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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Appoints Mitchell Silver as Parks Commissioner

March 21, 2014

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Mayor de Blasio: Okay. Is Mark here? Mark Levine? I'm looking – ah, there we go. So, I think we can safely say that spring is here. This day truly feels like spring, don’t you agree [inaudible]? [inaudible] it’s finally here. You know, they say in spring it doesn’t snow, which is something that makes me very enthusiastic about the concept of spring. So, it is a great, great pleasure to be gathered on this beautiful day. And we have a great announcement to make that really does fit with the theme of spring and all that we look forward to in spring. I want to first hold up my great parks hat that Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh just gave me. I’m going to wear it proudly. All you parkies. Love that symbol. And our new commissioner will be wearing it proudly as well as he gets to work doing the work of the people for our parks.

First, let me thank some of the folks who are here today – our City Council Parks Chairman Mark Levine, thank you so much for being here, I want to thank former Manhattan borough president and someone who was a great mentor to Mitch Silver – Ruth Messinger, thank you for being here. I mentioned our great first deputy commissioner, who’s been acting in the capacity of parks commissioner, doing a great job, Liam Kavanagh – we’re so glad he’s going to be a part of this team going forward. Thank you, Liam.

I want to thank – I always like to give credit where credit is due – the folks on our team who played a crucial role in this process, selecting our new parks commissioner, including our First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris and my Chief of Staff Laura Santucci. We know what we believe in when it comes to hiring. We’ve really been blessed to be able to find the best and the brightest folks with tremendous capacity, who were willing to give their lives to public service on the highest level here in New York City – people with progressive values, people representative of the diversity of this city. We’ve said time and time again, that’s what strive for. When we find it, we go for it – we bring in the right people and today is an example of that kind of approach working once again.

Now I’m on a site that speaks to these values as well, the values that we cared about in this process. Let me welcome State Senator Dan Squadron, welcome. Because every decision we’ve made is about effectiveness and the ability to promote a progressive agenda. And that progressive agenda hits each and every department of city government. Fighting against inequality and creating opportunity is the work of every agency, certainly the parks department included. And this site is so important, because more than a hundred years ago, settlement house workers here in the Lower East Side, led by one of the city’s true unsung progressive heroines, Lillian Wald, they founded the Outdoor Recreation League. And over a hundred years ago, this was a radical and unprecedented act. They realized that children and families needed recreation they weren’t getting. They realized that it had to be done in an egalitarian manner open to all. And they also, here in this neighborhood, confronted the reality of thousands and thousands of immigrant families, low income families, that had no opportunity for recreation, that had no green space, and were struggling. It was affecting their health and their wellbeing. They needed a safe place to play, to spend some time together. And these heroines said regardless of whether it’s been done before, we’re going to do it now. And they pushed and they pushed until the city government finally built a playground here. This was, here on this site, the first municipally constructed and maintained playground anywhere in the United States of America. It’s an amazing achievement and we should celebrate the people who did that over a hundred years ago. They had a progressive vision and they were effective in getting the job done. And from those humble origins came a way of life, a way of thinking – something that became part of the DNA of this city and certainly the DNA of the parks department.

The parks department for decades and decades has answered that call. Even when it wasn’t easy, even when there weren’t as many resources as we would’ve liked, they still made tremendous things happen for our children, for our families. And we have to continue that proud tradition. And we need someone who can do that for the realities of the 21st century and the new challenges we face. And that’s why today it is my great pleasure to introduce a leader who is going to deepen and broaden that heritage and carry it forward in our time. He is, of course, our new parks commissioner, Mitch Silver.

Welcome Mitch.


I got to know Mitch. I got to understand his vision. And, I can tell you, I don't use the word lightly – he is a visionary. He's someone who has devoted his career to thinking about where we need to go, and then finding ways to get it done. 

He has a passion for fairness and equality, and he brings it to the work of government, and understands that we have to ensure that parks and open spaces are available in every community, and are well-maintained in every community in this city.

