Google Forced Bryant Park Corp to Hide Event Plans from Public, Critics Say

By Alan Neuhauser on November 20, 2013 8:01am | Updated on November 20, 2013 10:06am

Slideshow
 With the Winter Village in Bryant Park in full swing, and more commercial events than ever claiming space in city parks and pedestrian plazas, Midtown community leaders are looking to reshape how private companies are allowed to use public spaces.
Community Board Seeks Changes to Parks Events
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MIDTOWN — Information giant Google forced Bryant Park officials to keep quiet about its plans for a weekend promo event, frustrating community board members who call the tactic "absolutely unacceptable."

"If an applicant cannot share event details with the public, then a public park is not the appropriate place for their event," Community Board 5 chairwoman Vikki Barbero and parks committee chairman Clayton Smith wrote in a letter sent earlier this month to the Bryant Park Corporation.

Before unveiling its weekend "Winter Wonderlab" event in Bryant Park to promote its new tablet and streaming-video service, Google required organizers and the Bryant Park Corporation to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to officials from CB5.

That stopped them from discussing any details of the planned event.

Board members say they have "serious concerns" about what they describe as an ongoing lack of transparency surrounding commercial events in public parks and plazas — noting that Google's efforts to cloak the details of the Wonderlab event is just the latest in a line of corporate non-disclosure agreements.

"The increasing frequency of non-disclosure agreements as a reason not to share with the public any salient event details is absolutely unacceptable, and must not continue to be the way of doing business in New York City parks," Barbero and Smith wrote.

Google did not return requests for comment.

Board members pointed to three denials CB5 issued over the past two months to event organizers in Bryant Park. None of the three applications allowed for "sufficient public review of the use of public space" because the requests either reached the board too late or offered too few details, Barbero and Smith wrote. 

The applicants failed to meet "the bare minimum" for public review, they added.

Google isn't the only company that used the non-disclosure agreement to shroud their events in secrecy, CB5 officials said.

Winter Wonderlab
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Winter Wonderlab

A concert by Shakira and Swizz Beatz promoting T-Mobile's latest roaming and texting features in Bryant Park in April drew 7,000 people to the park — but it was similarly  shrouded by non-disclosure agreements signed by organizers and the Bryant Park Corporation, according to the community board.

T-Mobile said in a statement that it used a non-disclosure agreement "to preserve the marketing value and help increase the chances of success for an event like this, which revolved around the high energy, impact and surprise of a well-known performer."

The company added that it "worked closely with various public safety agencies including the New York Police Department."

Community Board 5 also rejected a promotion for French tourism called "A Taste of France," which hid details of its event until just days before it was set to take place, according to the board.

To the frustration of board members, whose votes are advisory only, all three events were approved — despite their objections.

Board members said they understand that some events call for a degree of secrecy, such as the unveiling of a new tech product or a "surprise" concert that could draw a mob of fans if leaked. But they argued that those details can be separated from broader discussion of how a private company plans to use a public space — and how those plans could affect the local residents, businesses and visitors the board represents.

"From their point of view, it's understandable, but it makes it very difficult to have a conversation in a public meeting," said one board member, who asked not to be named.

The Times Square Alliance, a business improvement district that oversees events in Times Square, frequently hosts major promotional events, including concerts, in Father Duffy Square and the adjacent pedestrian plaza on Broadway between 46th and 47th streets. It has refused to sign non-disclosure agreements when asked and simply agreed to keep details about events confidential, including a Nokia concert in April 2012 that featured a short performance by Nicki Minaj.

Barbero and Smith are urging the Bryant Park Corporation to bring applicants before the community board at least two months before events are scheduled to occur. CB5 also requested that the Bryant Park Corporation add an explanation of the public-review process to the event-planning guide it gives events organizers.

"It is time for the rectification of the event permitting process," Smith and Barbero wrote. "For meaningful public review and input as to the details of the event (duration, footprint, layout, set-up and breakdown, amplified sound, signage, accessibility, and public benefit), we insist that the events come for community board review in the earliest stages of planning — not days before the events occur."

The Bryant Park Corporation said in a statement that "it looks forward to working with Community Board 5 to address any concerns its members might have with matters pertaining to this issue, as it has done with a myriad of other issues over the past three decades.”

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