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Lawsuit Accuses the City and Lincoln Center of Privatizing a Public Park

Area residents, members of environmental groups, and Damrosch family members gathered on May 21, the 44th anniversary of the Damrosch Park's opening, to announce the filing of a lawsuit. (all photos by Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)
Area residents, members of environmental groups, and Damrosch family members gathered on May 21, the 44th anniversary of the Damrosch Park’s opening, to announce the filing of a lawsuit. (all photos © Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)

A handful of New York residents and environmental activist groups are suing the City of New York, the Parks Department, and Lincoln Center over the use of Damrosch Park, a 2.44-acre park on the Upper West Side. The lawsuit claims that the city has effectively, but illegally, handed over management of the park to Lincoln Center, and that the events the performing arts center holds there — including the iconic Fashion Week — have taken over the space and rendered it unusable for the public.

This legal action has been building for a while. Last summer, the Upper West Side community board voted 33-4 to encourage the city to permanently relocate Fashion Week and to consult with the board on future events at Damrosch, according to DNAinfo. But Fashion Week took place there again this past February, and at the time, the Daily News reported that the lawsuit was on its way. This past Tuesday, it was formally announced at a press conference in the park, where the plaintiffs were joined by three generations of Damrosch family members.

Those plaintiffs — NYC Park Advocates, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, and three individuals who live near Damrosch Park and are members of the aforementioned groups — allege that the city and Lincoln Center are in violation of the “common law Public Trust Doctrine, which proves that dedicated municipal parkland is impressed with a public trust for the benefit of the people of the State and cannot be alienated … without the specific and explicit approval of the State Legislature.”

An A & E Networks upfront event held in Damrosch on May 9, 2013
An A & E Networks upfront event held in Damrosch on May 9, 2013

The city has been leasing the park to Lincoln Center since 1988, but the suit deals with the current license agreement, which was signed in 2010 for a 10-year term. The complaint states that the city has given Lincoln Center “an unlawful degree of control over the Park,” and that:

4.     By including Damrosch Park in that agreement, the City has improperly given LCPA the right to, inter alia, ‘manage, maintain, and operate’ the Park; select the uses to which the Park shall be put; contract directly with concessionaires and special event promoters for the use of the Park without the City’s review or approval of the contractual terms; and retain the substantial concession and special event revenues the Park generates.

This point is important: the plaintiffs are claiming that Lincoln Center has made over $9 million a year from concessions in Damrosch Park, and that legally, that money should be going to the city. The complaint continues:

5.     Pursuant to the agreement, LCPA has taken over the Park and excluded the public from their own park. In particular, LCPA has contracted for the private, commercial use of Damrosch Park by Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, the Big Apple Circus, and a variety of exclusive corporate galas and other non-public special events. Those non-park uses of the Park displace public recreational uses of the Park for as much as nine or ten months of the year …

6. Damrosch Park has thus been effectively subsumed into Lincoln Center. Gigantic tents hosting those concessions and events cover all or substantially all of the Park for much of the year, while LCPA’s security guards and LCPA’s barricades exclude the public from the tents and adjoining areas of the Park.

7.     LCPA’s private, commercial, non-park activities have also physically decimated the Park. Trees and notable landscaping have been destroyed and removed, the installation of tents damages the trees and landscaping that remain, seating areas have been dramatically altered, and the signature Guggenheim memorial flagpole and commemorative Damrosch family plaque have both surreptitiously disappeared. This takeover of a public park by a private corporation became so complete that even the iconic green Parks Department sign identifying the Park was removed.

An aerial photo shows the entire park taken over by private events like Fashion Week. (click to enlarge)
An aerial photo shows the entire park taken over by private events like Fashion Week. (click to enlarge)

The plaintiffs — among them at least one direct descendant of the Damrosch family, for whom the park was named in 1969 — are asking the New York State Supreme Court to declare Lincoln Center’s use of the park illegal without the approval of the state legislature, to force Lincoln Center to hand over the money its made from events at Damrosch, and to “issue appropriate injunctive relief, including but not limited to restoration of the Park.”

Hyperallergic reached out to Lincoln Center and the City of New York for comments about the lawsuit. Lincoln Center does not comment on litigation, a spokeswoman there said, while Kate Ahlers of the NYC Law Department sent this statement, which in effect argues that the private events held in Damrosch do benefit the public:

The City is awaiting formal service of the suit and will review it carefully. Fashion Week is an important part of the City’s cultural and economic fabric, generating $865 million each year while also creating fashion-related jobs. In this same vein, the Big Apple Circus — which also uses Damrosch Park — has also long been a New York City tradition, and it provides incomparable entertainment for people of all ages. And Lincoln Center maintains a close relationship with the City, presenting hundreds of free events each year and organizing popular outdoor programming including Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Midsummer Night Swing. Similarly, the resident artistic organizations offer hundreds of free events throughout the year, including over 700 performances by The Juilliard School, the Metropolitan Opera’s summer plazacasts, and 200 programs at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The Damrosch lawsuit is part of a growing concern among New York activists and environmentalists about the privatization of public space. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street showdowns in Zuccotti Park were complicated by the fact that Zuccotti is privately owned, and just last month, labor leaders and city councilmembers held a press conference where they criticized the city’s agreement with Frieze art fair for allowing the latter lease Randall’s Island for relatively little money without any restrictions on or rules guiding how the park land can be used. At the conference, leaders spoke of proposed legislation that would set guidelines for private use of public city land.

Damrosch Park in March 2010, before 56 trees were cut down.
Damrosch Park in March 2010, before 56 trees were cut down

At the time, Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito told Hyperallergic’s Mostafa Heddaya, “It’s not acceptable that a public resource [Randall’s Island] is taken offline for two months,” later adding, “The residents of my community are not going to be able to gain entry to that event because I’m sure the admission fee is too high.” The plaintiffs in the Damrosch Park lawsuit would no doubt agree.

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