He has a commitment to innovation. He's thought about and achieved new ways of making sure we plan better, we find a way to sustain our efforts. He's thought about and acted on the crucial role of parks and the planning of parks, in terms of public health, in terms of environmental sustainability. He's someone who understands the challenge of resiliency in an ever-changing climate dynamic, who understands the important role that parks play in protecting New Yorkers from coastal storms and other realities that we face with our weather today. 

And he understands that for a park to be great, for it to work for our citizens, it has to be safe, that people have to be able to enjoy their green spaces without fear. 

Mitch Silver has the experience, he has the skill, he has the talents needed to make that vision a reality. Since 2005, he's been the Chief Planning and Development Officer for the city of Richmond, North Carolina – excuse me, Raliegh– Richmond's in Virginia– Raliegh, North Carolina. I just moved – I just moved Richmond. The city of Raliegh, North Carolina, which has been a booming city with tremendous planning challenges. Mitch has navigated them. He offered to plan their 2030 Comprehensive Plan for Development, which focused largely on expanding parks and greenways. So he understands how central they have to be to the modern city. Before that he was Deputy Director of the Office of Planning for Washington, DC. He was the business administrator of the township of Irvington, New Jersey. 

He's done a lot outside the boundaries of New York City, and he certainly understands how to deal with large, complex agencies. He's also had a national profile as President of the American Planning Association, and he served as a guest lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. So much of what he has done, his vision, his creativity, has been recognized nationally, but through and through, Mitch is a New Yorker. Born and raised in Brooklyn, attended our public schools, attended Pratt Institute – in fact, he was the first African-American elected president of Pratt's student government – a trailblazer in more than one ways. He received his Masters in Urban Planning at Hunter College. So, he learned in this city, he grew in this city, and then he went to work, first, for the Department of City Planning, and then he worked on the staff of Borough President Ruth Messinger, and did an extraordinary job, in that time and working with community groups, particularly in Lower Manhattan. He's produced parks and open space designs for a city that has been honored by the Municipal Arts Society and the New York League of Conservation Voters. 

One of the particularly proud efforts that Mitch worked on was playing a central role in formulating the Harlem on the River Plan, where he helped to take a site that was originally pegged for private sector development, and turned it into a $20 million dollar park.

Mitch understands that our parks are our gyms, they're our classrooms, they're our recreation centers, they're our commuter paths – they play so many roles in our lives. They're more and more important– in terms of fostering healthiness and well-being and fighting obesity– our parks really are central to so much of what we have to do, and we're committed to making sure they work for all our people. If you think about the parks department in New York City, it is extraordinary. It covers 29,000 acres of public land – literally almost 14 percent of the entire city. No one is more qualified to usher in a new era of expanded access to our parks, and sustainability to our parks, than Mitch Silver. Mitch, welcome aboard, we are delighted you're joining this administration as our new parks commissioner. 

Commissioner Mitchell Silver, Department of Parks and Recreation: Well, good afternoon. It’s certainly a pleasure to come home. I can tell you after the last 24 hours—I can say that New York really knows how to keep a secret.

Mayor: [LAUGHTER] Lockdown. It’s a lockdown.

Commissioner Silver: Thank you, Mayor. I am honored to be New York City’s next Parks Commissioner. I am a true New Yorker, but I’ve spent the last nine years in North Carolina, so please forgive me if I keep saying, ’Yes sir, ‘Yes ma’am,’ and, ‘Good morning,’ to everybody I see each day.


Commissioner Silver: As the Mayor indicated, I was born to a very diverse family. Diversity is part of my DNA. My father, who is white, was born from German-Jewish descent. My mother, who is black, was born from Haitian-Catholic descent, and so what you have before you is a person that lived diversity throughout his whole life, and got along with myself totally well.


Commissioner Silver: But I grew up in Brooklyn, very close to Prospect Park. In fact, Prospect Park was my backyard, and I remember very young, at the age of nine, in 1969, when I was riding through the park by myself on my bike, listening to the World Series of 1969 when the Mets—and they did win a Series back then—

Mayor: Yes.

