Conservancy President & CEO, Merritt Birnbaum, testifies at New York City Council Preliminary 2024 Budget Hearing

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.