Billionaire John Paulson’s $100 million donation to New York’s Central Park Conservancy threw into relief inequities between parks frequented by the wealthy and those in less affluent neighborhoods.
Paulson said the gift, announced Oct. 23, would enhance the city’s most democratic institution, enjoyed by 40 million visitors a year. The founder of Paulson & Co., a New York-based hedge fund, said he played in the park as a child. Now, at 56, he enjoys a treetop view of its expanse from his residence on Fifth Avenue.
The conservancy, a private nonprofit organization that manages and raises money for the park, said the contribution was the largest donation to any park anywhere and will add $50 million to what had been a $144 million endowment. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is among several who credit the conservancy, created in 1980, with saving the 843-acre (341-hectare) tract from years of underfunding and neglect.
Yet many of the city’s 1,700 other parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities, which attract fewer visitors, languish, advocates say.
“It’s wonderful that Central Park received this great gift but it doesn’t address the underfunding of its other parks,” said Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, a watchdog group. “What this donation does is highlight the enormous disparity between the haves and have-nots.”
The gift won’t mean more money for other parks in the city, Bloomberg said at a press briefing where Paulson’s donation was announced. The donation “doesn’t mean we’re going to transfer any money from one place to another,” the mayor said. The city remains committed to funding and maintaining all its parks, the mayor said.
Dena Libner, a spokeswoman for the conservancy, declined to comment on the disparity in park funding.
New York devoted about $338 million, less than 0.5 percent of its $68.5 billion operating budget this year, to its 29,000-acre park system, down from $380 million. The city budget supports about 15 percent of Central Park’s $45 million annual operating costs, according to the conservancy website.
“Overall condition ratings declined slightly in the city’s parks,” according to the mayor’s management report, by 2 percentage points to 82 percent; 88 percent were rated acceptable, the same as last year. “Both ratings remained below their respective performance targets,” the report said.
By comparison, the Chicago Park District, a semi-autonomous authority funded through dedicated property taxes, revenue from facilities such as Soldier Field and private donations, intends to spend $407 million on its 7,800-acre system, plus more than $80 million in capital improvements, said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman. Los Angeles spends $189.5 million of its $7.2 billion budget on parks.
New York City plans $595 million in capital spending from municipal-bond sales through 2016. It has used more than $1.5 billion in such funds since 2002 to improve facilities and create new parks, according to the parks department, including one near the Brooklyn Bridge, which has its own conservancy. It has also developed the 2,200-acre site of the former Freshkills landfill on Staten Island; and along waterfronts in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, said Julie Wood, a mayoral spokeswoman.
Private foundations and trusts have been created to support the Hudson River Park on the west side of Manhattan and the High Line, a landscaped promenade on a former elevated rail line that extends from Greenwich Village through part of Chelsea. Such public-private partnerships work only for parks located in affluent neighborhoods, Croft said.
From the time Bloomberg took office in 2002, the city has spent $345 million in capital improvements in Manhattan parks, $13 million less than in Queens, which got the most capital spending in the five boroughs, according to the Parks Department.
The city has added more than 700 acres of parkland during the mayor’s tenure, said Zachary Feder, a parks spokesman. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“This is the largest era of city-funded parks expansion” in New York’s history, he said.
In fiscal 2013, the city has earmarked $28.8 million for parks in Manhattan, almost double the amount in the Bronx, which has more than twice as much park acreage. The city budgeted $25.3 million for parks in Queens, $23.4 million for Brooklyn and $10.2 million for Staten Island. Staffing in city parks has declined 25 percent since 2009, to 5,744 employees.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a 1,255-acre expanse in Queens that was the site of the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1964, is marred by barren fields where grass once grew and shuttered recreation facilities “where the city could easily spend $100 million,” Croft said.
Ferry Point Park in the Bronx “now functions as a public toilet,” Croft said, after officials reduced staff, abandoned ball fields and closed public restrooms. “Without any security or supervision, men set up roulette tables for open-air gambling,” he said.
Central Park, too, suffered from neglect before the conservancy took over funding and management. “A dust bowl,” is how Croft described the Sheep Meadow, now an emerald green grass carpet. A running track around the Central Park Reservoir, formerly a bumpy mix of stones and mud, now attracts joggers by the hundreds.
Paulson’s gift “is a good thing not just for Central Park but for parks generally because it highlights how important parks are to people,” said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy organization.
“It also puts the onus on the city to make sure there’s enough money in the maintenance budget to properly maintain the 1,700 other parks that can’t draw this level of private funding,” Leicht said.
The best solution to the problem of funding all the parks would be the creation of a citywide conservancy-like institution to attract private and public funding, said Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat who heads the City Council’s Parks and Recreation committee and whose Manhattan district of East Harlem includes a portion of Central Park.
“The challenge is to prevent our parks from becoming a two-tiered system where some have conservancies and some don’t,” said Mark-Viverito.
“We can’t have the city walking away from its obligation and responsibility for upkeep and maintenance,” she said. “That’s not the message we should be sending.”