Commissioner Silver: —On my bike. I knew the park very well. It was in my backyard. And I grew up just a stone’s throw away from P.S. 92 playground, where I lived on Winthrop Street. So I understand the importance that parks plays [sic] to the importance of our lives. I love the job where I worked in Raleigh, and I did not want to leave. But I’d have to say, after meeting with the Mayor, hearing his vision for New York, and his desire to have a parks system that was equitable, innovative, healthy and safe, he had me at, ‘Hello.’ And I decided that it was time to move back to New York to help achieve ‘One New York, Rising Together.’ So, I’m back. I am a planner. But as a planner I do look at parks very differently. Parks do not sit in isolation. There is an anatomy to a city. And the parks system is vital to a healthy and prosperous city. Since they do not sit in isolation, they’re connected to neighborhoods, to culture, to community identity. Planning and parks is about place, but it’s also about people, and we have to work together to ensure we fulfill that vision for the entire city. So parks are more than green spaces. They offer different things to different people. For some, they offer spiritual, physical, social, and economic benefits. And it’s my goal to help you help fulfill that vision for an outstanding parks system. My goal is to work with all New Yorkers, in all boroughs, in all neighborhoods, to make the parks system one that New York can be proud of for present and future generations. Thank you very much.

Mayor: Let me just—in the—in the spirit of the diversity that Mitch exemplifies, I will now offer a few words en español.

Nuestro gobierno está dedicado a asegurar que todos los neoyorquinos tengan acceso a areas verdes, limpias, y seguras, sin importar dónde viven. Este departamento se encarga de cuidar 29,000 acres de terrenos públicos. El departamento de parques supervisa casi el 14% de esta ciudad. Y nadie está más calificado que Mitch Silver para inaugurar una nueva era de mayor acceso y parques más sostenibles.

With that, we welcome your on-topic questions first.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: I’m going to start and then the commissioner can add erudition and insight. I think the notion of protecting our coastline, protecting our neighborhoods, being more resilient, goes hand in hand with the development of green spaces along our waterfront. Look, the Bloomberg administration put forward a vision for resiliency. Everyone here knows I have no trouble – I had no trouble disagreeing with the administration when I thought they were wrong and I had no trouble agreeing when I thought they were right. I thought they were right about the vision that included an emphasis on wetlands, an emphasis on dune restoration – a lot of the more organic approaches that I think help to make us resilient so that certainly goes hand in hand with deepening our commitment to parks and coastal areas. I think the reality of today’s life and government is we have to do a lot of things at the same time with the resources we have. So, resiliency’s going to run through everything we do – in parks, in city planning, in what the buildings department does – in everything we do, but we also know that we have a tremendous opportunity because of that mentality to take everything we’re doing and make sure it is performing the work of resiliency. Please.

