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Return of Big Apple Circus Shuts Public Out of UWS Park, Advocates Say

By Jackson Chen | August 8, 2017 12:00pm | Updated on August 9, 2017 4:18pm
 Damrosch Park advocates are against giving the public space to the Big Apple Circus.
Damrosch Park advocates are against giving the public space to the Big Apple Circus.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — A park advocacy group is objecting to the Big Apple Circus’s return this fall to Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park — saying the move violates an agreement mandating that the public first provide input on any activity there.

The group Friends of Damrosch Park charges that Lincoln Center is infringing on the public’s access to the 2.4-acre green space at West 62nd Street by hosting the circus for up to four months beginning in October, without community consultation advocates say is required before holding commercial events there.

“They claimed that this was just Big Apple coming back, but Big Apple is gone and this is a new for-profit,” said Cleo Dana, president of Friends of Damrosch Park, of the circus that was run as a nonprofit since 2000, but went bankrupt in 2016 before being revived through a $1.3 million purchase by Compass Partners in February

“And they signed a 10-year contract, closing out the entire park to the community for four months, a third of every year.”

In 2013, Friends of Damrosch Park and Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates sued the city’s Parks Department and Lincoln Center for putting on private events, most notably Fashion Week, on public parkland that restrict access to the public.

The lawsuit ended in late 2014 with a settlement agreement. A paragraph in the settlement agreement that pertains to a 2015 landscaping plan, stipulates that Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Parks Department "will request a meeting with the Community Board, with Plaintiffs invited, to discuss any concerns regarding the future operation of Damrosch Park."

Croft and Dana argue that this language means that Big Apple Circus does not constitute public use.

“The fact that it’s a large corporation is offensive to us,” Dana said. “And the fact that they’ve done this without consulting the community is insulting.”

► READ MORE: City Seeks Use for Big Apple Circus Tent it Bought for Nearly $1M

The circus will return for its 40th anniversary show on October 27 and is scheduled to run through January 7, with tickets starting at $35. But its contract allows the circus — including its tents entrances and exits — to take up most of the park for a full four months, a Lincoln Center spokeswoman said. 

Bill Raudenbush, a City Council candidate and parks advocate who is working with Dana, said this represents a clear case of Lincoln Center limiting public access to the park. He is calling for more transparency from the city and Lincoln Center about the circus plans.

“Here we go again, a powerful interest having access to a public park…privatizing a public park for four months out of the year,” Raudenbush said. “We all love the circus and Lincoln Center, but using this as an ATM is not appropriate.”

Community Board 7 recently took up the issue during committee meetings, but could only offer advisory opinions. CB7 chairwoman Roberta Semer said the board's Parks and Environment Committee presented suggestions that Big Apple Circus start a few weeks later than its October 27 opening night and offer more community oversight when it does put up its tents.

Dana said she's currently speaking with an attorney about possible legal action, but noted it would be an expensive undertaking.

Lincoln Center countered the group’s claims, saying it was within its rights to provide the space to the Big Apple Circus.

“Having the circus in residence is well within the both the spirit and letter of our legal and community commitments,” Lincoln Center's chief communications officer, Mary Caraccioli, said in a statement. “As a performing arts and education institution, and a devoted member of the community, Lincoln Center’s goal is to continuously grow as an accessible arts campus and bring the best and most diverse programming to our community.”

Cariccioli added that while the circus operations would likely take less than four months, it budgeted for additional time in case of possible delays brought on by extreme January weather. 

Representatives for the Big Apple Circus referred questions to Lincoln Center.

On Wednesday, Caraccioli released another statement in response to the park advocates:

Since our agreement was reached, Lincoln Center has enjoyed dozens of conversations with these neighbors about a variety of issues relating to the use of Damrosch Park. Our mission as a nonprofit organization is to program events that entertain and enrich New Yorkers from all walks of life. For the past forty years, the Big Apple Circus has been doing just that, and Lincoln Center is proud to continue that tradition.