New York City is a wonderful city, but, like many wonderful places, it has its problems: homelessness, poverty, underperforming schools, decaying infrastructure, 600 miles of vulnerable coastline, and the ever present threat of crime and terrorism. Nowhere on the list of priorities or problems would I place the horse-drawn carriages that line up on Central Park South and give tourists, and the occasional romantic local, a quick spin through the lower park. Like the Staten Island Ferry, the Met, Lincoln Center, the Statue of Liberty and Times Square, this place and these carriages are an iconic piece of the city that never sleeps. Experts I have spoken to tell me that these horses are healthy and well-treated and the energies of animal rights experts to ban them are misplaced and would be better spent on the many truly abused animals in our city, not to mention the abused humans.
In Jim Dwyer's January 21 New York Times column, he explains the real estate interests behind the proposed carriage ban and, as in many New York stories, it comes down to a desire by a developer to assemble a building site. It appears that the actual source of the million-dollar contribution by the animal rights group to the de Blasio mayoral campaign came from a developer hoping to buy the buildings that house the stables.
As bad as the attack on the carriages has been, the absurd compromise to keep them around is even worse. In a city desperate for housing for working people, New York City will spend over $25 million to convert a building on the 86th Street Central Park transverse into a horse stable. The horses and carriages have commercial spaces available to them on the far west side of Manhattan, seem to be able to pay market rates for their housing, and have no need for public accommodation. Moreover, the traffic and disruption that will be caused by the horses commuting from their new "park view" public housing to their old job site on Central Park South does not seem particularly well thought out.
It is obvious that the mayor is trying to repay an old campaign debt to a group that supported him early in his quest for his current office. Loyalty and keeping one's word are important values. So too is the idea of compromise, and I am glad that he and the union representing the carriage drivers could come to an agreement. The problem is that this deal makes no sense. It wastes scarce public dollars. It disrupts a successful and profitable tourist attraction. It further stresses Central Park, the most visited public space in America, by changing its traffic patterns without discussion or study.
Given the growing value of Manhattan real estate, there may well come a time when the west-side stables housing these horses become too expensive and this industry might someday be priced out of existence. That would sadden me, but even at that point I would question the need to spend public money on stables for private carriages.
Linked to this bad deal is a provision that is not getting much attention, but also makes very little sense. This provision would ban pedicabs, the bicycle-drawn carriages, that compete with the horse carriages for tourist business. While regulating, taxing and limiting these pedicabs makes sense, banning them from the southern part of the park is unfair.
What concerns me most about this inept, illogical and uninspired arrangement is that this highly political, closed-door decision further undermines the public's trust in government. If the horses are harmed by pulling carts why are we building stables? If horses can pull carts why can't humans pedal pedicabs? Why are our decisionmakers wasting their valuable time on trivial issues, when they should be focused on the big issues? Perhaps they will argue that they can do both, but there are only so many hours in the day. I generally agree with the mayor's perspectives on most issues and think he is working hard to learn the very complex job of being mayor, but this deal smells worse than the manure on Central Park South. It is so clearly a political pay-back and watching it take shape is disheartening for those of us who voted for Bill de Blasio. It is hard to reconcile this deal with progressive values and advocacy of good government and is a very disappointing moment in a very bizarre political year.
Moreover, for a mayor with a background as a political operative, these maneuvers seemed incredibly clumsy, but then at the end of last week, it actually got worse. Writing in the New York Times on January 28, J. David Goodman and Rick Rojas reported that the carriage deal would be voted later this week at the same time the City Council would vote on a bill to raise their own salaries by 30%. According to Goodman and Rojas:
Several Council officials described a full-court press by City Hall, including from Mr. de Blasio's top political adviser, Emma Wolfe, to secure Council support for the horse-carriage bill, an initiative that has been a top goal of wealthy political supporters of the mayor, a Democrat. The City Hall officials were said to be focusing on city lawmakers alarmed by a hearing last week, where administration officials could not answer basic questions about some of the bill's provisions, like the cost of a new stable in Central Park. The apparent timing of the votes came despite the objections of some Council members, who believed it created an unseemly appearance, and could undermine what they believe is the sound policy of the pay bill, according to several people familiar with the conversations.
The mayor seems almost desperate to complete this carriage deal and move on, but in the process is simply giving his enemies more ammunition to do battle with him. In the process, he has managed to antagonize park advocates, pedicab workers, and good government advocates.
My advice to the mayor is to let this deal die. Central Park is the best managed park in the world and if the people managing the Central Park Conservancy think the plan creates problems for the park, the mayor should pay attention. The Council Speaker and mayor's attack on the Conservancy for raising questions about the deal was also disappointing. The mayor observed that, "The conservancy provides a lot, but the park belongs to the people, and those decisions are made by the City Council and the mayor." This statement was a thinly-veiled and gratuitous attack on a nonprofit that has been a model citizen. The Conservancy has quietly worked with parks all over New York City. The Central Park Conservancy knows that parks belong to the people. They know that elected officials are in charge. Reminding them of this in public was not a proper response to the Conservancy's expert critique of the mayor's poorly-thought-through carriage plan.
New York City is America's largest local government. It is a complicated and diverse place and presents its leaders with frequent and profound political and managerial challenges. The battle over the horse-drawn carriages is damaging the mayor's credibility and leaves him open to attacks on his integrity. It is a distraction from the mayor's real work and the sooner he lets it go, the better.