Commissioner Silver: I agree with everything the mayor said. You certainly want to balance all the needs of the city to determine what is best moving forward. Clearly, resiliency is important to the city. It’s important to almost every city in this country. And I firmly believe that I want to work with some of the other departments to see how we can leverage resources across the city to see how we can both protect our shores for resiliency but also make sure we have resources for. So it’s something I’m committed to doing and it’s something I’ll look into further once I’m fully on-board and can look at the specific needs of some of the issues on the waterfront. I can say I served on the Rebuild by Design jury and as a result of the work that HUD is doing, I’m very fascinated by some of the schemes that they’re coming up with on how they can protect both New York and the entire region from resiliency. Over two third of the population that are vulnerable live within a half mile of the flood plain, so certainly we have to balance those needs against the critical needs of neighborhood parks throughout our city.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Yeah, we – first, on Union Square, I have to be straightforward with you, I don’t know all the details. We are reviewing the situation and we’ll have more to say on that soon. On the bigger issue, it’s a conundrum that we have to be honest about. We are not only faced with a bigger governmental challenge because of what’s happened to our economy, what’s happened to the federal government and the lack of commitment to our cities – we’re faced with an immediate fiscal challenge because of the open labor contracts and the unpredictability of both the state and the federal budget dynamics. So, you know, I’ve tried to be very sober about only making commitments I knew we could follow up on until a lot of these issues are resolved. So that leads us to the question – what could we do with the resources we have? And where is it appropriate to engage outside resources? There are some cases where it is but I think the standard we set is that we have to have the maximum public benefit whenever we’re engaging private resources and we don’t get that benefit if we’re not willing to proceed. I think that’s a profound difference from the approach of the previous administration. So, whoever it is, thank you. So, we have to create financial sustainability for our parks. And, again, sometimes there’ll be ways of working with private partners but it has to be on the public’s terms.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: I’m sure you’ll have a good time talking to the author of that idea who’s sitting right there – Senator Squadron – I think it is an important and promising idea. I’ve said all along, we have to recognize the inequalities in our parks, like some of the other parts of life in New York City, and we have to address them. I think Senator Squadron offered a very productive and creative idea. How you specifically engineer something like that – it has to be worked on with the stakeholders involved. You know, sometimes when the good idea is offered, people rush to the assumption that it will be imposed without dialogue. We believe in having a real dialogue with the stakeholders to figure out what will work. But I can tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like the status quo. I don’t like the notion – there’s a lot of parks in our city in less advantaged neighborhoods that aren’t doing well. And the parks aren’t those clean, safe places we want them to be. And we have to find ways to address it and I think the senator offered an important contribution to that dialogue.

Question: [inaudible] weigh in on that [inaudible]

Commissioner Silver: Well, first, the first step you want to find out is that you have legal authority to actually make a proposal like that happen. But certainly, there's a goal, and I agree with the mayor, we want to first start with a conversation, to find out how we could ensure that all parks benefit. There are probably many ways to get there, but I think we all agree that to have a successful parks system in our city, it has to be a great parks system throughout the entire city. So, we're going to start – I'm going to start with a conversation, bring the conservancies to the table. I'm sure there are many ways we can get to the same goal, but I do believe it is a good goal, but there are many avenues to get there. The 21st century requires creative ways of funding, places across the country are trying to find different models about how to fund parks, and so the status quo is not working. I agree with the mayor. But there are many examples that we're going to explore, sitting down with the conservancies, to find out how to start to fund and maintain parks in the 21st century.

Mayor: I want to pick up on the goal point. The goal is a more equitable approach to our parks. So let's start with what the goal of everything, what Commissioner Silver is going to work on, what I'm working on: a more equitable approach – meaning, we can't have parks that are so underfunded, in some of our least advantaged neighborhoods, that people can't have a good experience there. And unfortunately that is the case in many parts of the city. That's a status quo we won't accept. One of the most interesting ideas we put on the table is the one that Senator Squadron put forward. We're going to sit with the conservancies and talk that through, and we're going to listen for other ideas too. No one has said that we're closed in this matter. We want to find a way to get this done. We don't have the illusion of a lot of new resources available in the here and now through traditional budgeting process. So we've got to find other alternatives, we've got to look at every creative alternative, and we will work with the conservancies. We honor the conservancies. We honor what they do and what they've achieved. But we also have to figure a way to deep the commitment to parks that aren't doing as well. I actually think when a lot of folks who do donate to parks see that there's a chance to help out other parks, get to know those parks and those communities and understand what their involvement could mean for a lot of people who don't have as much opportunity, I actually think you'll find a lot of people are excited at that opportunity to help, and be part of another neighborhood too, and that's the direction we want to go in. 

Question: Is one of those options giving, or leasing, or selling land?

