LINCOLN SQUARE — Greenery that was ripped out of Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center when Fashion Week planted its tents there is being replaced, but critics say the pretty new flowers don't hide an ugly reality — private events like Fashion Week make the park off limits to the public most of the year.
Community Board 7 chairman Mark Diller announced the Parks Department would restore some of the lost foliage at the board's Parks Committee meeting Monday night, where angry neighbors gathered hoping to confront officials from Lincoln Center, the mayor's office and the Parks Department over the use of Damrosch Park for private functions.
The officials didn't show, but neighbors still had plenty to say.
They've been complaining for months, not just about the tree and azaleas that were removed when Fashion Week moved to Damrosch Park from Bryant Park in 2010, but about the fact their neighborhood park is monopolized by private events like Fashion Week, the Big Apple Circus and corporate parties for almost 10 months of the year.
"Two private corporations, [Fashion Week producer] IMG and Lincoln Center, raped the park," said Cleo Dana, a Lincoln Center neighbor who's led the charge criticizing the city for handing over Damrosch Park to companies for private events. "It's like saying, let's go to Central Park and put up a casino, or a brothel."
"[They're] placating us with a few shrubs," Dana said.
The park's trees and azaleas, along with benches and signage indicating that the open-air plaza tucked behind Lincoln Center is indeed a public space, were removed when Fashion Week started using Damrosch Park in 2010.
Dana and other neighbors joined with New York City Park Advocates in February demanding that the Parks Department and Lincoln Center "cease and desist from using the park for non-park purposes."
They charge that not only is the public being cheated out of the park, but the city is losing ground financially under an agreement that allows Lincoln Center to take in revenue from private events at Damrosch Park. Ordinarily, the city reaps the financial rewards of concessions in public parks, but under its arrangement with the city, Lincoln Center keeps the proceeds from Damrosch Park events.
NYC Park Advocates President Geoffrey Croft said the agreement has generated more than $100 million in revenue for Lincoln Center, which has been allowed to keep revenue generated at both Damrosch Park and Parks Department-owned parking garages.
In July 2010, the decades-old arrangement was extended to 2020.
Community Board 7's Parks Committee on Monday night unanimously passed a resolution calling for the restoration of Damrosch Park's lost flora. The resolution also asks the city and Lincoln Center to make the park accessible to the public year-round, and consider other venues for Fashion Week, a twice-yearly event that generates an estimated $20 million in revenue for neighborhood businesses, according to a study by Fordham University students that was based in part by estimates provided by IMG.
Fashion Week officially lasts eight days, but setting up and taking down the event lasts several weeks, closing some streets and limiting parking in the area. Neighbors have complained about the diesel generators that power the runway-show marathon, and in response Fashion Week producers IMG switched to cleaner, quieter generators.
Croft called the Community Board 7 resolution a positive step, but noted that a few new plants don't solve the larger issue of a public park being commandeered for private use.
"Obviously, this should have never happened," Croft said of the arrangement between Lincoln Center and the city. "Lincoln Center and the city need to abandon their current contract and let the city run the park."
Representatives for Lincoln Center and the Parks Department were not available for comment immediately late Monday night.
Officials from Lincoln Center, the Parks Department, and the mayor's office were invited to the Community Board 7 Parks Committee meeting, but told board members they could not attend because the issue was the subject of "potential litigation."
Croft called the officials' absence from the Monday night meeting "ridiculous."
"The community has a right to know who's responsible face-to-face for taking away their public park for up to 10 months a year," Croft said.