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New York Times
April 27, 2005

Keeping Great Crowds Off Central Park's Great Lawn


Francesca Keeler, 5, seemed to have Central Park's Great Lawn to herself Tuesday.

The city's Parks Department wants to limit gatherings on the Great Lawn in Central Park to 50,000 people, a move that would end an era in which hundreds of thousands of people turned to the park as a place to protest, or to see the pope, Pavarotti and Simon and Garfunkel, officials said yesterday.

The proposal, which has not been widely disseminated and requires no other approval but the department's, would also cap the number of events on the Great Lawn to six each year, with four of those reserved for the annual performances of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Parks officials say those musical programs draw "passive" audiences who go easy on the lawn's Kentucky bluegrass.

The other two events would have to be held during a four-week period in August and September.

The Parks Department said the rules would simply formalize what has been its informal policy since 1997, when the city spent $18.2 million to restore the 13-acre Great Lawn, which for years had been more dust bowl than lawn.

But Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, acknowledged that he was led to formalize the rules by the city's court battle last summer with an antiwar group that sought to use the lawn for a rally that was expected to draw as many as 250,000 people.

"You have two choices," Mr. Benepe said. "You can have unlimited, large-scale events, or you can have nice grass, but you can't have both.

"It was unlimited use that destroyed the park in the old days, so if you want the city's backyard to be in good shape, you have got to put limitations on its use," the commissioner said.

Opponents of the policy, however, say something is lost if Luciano Pavarotti cannot sing before a half-million people in the park as he did in 1993, or the pope can no longer celebrate Mass for 125,000, as John Paul II did in 1995.

"We've got to make sure, that No. 1, the limits are for the greater good and not meant to deter certain groups," said Councilwoman Helen Foster, chairwoman of the City Council's Parks and Recreation Committee. "We've got to make sure that we are not limiting what we expose New York City residents to."

The Parks Department published its proposed new rules on April 18 in The City Record, a daily publication in which city agencies announce public hearings. The policy change would not require the approval of the Council, although the department has scheduled a public hearing on the issue for May 20 at the Chelsea Recreation Center.

Currently, the Parks Department does not expressly limit the number of people allowed on the Great Lawn for gatherings, and there are no limits on the number of events held there. Permission to assemble is granted case by case when groups apply for permits. Any group with more than 20 people requires a permit.

The Great Lawn is the only spot in the park where gatherings of more than 50,000 people have been permitted in recent years. A concert by the Philharmonic or an opera performance draws a maximum of about 50,000, representatives from the organizations said; the last big event on the lawn, a 2003 concert by the Dave Matthews Band, drew 80,000.

The new policy would limit events on the lawn to a four-week period from the third week of August through the second week of September, with the exception of the opera and Philharmonic performances, which are held annually in June and July. Mr. Benepe said the monthlong window for new events was intended to give the grass a chance to recover between big gatherings.

A spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, which lost its fight with the city last August to hold a huge antiwar rally on the Great Lawn during the Republican National Convention, said the proposed rules were aimed squarely at preventing groups like his from holding large political demonstrations in the park.

"This would set in stone their institutional attitude about protests," said the spokesman, Bill Dobbs. "In Manhattan, nearly every square foot is covered with buildings, so the park is the town common, where people have assembled for generations. Now the Bloomberg administration is seeking to maintain it as a lawn museum."

The group has received a permit for a May 1 rally at the Heckscher Ballfields in the park to support global nuclear disarmament and end the war in Iraq. Mr. Dobbs said that as many as 50,000 people were expected to attend the protest. The fields are scheduled to be restored this fall, and after that large gatherings there would be prohibited, parks officials said.

Mr. Dobbs said it was particularly unfair that so many of the large-scale events on the Great Lawn would be opera and Philharmonic performances. "To give the symphony and opera four of the six - the bulk of them - shows the class of people whose interests are being protected," he said.

But the city makes distinctions between what it calls passive users (those who sit, drink wine and listen) and active users (those who dance, march or simply stand on the park's delicate grass).

Mr. Benepe said that while classical-music lovers have caused almost no harm to the Great Lawn over the years, the Dave Matthews concert caused $120,000 worth of damage to the grass.

"The day of the mega-event is over in Central Park," said Mr. Benepe, who added that the Matthews concert had taught him a lesson.

In the park yesterday, the proposed changes received a mixed reaction.

Morgan Storms, 26, a fifth grade teacher, said the rules did not make much sense.

"It seems awfully silly to base a law like that on grass that will grow back," said Ms. Storms. "It's like cutting your hair. It grows back, right?"

But Gavin Keeler, 42, a legal assistant playing soccer with his two young daughters, remembered the bad old days, when a walk across the Great Lawn sometimes meant a face full of dust.

"If it's a question between six events a year that are not going to harm it, and a couple of free-for-alls that are going to harm it, I'll take the limits," he said.

Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass for 125,000 people on the Great Lawn in 1995.
Events of that size would no longer be allowed under new rules.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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