Mayor: Well, you know, we believe parkland is sacred. And there's been a few proposals over time for private uses on parkland. As I've said, we take – we set a very very high bar. They're fairly rare, let's be clear about that, there's not that many instances, but we set a very high bar in terms of what the public needs in such an equation. So, there are a few instances I've been involved with – Brooklyn Bridge Park, for example, which I think is one of the most exciting things happening in parks in this city, 80 new acres when it's fully built out. I think it's going to have a transcendent impact on a whole swath of Brooklyn. There is some private sector development in that park to sustain what is a very costly park, because it's built over the water in some places. I think that's fair, so long as it's only the development needed for sustainability, and so that supports a lot of additional acreage for the entire public to use. So, there may be situations like that, that we can feel good about. But the bar is set very high.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Well, Flushing Meadows, I said clearly that we did not accept the original proposal, you know, that it was not giving enough back to the community. It's as simple as that, that you know, a proposal is put forward– I would add, by a very well-endowed organization – that didn't give the community enough back in terms of replacement parkland, or sustainability for Flushing Meadows Park. It's a thousand acre park, it's not in the greatest shape, you know, if there had been enough in that plan to truly help the people in the community, and the sustainability of that park, that would have been worth serious consideration. But the plan put forward didn't do that. Obviously, the folks behind that plan have now moved on to another location. It's about setting the bar high, and putting the public's interest first in any such equation. 


Question: I'm sure you both know that, when you arrived today [inaudible]?

Mayor: [inaudible]

Question: [inaudible] enough staff, enough money [inaudible] 

Mayor: Thank you.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: I couldn't agree more, thank you. So, we're on – you go first….Media? I'm sorry, I thought she was media, she wasn't media. Are you media? Let me just – no? Let me stay with media. 

Question: [inaudible] moving forward about horses in Central Park?

Mayor: Let me lead in, and say, look, the position of this administration was made, first of all, before there was this administration, the position was made very, very clear, and something that the public ratified in the election. We're moving forward on that position. I emphasize, we want to work with the existing stakeholders. As we transition, I believe the electric cars, the replica old-fashioned electric cars, are going to be a great solution, and can provide real employment opportunities, a clean alternative, and a more humane alternative. So, that's the direction we're moving in. Obviously, the decisions around that have to do with a lot of stakeholders, City Council and others are part of that decision process, before you even talk about the parks department, but that's the vision we're working from.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: A what, I'm sorry?

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Ah, OK. I was hoping you'd [inaudible] 

Question: [inaudible] 

Mayor: I wish I knew the details, I don't. I'd be happy to learn about it, and have something to say, but I don't know about it at this point. Do you know anything about [inaudible]? OK, we are sharing our ignorance on this one. Off-topic. Off-topic.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: You're leading the witness, counselor. I've been going to the Somos conference for years. I think it represents an important platform to talk about issues related to the latino community, and that's what I'll do. Sally. 

Question: [inaudible] –

Mayor: Yes.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Well, I've had a change of heart, because there's a new administration, meaning I think we're going to do a lot of the other things that have to be done to fulfill a larger vision of fairness towards our small businesses. So, the original actions taken by the City Council that are being talked about today, I think, are good in and of themselves, because they help to clarify fairness in the grading process. I think that's a good thing. I think the grades per say are a good concept, but they lacked fairness and consistency, and we heard from innumerable small business owners about instances they had of unequal treatment, and I think the action taken by the Council will help to address that. But that is one piece of a much bigger equation, that's what I was trying to say last year, and I believe it still today. We have to do a lot more to change the orientation of city agencies from a punitive one to one of educating and working with small business, and that's something you're going to see a lot more on from us in the next few weeks. 

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: I don't know the chapter and verse. I know it's a serious economic situation. I know that we value – I certainly value – CitiBike. I think it’s proven to be very helpful to a lot people in this city and our goal is to expand it farther out into the city, into the outer boroughs. They do have real economic challenges that they're facing. Our transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, is going to work with CitiBike, looking for ways that we can be in collaboration with them, find ways to make their operation more efficient, more effective. And we want to see them succeed.

Question: [inaudible] 

Mayor: Hold on, hold on a sec.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: At this moment, that's not in our plans. We want to see what we can do to help them back on their feet, using other methodologies. 

