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Madison Square Park Could Ban New Events

By Jill Colvin | December 9, 2011 4:39pm
Muslim parade organizer Ainul Haque (right) said he was pleased with the compromise.
Muslim parade organizer Ainul Haque (right) said he was pleased with the compromise.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — Midtown's Community Board 5 voted Thursday to prohibit new large events in Madison Square Park, create a host of new requirements for existing event organizers, and put an eight-event cap on the number of large events allowed in the park per year.

The sweeping decision comes after more than a year of controversy over what critics called the arbitrary approval of certain popular crowd-attracting events like the Big Apple BBQ and the attempt at rejecting certain other events including post-parade celebrations on the grounds that they overwhelm the park with garbage and disturb residents with smells and noise.

The board's task force found that “part of striking an appropriated balance includes establishing restrictions on the number of all large events that take place in and around the park,” CB5 wrote in a draft version of a report, which includes a series of recommendations passed unanimously by the board Thursday night.

Under the new rules, which are only advisory, there would be a cap of eight large events permitted in the park in any given year. A large event is defined by the board as anything that involves street closures, lasts more than three hours and “significantly blocks” access through the park.

That's bad news for future events that might vie for a place in the park, until such time that the current list of annual events including the Big Apple BBQ fest, Muslim Day, Sikh Day, India Day, Pakistan Independence Day and Philippine Independence Day, as well outdoor viewing parties for the US Open and Mets-Yankees series remain at the venue.

Over the past year, the debate about which events should be allowed in the park have become extremely heated.

The board's decision to try to boot the five parades from the park on the grounds that they’d grown too large prompted calls of racism from outraged organizers who felt the decision was unfair. Many pointed to the board’s previous support of the Big Apple BBQ, a much larger event that recently celebrated its ninth year in the park.

In the midst of the controversy, the board backed out of making a decision on the barbecue event this year, and instead called for a task force to look at the pros and cons of holding large events in the park.

The task force's report, which comes a month before the parades come up once again for a vote, noted that over the years, its positions on large events “have been inconsistent, and therefore confusing.”

“An ad hoc approach to evaluating events is not only cumbersome, but risks becoming arbitrary and capricious,” the board wrote.

The new rules are meant to provide a clear guideline for members about which events should be approved, as well as lay out new requirements designed to minimize the impact of events on both the neighborhood and the park.

Event organizers, for instance, will now be required under the proposal to engage in an extensive consultation process with the board before their events come up for vote, including submitting layouts, a clean-up plan, and abiding by new noise restrictions that ban continuous amplified sound for events more than three hours long.

The board would also force organizers to post notices about street closures a week ahead of time and ensure access to the park’s playground and popular dog run are never blocked. Organizers would also be required to hire a dedicated security guard to monitor the playground and keep event food out.

While the city allowed the post-parade events and Big Apple BBQ to go forward this year, task force members said they saw some substantial improvements, thanks to several sit-downs with organizers and the Mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office ahead of the events.

“An extensive effort was made before this year's events to work with parade organizers to improve the situation,” task force co-chair Clayton Smith said.

Opponents and organizers both appeared open to the recommendations, which were first presented at a committee meeting earlier this week.

“I like your definition for large events,” said Joerg Schwartz, a member of the board of the Madison Green Condominium on East 22nd Street, which had complained about the barbecue for years.

Muslim Day Parade organizer Ainul Haque said he was happy to oblige.

“For our neighbors, we want to make sure they stay comfortable,” he said after the meeting.

The board’s recommendations are based on extensive community outreach, including a survey of more than 500 park users, residents and local workers, as well as conversations with business owners and managers, the Madison Square Park Conservancy and the local BID.

While a majority of people enjoy using the park for passing recreation, including strolling and sitting, the survey found that there is also strong support for events, including music and food events like the Big Apple BBQ, which were “liked” or “strongly liked” by 65 percent and 71 percent of those surveyed.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents, however, said they disliked the spillover from the annual parades, prompting the board to push for a plan that aims to limit their impact.

Just 12 percent had positive things to say.

As for business owners, “there were a lot of complaints about people using the restroom, but every time those people walk in, they also buy a Coke, which boosts their sales,” Smith said.

The survey also found that nearly 90 percent of respondents love the park’s public art displays, such as the recent giant Echo head, with Shake Shack also getting a big thumbs-up.