t need more open public spaces for things like exercise or family gatherings, since they often have second homes outside the city. Thanks to Mr. Diller’s impressive largess, New York will have another striking park, but it’s unclear how useful it will be to ordinary people.

The design, placement and maintenance of parks were once a function of democratic processes. Now, as a citizen, you feel like a spectator to largely privatized decision making. A declining public sector, burdened by budget cuts, creates a vacuum for imaginative civic leadership that is being filled by a new class of Medicis. Things are going to get a lot worse, too. Nondefense discretionary federal spending will fall to its lowest level in modern history by 2017, leaving Washington less able to finance projects like new parks and infrastructure.
In contrast, the combined net worth of the Forbes 400 has nearly doubled since 2009, to $2.3 trillion, and today’s big philanthropy is merely a warm-up for larger giving to come. More than 100 billionaires worldwide have pledged to give away at least half their wealth, further supersizing philanthropy even as the fiscal screws on government turn tighter as the boomer generation retires. Their beneficence is admirable, but it also poses a threat to the ability of everyday Americans to have an equal voice in civic life.

This power shift is part of a larger story about rising inequality and shrinking democracy. One reason the wealthy are flush with cash is that they’ve paid historically low taxes in recent decades, which helps explain why government can’t afford to do big things. A small step toward rebalancing things would be to tax capital gains — the source of much of the wealth of the superrich — at the same rate as regular income, and then dedicate most of that money to rebuilding our eroding infrastructure.

As for ensuring that all New Yorkers have equal access to good public parks, we should require private parks conservancies to chip in to rehabilitate parks in low-income parts of the city, just as developers are expected to help finance affordable housing. If we want even the semblance of equity in civic spaces, new ways must be found to pay for it.
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