The City Council funding process is so intentionally opaque, so fragmented and jackstraw-shaped that it should be no surprise to find Council members from Kew Gardens or the Upper West Side sponsoring $75,000 allocations for the High Line. Yet even one such member was surprised to discover that she had been credited, in the 2013 fiscal year budget, with making an unusual out-of-district allotment to the elevated park.
Councilwoman Gale Brewer, asked why she had given money to the High Line, which is not in her district, flatly denied the designation, insisting, “First time I ever heard about it.”
The High Line is revered internationally for repurposing a post-industrial wreck into a refreshing aesthetic public experience. The park has also anchored an explosion of billions of dollars of high-end development in the Council-rezoned “Special West Chelsea District,” designed specifically around the High Line.
The organization that built and runs the park, Friends of the High Line, is dominated by a wealthy and politically connected coterie of real estate developers and property owners, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars, directly and as intermediaries, into Christine Quinn’s mayoral election campaign. Friends of the High Line, formed in 1999 as a tiny nonprofit by two civic-minded fans of urban decrepitude, has quickly become the richest park conservancy in the city, after the Central Park Conservancy. Friends of the High Line raises double the revenue of the Prospect Park Alliance, for instance, and takes in more than 20 times as much as the Friends of Hudson River Park.
There is something about Friends of the High Line, however, that makes it very different from these other organizations. First, there was an actual Central Park, and later the Central Park Conservancy was formed to take care of it. In the case of the High Line, first there was a group of real estate developers called Friends of the High Line, and then they built a park to be friends with, making sure that zoning rules were changed to facilitate the right kind of residential property alongside it. The development of the High Line was coterminous with the development of the area around the High Line.
The City Council, first under Gifford Miller and then Christine Quinn, has doused the High Line with cash. Estimates of city funding for the High Line before it even opened range between $130 and $170 million: This money was only for improvement of an existing structure, because the rail line itself was donated to the city by the CSX Corporation. Since the park opened, despite the largesse of FoHL and its claims that 90 percent of park expenses are raised privately, the Council continues to make allocations to its expansion and maintenance, including a $5 million capital disbursement two years ago.
When the City Council “slush fund” scandal was revealed five years ago, it turned out that the largest beneficiary of these improper disbursements was the High Line. The scandal, in which the Speaker’s office budgeted Council funds to shell organizations in order to dispense the money later to favored groups, resulted in $290,000 going to FoHL. The group has received yearly allocations of $75,000 to $100,000 from the Council since then.
These allocations are typically assigned the “CC” label in the budget’s Schedule C, indicating that the money is from the Council generally, but the money is in fact assigned through the Speaker’s office: Such allocations are known informally as the “Speaker’s List.” Until 2008 CC designations were officially called “Speaker” designations. After that point, under the mandate of transparency, the Speaker’s office obscured the true source of the funds by designating them as coming from the Council as a whole.
In almost every case, CC allocations are assigned a sponsor: a Council member who has presumably pushed for the funding. However, sponsors are not necessarily project boosters but simply placeholders to provide cover to the Speaker. For instance, the 2009 budget indicates that now Assemblyman David Weprin from Queens sponsored a $90,000 allocation to FoHL. Asked why he would make such a generous designation to a group far out of his district, Weprin explained with remarkable candor the actual operation of the budgetary process.
“As chair of the Finance Committee at the time, I had a lot of interaction with the High Line,” Weprin said. “We were asked by the Speaker to indicate projects we had something to do with. My guess is that no one else put their name next to it, or I was the only one willing to own up to it.”
Asked how these items originate, Weprin explained that “the Speaker’s office in coordination with Council finance staff make a lot of these decisions. Not everything is member-driven: A lot of it is process-driven.”
A large portion of the Council’s discretionary spending, as much as 20 percent according to Citizens Union, is controlled directly by the Speaker; when we include capital funding, which is much more loosely distributed, the Speaker’s directed allocations go as high as 80 percent. To say that allocations are “process-driven” is to mean that existing and favored projects draw resources in a manner determined not by the Council in plenum but by planners and Council apparatchiks appointed by the Speaker to carry out her agenda.
State Sen. Tony Avella, who was a Council member during the slush fund period, averred that the Speaker dictates the entire discretionary budgeting process. “Quinn controls everything,” Avella said. “Quinn uses Council funding for her own political purposes, and anyone who moves against her is punished.”
Asked if reforms implemented by the Speaker following the slush fund revelations changed the process, Avella said, “No. She just moved things around to hide what she was doing.”
Avella said he was never pressured by Quinn’s office to support the High Line, but added, “All funding of anything important is directed by the Speaker.”
In 2010 and 2011 FoHL received Speaker’s List allocations of $75,000 each year, without a designated sponsor member. In 2012 Councilwoman Gale Brewer was credited as having sponsored the same amount to go to FoHL. Asked about the member item, Brewer insisted she had no idea how her name wound up next to it: “I support the High Line and think it is a fine project, but I never allocated any money towards it.”
Referred to the Speaker’s office, I inquired about the apparent disjunction. Jamie McShane, the Speaker’s spokesman, explained that Brewer’s name appears as a “reporting error…a mistake.” Asked for an elaboration, McShane repeated, “It is a mistake, a mistake. What is so complicated about that?”
It isn’t complicated, actually. The Speaker likes to give the High Line around $75,000 a year, and maybe it made sense last year to try to obscure that disbursement by assigning it to another Council member. Or maybe not. It is up to her, and nobody seems to question Quinn’s control of the smidgen of the city budget (less than 1 percent) that is given to the Council to play around with.
This brings us to the question of what the High Line is really for. Is it actually an homage to our industrial past? After all, urban decay is not a rarity in New York. There are disused rail lines and crumbling staircases everywhere. Seen Highbridge Park lately? Or Willets Point?
The High Line is pretty, and tourists like it. But it isn’t really a “park” as most New Yorkers would define one. You can’t bike or run on it, or sunbathe. You can’t walk your dog on it. Kids can’t really enjoy it. There is limited seating.
The real question is, why give money to the FoHL at all? They don’t need it. The organization is awash in cash from its board and corporate sponsors. The High Line floats in the center of billions of dollars of residential real estate that was built specifically around it. One of the highest paid staffers for the FoHL is a person listed officially as “Director of Food,” who makes more than $100,000 per year. It doesn’t seem like they would miss an annual five-figure disbursement if the Council decided to direct the money toward some other park.
Perhaps the Council’s little allocations are more like tribute than funding: annual tokens that the Speaker makes to the real estate and special interests to whom she owes so much. And they accept it because it affirms to them that here, here is someone we can trust, who will continue to do our bidding.
Seth Barron runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on local New York City politics.
Tags: Central park, Christine Quinn, City Council, David Weprin, gale-brewer, Gifford Miller, Hudson River Park, Jamie McShane, New York City Council, Prospect Park, slush fund, The High Line, Tony Avella