January 18, 2016
By Michael M. Grynbaum
For Mayor Bill de Blasio, it was a bare-knuckle political fight, complete with arm-twisting appeals to lawmakers and labor negotiations lasting late into the night.
By Monday morning, City Hall had a deal — although not for more affordable housing, higher wages or any of this liberal mayor’s top priorities.
This one was about the horses.
Two years after he embraced the polarizing cause of ending the Midtown horse-carriage trade, a request of some of his most generous campaign supporters, Mr. de Blasio is set to reduce the size of the industry and confine its horses to Central Park.
The agreement, which must be approved by the City Council, ensures that Mr. de Blasio’s legacy does not include eliminating a Victorian-era institution still broadly popular with the public. But the easing of one mayoral headache could be the start of many more, as parks advocates, carriage drivers and even some animal-rights supporters expressed concerns.
The deal also underlined the transactional side of a mayor who says he is on a mission to liberalize New York City, even as his efforts are propelled in part by wealthy contributors tied to special interests.
As a candidate, Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, pledged to eliminate the carriages on Day 1 of his administration after equine-rights activists, who say the industry is inhumane, spent roughly $1 million attacking his chief opponent in the 2013 Democratic primary, Christine C. Quinn.
The mayor said on Monday that he did not specifically recall the last time he visited Central Park. But he said he would direct millions of dollars in public funds to create a commercial stable from an existing building near the 85th Street Transverse, startling parks advocates who questioned the use of cherished parkland for a private concern.
To secure the deal, City Hall also agreed to prohibit pedicabs from operating in the park below 85th Street, eliminating a chief competitor to the horses. Pedicab owners, who rely on tourists, are now considering suing the city. There was no mention of replacing horses with electric antique replica cars, a much-derided element of a previous plan floated by the mayor.
Along Central Park South on Monday, the reaction from carriage drivers and pedicab runners was as biting as the mid-January air.
“The mayor just wants to please his supporters,” lamented Rasheed Karsavuran, standing by his horse Billy Bob at the park’s edge. “They think walking around the park is cruel? These horses are built to do it.”
Frankie Legarreta, 37, a veteran pedicab driver who lives in subsidized housing in Queens, said the change would deprive him of needed income. “You only get business above 85th Street once in a blue moon,” Mr. Legarreta said. The mayor, he added, “is just going to let all of us go on welfare.”
Mr. de Blasio defended his plan on Monday, saying the compromise would create a safer environment for the horses, who now live in stables on the West Side of Manhattan. The animals’ working hours would be reduced and their interactions with cars limited; he said their relocation would also reduce congestion in Midtown streets.
“This is going to be a solid change for this city on many levels,” the mayor said on Monday at a news conference in Brooklyn.
The deal shrinks the industry to 95 horses from the current 220, with 75 animals allowed to work in the park at a time. Carriages are now allowed to give rides on Midtown streets at certain evening hours; under the agreement, they could no longer do so.
The administration declined to give a cost to convert a park maintenance building into a new stable, but people involved in the deal said it was estimated to be $25 million. Mr. de Blasio called the expense “a worthy investment to fix up a building that we already own.” As for the pedicabs, he said he made an adjustment “for balance, and I think it’s a fair outcome.”
Still, Mr. de Blasio’s plan is likely to face opposition.
Central Park’s 843 acres are among the most fiercely protected in the city, and parks advocates were stunned. “This was not the way public parkland was intended to be used,” said Tupper Thomas, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.
Betsy Barlow Rogers, a founder of the Central Park Conservancy who led the park’s revitalization in the 1970s and ’80s, said, “It is like building a palace for a concessionaire.” The plan, she said, “absolutely must be opposed.”
The Conservancy, the nonprofit overseeing the park’s operations, was first contacted by the administration about the plan last week, a spokeswoman said. The disorganized pedicab industry had even less notice, and Gregg Zuman, a founder of the New York City Pedicab Owners Association, said he was talking with a lawyer about his options.
“It’s like orange farmers saying, ‘We’re going to ban tangerines now,’ ” Mr. Zuman said of the mayor’s plan. “It’s unbelievable that you would forcibly eliminate your competition.”
One crucial ally in City Hall’s corner is the Teamsters union, which represents the carriage drivers and negotiated with the administration. The Teamsters’ support is likely to ease opposition in the Council, where lawmakers, concerned about opposing a powerful union, rebuffed Mr. de Blasio’s earlier efforts to eliminate the carriages.
The wealthy animal-rights activists who introduced the issue of carriage horses to the mayor had yet to weigh in on Monday.
Stephen Nislick, a parking garage magnate, and Wendy Neu, a Manhattan businesswoman, gave $100,000 this year to Mr. de Blasio’s nonprofit group, and they spoke with the mayor directly on at least three occasions. But their group, Nyclass, has not yet issued a statement.