Dozens of new trees and plantings were planted last year in Damrosch Park, on West 62nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, one consequence of a 2014 legal settlement between residents and the city and Lincoln Center. Photo: Melody Chan
Plans to bring the reconstituted and now for-profit Big Apple Circus to Damrosch Park has drawn the ire of some Upper West Siders who say the arrangement would be in violation of a 2014 settlement that bars private, money-generating events in the city park.
But officials from the Big Apple Circus — which was bought at bankruptcy auction by a Florida-based investment firm early this year — and Lincoln Center contend that the settlement applies only to Fashion Week events.
“Nowhere in the settlement agreement is the Big Apple Circus even named,” Peter Flamm, Lincoln Center’s vice president of concert halls and operations, said at a Community Board 7 committee meeting last week. “It’s under our understanding and our counsel’s understanding that it is an appropriate park-like use, and that’s why we believe strongly that it is not in settlement agreement.” Flamm added that the agreement did not list the circus as an inappropriate use of the park.
But Cleo Dana, an area resident, and others argued at the Aug. 2 meeting of CB7’s Parks & Environment Committee that the new 10-year contract with the circus does violate the agreement.
“We object to this little 2.4-acre-park accommodating a much larger circus than was there when we moved there in the 80s,” Dana said. “It doesn’t belong there, and Lincoln Center should have consulted with the community.”
The settlement grew out of 2013 lawsuit filed by a few Upper West Siders, including Dana, Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocate, and Olive Freud, the president of Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, who contended that New York Fashion Week was a disruptive, private event that closed the park off from the public. They argued that the city had violated the state’s Public Trust Doctrine, a common-law standard that holds that parkland exists for the benefit of the public at large, not just for some.
Following the settlement the city and Lincoln Center, which manages the park, promised to “further expand public access to the Park by not entering into agreements for commercial events substantially similar in nature, size and duration to Fashion Week and for which access is not generally available to the public.”
Lincoln Center then spent about $500,000 to reinvigorate the park, planting 38 new trees and dozens of shrubs and bushes to replace the trees, flower planters and benches that had been uprooted to make room for the tents that covered much of the park during Fashion Week events.
At the committee meeting, a candidate for City Council, William Raudenbush, cautioned against the “shut down” of the park and “access to green space and respite.”
“I think we need to be very careful of how we, on the sly, are privatizing public parkland, even for small durations,” he said.
One resident, Takemi Uemo, took issue with the amount of time the circus would be monopolizing the park, especially during fall. The director of public safety of Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus was concerned that the circus’ site plan, which has yet to be publicly released, would interfere with university activity. A few community members worried about preservation of the trees and plantings, restored last year.
“This is probably the most overly developed area in Manhattan,” Dana said. “This is no place for an expanded circus. We don’t like the garbage across the street overflowing with animal waste; we don’t like fumes; we don’t like trailers that go from Columbus Avenue to Amsterdam, bigger every year; we don’t like the chaos, the traffic.”
But one longtime neighborhood resident, Robert Jordan, said the circus should be welcomed.
“In the past years, the Big Apple Circus created jobs for the youth in my community,” said Jordan, who has lived at nearby Amsterdam Houses for more than 25 years.
The positives of hosting the circus at Damrosch outweigh the negatives, he said. “I think we all need to concentrate on who this is more beneficial to, and this is the youth,” he said. “Everybody seems to be forgetting that.”
Toward the meeting’s conclusion, Council Member Helen Rosenthal suggested weekly or bi-weekly community meetings with Lincoln Center and circus representatives leading up to the circus’ October opening. “This is coming up really soon and you’ve got people’s attention. These are the people who care,” Rosenthal said.