Neighbors cry foul over takeover of neighborhood park
For designers, buyers, reporters, photographers and clothes-conscious consumers the world over, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week conjures images of the latest and greatest designs paraded around in a swirl of parties and publicity. For residents of the area surrounding Fashion Week’s Lincoln Center home, however, the event conjures headaches, concerns over safety and anger over limited access to a public park.
“I don’t think Fashion Week belongs in this setting,” said Susan Koeppel, a resident of The Alfred at 161 W. 61st St. The residents there already combat construction from Fordham University and the Third Water Tunnel; many have rallied together to complain to the community board and local officials about the grievances they endure during Fashion Week’s set-up, shows and breakdown period that stretches for four to five weeks twice a year.
“There should be other venues that wouldn’t have to impact the community in this way,” Koeppel said, citing noise as well as overflowing trash and loud parties disrupting the neighborhood. “It’s not an asset for the community. It may be an asset for people who are involved commercially, but for the people who live here and the people who work here, it’s a huge inconvenience.”
Fashion Week, an eight-day event that draws an estimated quarter of a million people and over $230 million in revenue to New York, used to be anchored in Bryant Park. While that area is much more commercial than residential, Dan Biederman, president of Bryant Park Management Corporation, said that its neighbors had some of the same complaints about noise and crowding.
“There were things we didn’t like about having the shows at Bryant Park,” Biederman said. “We had complaints about generators that were necessary for both the shows and the ice rink we run.” Ultimately, he said, the shows were cutting down the time they could have the ice rink open in the winter and crowding out the popular spot for regular parkgoers in the summer.
“A lot of people think I’m out of my mind for giving up $2.5 million in fees,” Biederman said. “We couldn’t run the park the way we wanted.”
Two years ago, the organizers moved to Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, which offers more space and affords more designers the opportunity to show their collections. IMG, the producers of Fashion Week, have coordinated with City Council Member Gale Brewer’s office as well as with the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District and Community Board 7 to address residents’ concerns, but some say not nearly enough has been done to mitigate the negative impact of the glitzy event.
“They go nonstop, 24 hours a day with construction equipment,” said another Alfred resident, Neil Lawner, describing the banging and beeping of trucks late into the night.
“What’s really being done, to the people in our building specifically and anyone who’s using 62nd Street generally, because it’s a popular thoroughfare, is [they’re] being held hostage, because private enterprise is doing what they want to do,” Lawner said.
“It has evolved. I think the positive is that there is lots of economic opportunity all around, from the restaurants to the ancillary to the catering,” said City Council Member Gale Brewer. “We dealt with noisy generators last time,” she said, noting that Fashion Week has been obliging in modifying their generators to be less loud.
“The real issue for me is the issue of Amsterdam Houses and people who wouldn’t normally have opportunities getting opportunities,” Brewer said. Fashion Week hires a handful of temporary employees from nearby NYCHA housing, but she would like to see their efforts expanded. “I still think we need to do a lot more for the NYCHA residents who are back to back with Fashion Week.”
“Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week takes its role as a community member seriously,” said a spokesperson for IMG in an email. “Since moving to Lincoln Center, we have worked diligently with the surrounding neighborhoods to make our presence as positive and unobtrusive as possible. MBFW and event producer IMG are grateful for the patience and cooperation the community has shown us thus far and remain committed to working with them to address any concerns that may arise in seasons to come.” The company sent out community notices in advance of construction this year, and also maintains a 24-hour hotline to address concerns.
Even more pressing for some is the use of Damrosch Park for private events for much of the year, between the February and September Fashion Weeks and the Big Apple Circus commandeering the spot for much of the time in between. According to the Parks Department, the park is managed by Lincoln Center through a license agreement with the city. Parks spokesperson Phil Abramson wrote in an email that the park “consists of a hard-surfaced seating area and receives low visitorship levels during the winter.”
Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, takes issue with that characterization and said that it’s because of the private intrusions that people stay away from Damrosch Park.
“It’s certainly an issue that the public does not have access to that park for the majority of the year,” Croft said. “That parks belongs to the public, not to a private corporation.”
He also voiced what has been a frequent critique of the Parks Department, that they allowed 67 trees to be cut down to accommodate the park’s new tenants.
“All these trees were destroyed, all that flora and fauna, the hedges and stuff; they were destroyed. The public looks at tents most of the year now,” Croft said.
Regarding those trees, Abramson wrote, “As restitution for the 67 trees that were removed, we planted 220 trees in the one-mile area around Damrosch Park. In addition, Lincoln Center planted a net increase of 88 trees on its campus and arranged for 11 trees to be transplanted.” Many are not satisfied with that answer.
Cleo Dana, another outspoken resident of The Alfred, testified at Community Board 7’s last full board meeting, questioning whether Lincoln Center is the right home for such a big event.
“Where to put Fashion Week? Not to the Javits Center where it belongs or to an Armory or even Carl Schurz Park, but to Damrosch Park, a New York City park that had the misfortune of being geographically located in Lincoln Center, the cultural heart of New York City’s performing arts,” Dana said.
“Damrosch Park does not belong to Lincoln Center, although it is managed by it. It was deliberately created by Robert Moses as a separate entity from Lincoln Center. It was and is under the jurisdiction of NYC Parks and Recreation and as such must conform to city and state statutes that apply to terms of its use, noise, concessions and sanctity of its trees,” she continued.
Sam Salant, who said that he used to regularly spend time in Damrosch Park and always noticed residents of the nearby Amsterdam Houses doing the same, said that he was pushed out of the park when he inquired about new construction.
“One day I walked in and there was something being constructed where there was formerly a bandshell,” Salant said. “I asked about it and was told to get out of the way. They’re just chasing people out. There was nobody I could call who could answer me and tell me why that happened.”
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