By Geoffrey Croft
The Friends of the High Line's (FHL) scheme to divert concession revenue away from the City's general fund has finally been approved, more than a year and a half after the plan was first announced.
The Mayoral controlled Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) quietly approved the agreement at a meeting on February 9, 2011.The reality of the City receiving annual revenues of fifty percent is unlikely after the group recoups their $ 3½ - 4½ million in annual maintenance costs. According to the agreement there is nothing that limits the amount the group can spend including on salaries. The high compensation and bonuses of FHL co-founders have been the subject of media attention.
On July 8, 2009 the FCRC voted to authorize the Parks Department to negotiate a 10-year, no-bid contract with Friends of the High Line to run all food concessions in the park and on the city streets below it.
The sole source concession agreement allows concession revenue to bypass the city's general fund and be diverted directly to the politically connected private group. The long delay in getting FCRC approval is highly unusual for an agency normally known for rubber stamping approvals. Were they waiting for City Comptroller Bill Thompson to leave?
The City Charter - section 109 - requires that concession revenue go to the City's general fund.
Friends of the High Line issued an RFP on March 18, 2011 seeking food vendor proposals with revenue going toward maintaining the park, according to bid documents.
Under the agreement, FHL retains the first $200, 000 in annual revenues, if revenues exceed $200, 000, 20% of subsequent annual revenues shall be paid to Parks until total annual revenues reach $1, 000, 000. If annual revenues exceed $1, 000, 000, 50% of annual revenues shall be paid to Parks, only after FHL recoups their Maintenance and Operation costs. All annual revenues derived from the Licensed Premises shall be paid to the City's General Fund. Vendor proposals were due by April 14th.
The FHL are supposed to be responsible for paying the maintenance and operation costs of the esplanade.
"Food and beverage will also be an important source of revenue for Friends of the High Line. Our concessions agreement returns a portion of proceeds from revenue to both maintenance and operations of the High Line and to the City of New York."
"Help support the park. Revenue from concessions will help Friends of the High Line support the maintenance and operations of the park, as well as provide support to the City’s general fund, pursuant to a sole source agreement with the City’s Department of Parks & Recreation."
When the plan originally came before the FCRC July 8, 2009, City Comptroller Bill Thompson voted against it.
"We should not let the beauty of the park overshadow our obligation to ensure transparency and accountability regarding the operation and use of a public park, ” Comptroller Bill Thompson said at the time.
The administration, in turn, attempted to deflect criticism of the scheme by making it political.
Press coverage at the time also noted founders of the Friends of the High Line endorsements to Mayor Bloomberg, and board members who contributed over $100,000 to Speaker Christine Quinn. These are connections that Thompson said may have affected the plan to put the group in charge of food concessions.
"I don't think it hurt," Thompson said.
Thompson voted against the FCRC deal.
No such opposition this time - the vote passed six to zero.
A second location for a restaurant/cafe is planned on the 14th Street passage. The plan would be to use half of the existing covered structure. The group hopes to have them opened by 2013.
FHL's plans of diverting taxpayer funds is expected to be so lucrative they needed to hire a Manager of High Line Concessions.
"Food concessions on the High Line play an integral role in generating much-needed revenue in support of park maintenance and operations," according to the job description posting. The Manager of Concessions and Events will be charged with the creation of a strategy to utilize food concessions and rental of event spaces to generate this revenue.
Responsibilities include "creation of strategies for use of spaces on the High Line for private events," and "identifying opportunities for increasing concessions and events revenue."
There will be three (3) Food Units in the southern end of the Chelsea Market Passage located on the High Line between 15th and 16th Streets and one food unit on the Chelsea Market Porch. The Food Unit on Chelsea Market Porch may be able to serve beer & wine. In Section 2, there will be (1) Food Unit, next to the Lawn at 22rd Street. Further north at 30th Street, a 350 seat food venue will open at street level in what is currently a parking lot. As far as I understand food trucks will be utilized there, similar to the current Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
Alcohol and Elevated Park Changes Are A Com'in.
The High Line's next hot spot will be at the southern end of the Chelsea Market Passage - between 15th and 16th Streets. There will be three food carts on the upper level and a larger cafe concession called The Chelsea Market Porch on the lower level. The Porch will have tables and chairs with a seating capacity of between 30 – 40. FHL is working with the State Liquor Authority for a wine and beer license for the Porch. If approved, FHL will be the holder of the license. Another food concession is planned for the yet unopened section two of the park adjacent to the Lawn at W. 22nd Street. One question that has been raised is the safety issue of serving alcohol on an elevation 30 feet above ground when some non-impaired people already have trouble not tripping.
Besides food concessions A Walk In The Park has also learned FHL are also planning two restaurants/cafes. The group has identified two locations so far - one at street level at Gansevoort and Washington Streets under the stairwell that leads up to the High Line. The site is adjasent to the planned Whitney Museum, and FHL maintenance and operation facility. The second location is the High Line at the 14th Street passage. The plan would be to use half of the existing covered structure. The group hopes to have them opened by 2013.
One of the most pervasive complaints heard is that these deals create enormous disparities. The FHL now has 59 full and part time employees for the 2.8 acre park, including administrative, maintenance and public programming staff.
The City also pays for Park Enforcement Patrol officers (PEP).
The park will expand by a few additional acres when the second section opens shortly.
New York Post - March 28, 2011 - By Jeremy Olshan
New York Daily News - July 8, 2009 - By Erin Einhorn