Picture Bryant Park in New York City as it is today: Riddled with entertainment-driven landmarks like ping pong tables, fully-stocked bookshelves, ample seating space, and a wintertime ice skating rink that becomes a verdant lawn fit for weekly movie screenings in the summer. It’s an urban oasis.
But in the 1970s, the public space fell to disarray, littered with drugs and crime. Enter Daniel Biederman. Biederman, now the president of New York City’s Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), overtook management of the park in the late 1980s and proved his mettle as a champion and pioneer of business improvement districts (BIDs) by instigating a complete comeback.
In a column for Governing, Steve Goldsmith explains how Biederman transformed Bryant Park — and what other cities can learn from his example.
According to Goldsmith, who talked to Biederman about his experience, the key lies in quasi-governmental organizations, data-driven changes, and flexibility. “Biederman’s leadership and managerial acuity certainly contributed to the park’s remarkable turnaround, but he also sees many advantages in the capacity of working outside of the rigid controls that limit public-sector responsiveness: employing pay structures to procure the right talent along with simpler, more efficient contracting processes,” Goldsmith says.
How exactly did he go about this? For starters, Biederman submitted notably brief request for proposals (RFPs) that asked directly for results. Instead of using elaborate point systems, Biederman’s RFPs focus “on what is actually important in procurement — past performance, approach, price and maybe a good new idea or two — and nothing else,” Goldsmith writes.
This interaction with city government was hugely important. The process was responsive, as well. Goldsmith details some examples of Biederman’s initiatives:
“When crimes such as public intoxication began to spike, for example, the police department’s CompStat data on times and locations of incidents were used to adjust officers’ tours and posts. The greater visibility of homeless people in the mornings tended to make the park less attractive to other users, so more morning activities were added to attract other park visitors and keep the park from being overwhelmed.”
The cooperation between Biederman’s organization and the public sector shows how “owning” an area with metric-driven management and employees focused on customer service can produce huge improvement. It also allowed for creative solutions to problems like pedestrian traffic flow. As city governments increasingly take on responsibilities, partnerships like BPC can create public spaces that everyone can enjoy.