No Cuts to Parks: Conservancy President & CEO, Merritt Birnbaum, testifies at the FY25 Preliminary Budget Hearing

New York City Council Committee on Parks
Thursday, March 21, 2024
Committee on Parks and Recreation – Preliminary Budget Hearing
Testimony of Riverside Park Conservancy

Good afternoon, my name is Merritt Birnbaum, and I am the President and CEO of Riverside Park Conservancy. We are one of over 400 organizations that belong to the Play Fair Coalition. Thank you to Parks Committee Chair Shekar Krishnan for holding this hearing and for his tireless advocacy to tackle the crisis facing our parks.

Riverside Park Conservancy works through an agreement with NYC Parks to help the City care for 450 acres spread across five parks, along 6 miles of waterfront in upper Manhattan from West 59th Street to West 181st Street. We are fortunate to have built a 35-year history that leverages thousands of
hours of volunteer time and significant funding to supplement the City’s dwindling workforce. We recognize that the vast majority of parks in our city do not have the benefit of Conservancy groups. Our situation only underscores how dire the current crisis is for parks in our most vulnerable communities.

Make no mistake: our parks are in crisis. We see it every day in Riverside, Fort Washington, West Harlem Piers, and Sakura as we struggle to keep these parks clean, safe and green.

In June 2008, our district had approximately 79 CPWs or City Parks Workers. This June, we will be lucky if we have 20 of them. CPWs do
everything – from picking up trash, to cleaning bathrooms, to removing graffiti. They are the frontline of the Parks Department, and in our park alone, their ranks have fallen to 25% of what they were 16 years ago. In smaller parks around the City, this type of deficit means we’re not talking about 1 worker per park — we’re talking about a fraction of 1 worker per park.

How can we accept this? Parks are critical infrastructure, and they need to be funded the same way we fund roads, bridges, police, sanitation and hospitals.

In the last five decades, New York City has built 200 new parks. How can our city pride itself on building new parks and not dedicate the resources we need to maintain them?

In 1970, NYC Parks headcount was 11,000. Forty-five years later, and we are looking at a headcount of only 7,000.

A simple math question: How can we have 200 more parks today and 4,000 fewer Parks workers?

How can our government say it prioritizes sanitation and safety and not consider the public parks that occupy 14% of our city’s surface area as needing those funds?

Just this past Sunday in our park, NYC Parks staff who were slated for spring landscape work were pulled away to paint over an incidence of major offensive graffiti in a high-traffic location. They dropped what they were doing and pivoted, because that is what CPWs do – they respond to needs on the ground and they get the work done.

– If we want bathrooms open and clean, we need staff.

– If we want lawns that are green and not filled with rotting trash, we need staff.

– If we want stairs and pathways that are clear of safety hazards, we need staff.

– If we want healthy trees and plants, we need staff.

Our parks are a direct reflection of our City’s commitment to the health and happiness of its residents. We demand that the City fulfil its promise and deliver 1% of our budget to parks. This is a rounding error for you, and a lifeline for all of us.

Committee on Parks & Recreation

New York City Council Preliminary 2024 Budget Hearing

March 23, 2023

Thank you and good afternoon. My name is Merritt Birnbaum, and I am the President & CEO of Riverside Park Conservancy. I want to start by thanking the administration for the capital funding to restore the Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. This act will save one of our City’s most unique architectural treasures from literally falling down – thank you!

Riverside Park Conservancy works in partnership with the Parks Department to care for 400 acres of parkland spread over 6 miles, from 59th Street to 181st Street in Manhattan. With an estimated 3 million annual visitors, our core users are residents from the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, West Harlem and Washington Heights.

I’m here to emphatically support the Play Fair Coalition’s advocacy efforts – and to urge the City to fulfill the Mayor’s campaign promise of 1 percent of the budget for Parks. After 40 years of austerity, the time is now to recognize our parks as essential infrastructure and a critical determinant of health, safety and social equity.

Our Conservancy is fortunate to be able to leverage private donations to supplement and enhance the work of the Parks Department. We employ a staff of 60 park professionals, including 24 full-time gardeners, and oversee nearly 40,000 hours of annual volunteer time from engaged community members. We produce over 250 free public events each year, and our sports camp serves more than 1,600 children from diverse neighborhoods across the five boroughs.

Despite these accomplishments, I’m here to underscore the challenges that we, and our counterparts at smaller parks, face every day. As an aging waterfront park with complex hardscape and landscape features, our park’s very survival is threatened by crumbling infrastructure and the daily reality of climate change.

We rely on our partners at the Parks Department for essential maintenance, trash management, and safety functions. At current funding levels, there are simply not enough staff to proactively address day-to-day problems before they become crises.

I want to underscore that having fewer Parks’ workers actually costs the City much more in the long run. When basic park needs go unaddressed, they become bigger and more expensive – such as the major drainage issues we are fighting in Riverside, where every rainfall causes massive flooding and erosion that threatens to destroy our beloved park. Millions of dollars in capital funding will be required to fix disasters that could have been solved earlier – and at a fraction of the cost.

We are by no means alone. Riverside is in a fortunate position to have a Conservancy that can leverage private dollars and local volunteers to help. Even as we struggle from a lack of adequate support, we recognize that other parks without access to these resources are in much more dire situations. The sad reality in our district and districts across the city is that the impact of underfunding for Parks is felt hardest by those who need it the most – communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

The bottom line is that the City needs to stop divorcing its capital budget from its operational budget and start providing annual funding to adequately maintain our public spaces. It’s criminal that taxpayers are being burdened with the ballooning cost of deferred maintenance that could have been averted.

We are proud to be part of the Play Fair coalition, and we ask City Hall to live up to its campaign promises. It’s time to get our priorities right and ensure that every New Yorker has access to a safe, well cared-for park in their community. Thank you.