Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Mike shift on park" NY Daily News 11/03/06

"Mike shift on park"

Open to changes in deal on use of Randalls Island

NY Daily News, by Juan Gonzalez,

Top aides to Mayor Bloomberg have agreed to consider changes to a deal the Parks Department quietly negotiated earlier this year with a group of Manhattan's richest private schools for use of planned new athletic fields at Randalls Island Park.

The proposed agreement would guarantee 20 private schools near-exclusive use of more than 50 ballfields at Randalls Island each weekday afternoon for the next 30 years.

In return, the private schools would repay city bonds issued to finance the park improvements and a portion of the maintenance costs.

The franchise deal, reached without competitive bidding, has enraged many public school parents and Manhattan community leaders, who call it another example of the Bloomberg administration catering to well-connected private entities.

Parks officials somehow expected this unprecedented arrangement to sail through with little fanfare.

Now they are feeling the heat.

The City Council, which must approve the use of millions of dollars in capital funds for the park's renovation, hastily scheduled a hearing today on the project that's expected to draw dozens of opponents.

During a private meeting last week, Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Aimee Boden, head of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation, told three Manhattan elected officials who oppose the agreement that there is still room for changing the deal.

"We had an open and frank discussion," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who attended the meeting with City Controller William Thompson and East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito.

"We are open to proposals on how we can take advantage of this unique opportunity to rebuild this park," Benepe's spokesman, Warner Johnston, said yesterday when asked about the meeting.

But even before this parks deal was announced, East Harlem residents were fed up with the Randall's Island Sports Foundation, the private/public group that runs the island.

Many consider the foundation an elitist group that has turned Randalls Island into a concert venue and outdoor athletic preserve for the city's affluent.

During the summer of 2005, for example, the foundation twice closed the only footbridge from East Harlem to Randalls Island during concerts by the Dave Matthews Band.

The footbridge was closed again this past July Fourth weekend during an all-day private party on the island, said Marina Ortiz, head of the East Harlem Preservation group and a member of the local community board.

"The foundation doesn't have any neighborhood representation on that board, they never advertise their concerts in East Harlem and you rarely see black and Latino faces at their concerts," Ortiz said. "They forget this park is part of our neighborhood."

Oritz was shocked when Jonathan Greengrass, vice president of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation, visited East Harlem this week to seek her support for the private school agreement.

"I told him this is an unfair deal that leaves out the community," Ortiz said.

Foundation officials contend the arrangement will provide benefits to everyone. They say the improved and expanded number of ballfields that will be financed by the private schools will be available for use by the general public on weekends and during the summers.

But so far no one has been shown the specifics of the actual franchise agreement between the city, the foundation and the private schools - other than the parties that negotiated it.

No one has explained why this agreement was reached by City Hall without first considering alternative proposals or consulting local community leaders.

And no one has explained why public parks, these natural treasures of our great city, are suddenly being converted into private airlines with first-class and coach sections.

Originally published on November 3, 2006


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