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: I feel the same way I've felt from the beginning. The plan that we put forward to tax folks that make a half million or more, for pre-K and after-school, was based on very clear precedent. The Safe Streets, Safe City tax, from the 1990s, the tax that was put forward by the mayor after 9/11 – Mayor Bloomberg, after 9/11 – to stabilize the city's dynamics. There's a clear precedent for the City of New York declaring that it has a particular need, getting approval from Albany to raise revenue from our own people. I believe that made sense all along. I still believe it's the single most sustainable revenue source. By the way, look at those two examples I gave, Safe Streets Safe City with a seven year plan, it played out over seven years, it lapsed on time. It made a profound impact on safety in this city. And you think this is a safe city today, and it is, that was the first giant step towards safety. This city got back on its feet after 9/11, because Mayor Bloomberg was right to ask for the ability to raise the revenue we needed to stabilize our finances and move forward. So, I think what I proposed is very much in that vein, and that tax, when the mayor proposed, the Mayor Bloomberg proposal, was a three year tax that lapsed on time as well. So, Mayor Dinkins proposed a seven year tax, lapsed on time. Mayor Bloomberg proposed a three year tax, lapsed on time. So, I think there's such a clear precedent for it, and for the reliability of it, that I still think it's the right way to go. I understand the dynamics in Albany, and we've said repeatedly, if we get the resources we need in a reliable fashion, we can move forward with full-day pre-k for every child in this city, and after-school for every middle-school student, and that's what we're preparing to do right now. 

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: We've got a lot going on. We've got a lot that we have to deal with each day. A lot of unexpected things come up each day, and we make sure that we deal with all of the people's business, and we make sure when we get here, we are fully prepared. 

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: You know, Marcia, I think the important thing here is, when you get elected to do a job like this, responsible to 8.4 million people, with every conceivable subject matter that we have to deal with, my job is to do the best for the people. I don't get hung up about, you know, some of the things I see in the media. My job is to deliver for the people, to choose the best available people for each role, and this is an area where I am so proud that we've found great talented people for so many city agencies, to move policies that foster equality, and fight against inequality, such as the paid sick leave bill yesterday, which I was honored to have as the first piece of legislation that I signed – that's what matters. The rest is noise. What matters is getting the job done for the people.

Question: Going back to CitiBike for a second, you mentioned that city funding is right now not on the table. Can you talk about what options you’re looking at that provide more funds to CitiBike?

Mayor: Well, we – what Commissioner Trottenberg is doing is sitting down with the folks from CitiBike and saying, what would help in terms of the way things are structured now, what would help you financially, with all the other possibilities that may be there. And we’re open to any proposal they have – again, at this moment, city budget money is not on the table, but we’re open to other alternatives that might  be helpful.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: If we can find that, that certainly would be great, but the point I think it’s a valuable service. It’s proven to be a success. We want to see it continue, we want to see it expand, and we’re going to work with them to find alternatives that will help get that done.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Again, I’m not – as you can tell – I’m not getting into details because those discussion haven’t begun in earnest.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: I think he's a really smart guy, I really do. I've talked to him about his plan. There's some interesting and innovative ideas in it. The plan that was put forward, I think it was 2008, I did not agree with. I didn't think it was fair to the outer boroughs. And right now, we are obviously working on a number of other priorities. But I do want to say, that plan, at least that Sam Ford's put forward, was an honest and positive contribution to the dialogue, and I look forward to talking to him more about it. 

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: I've never been in favor of tolling the East River bridges. 

Question: [inaudible] hurricane recovery efforts [inaudible] Where are you on that? What can you tell me [inaudible] hear more about how Hurricane Sandy [inaudible]?

Mayor: I think there's a lot that we're going to put forward in the coming days. I think it's simple and obvious that a lot of people are hurting. They haven't gotten the support they need from government. We have to do a lot better. We are going to change the structure of this city's approach. We're going to change some of the personnel. We're going to change some of the procedures. You're going to see a very different look when we unveil it. We can't leave people behind in this process. We have to reach out to folks who have been affected much more consistently, and that's what you'll see when we make our announcement. Thank you, everyone. 

De Blasio Administration Appoints Mitchell Silver As Parks Commissioner