A Woman's Vision and Dream Turns Central Park 'Green'

New York's oasis was reborn thanks to public and private funding

On one of those perfect fall afternoons in New York City, a man walks through the heavily wooded section of Central Park. He has no dog, no companion, not even a Walkman. Still, he is alive with energy, enraptured by the surroundings. "How do they do it?" he asks. "How do they keep this park so beautiful? That a place like this can exist in the middle of our asphalt jungle is amazing."

It wasn't always so. The 843 acres upon which landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed his masterpiece was little more than a rocky swamp inhabited by squatters, before it opened in 1873. And only two decades ago, the park was so ugly, smelly, and decrepit, that even on sunny days homeless people found other places to hang out.

In the late 1970s, Central Park had been left to rot by New York City, which, because of a financial crisis, was on the brink of bankruptcy. "Hundreds of trees had never seen a pruning fork since they'd been planted," says Neil Calvanese, the park's chief of horticulture. "Light bulbs went for weeks without being replaced. Grass? Hah! Lawns were covered in weeds. It was a barren wasteland."

Plan to save park

It still might be a barren wasteland, had it not been for Betsy Barlow Rogers, a city native, an author, and a Yale University graduate with a degree in urban planning. Rogers loved the park, and she devised a novel plan to save it: Start an organization to run the park using money from private donners.

Most people thought Ms. Rogers was unrealistic. No other park in the country operated that way, and the bureaucratic nightmares of operating a public-private partnership with New York City's byzantine government surely would be impossible.

But none of that fazed Rogers, and after sending her plan to then-Mayor Ed Koch, she was given a chance. With nothing to lose, in 1980 Koch named Rogers the first Central Park administrator. Rogers promptly founded the Central Park Conservancy, and her first order of business was to raise her own salary.

That wasn't a problem. Before last January, when Rogers retired and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed Karen Putnam the new Central Park administrator, the Conservancy had cajoled $140 million out of New York City's wealthiest residents and corporations, and used the money to return the park to its status as one of the city's most used and beloved landmarks.

Success has exceeded expectations. The most recent capital campaign started three years ago with a goal of $77.2 million in the bank. "New Yorkers have showed how much they love the park," says Ms. Putnam. "The Conservancy is exciting proof that public-private partnerships can work."

One reason for the Conservancy's success - and why the city has given them so much autonomy in managing the park - is that they run a streamlined operation. Administrative costs take only 20 cents out of each dollar raised.

That leaves enough cash to fund two-thirds of the park's $14.5 million annual operating budget, a variety of educational, recreational, and community programs, and restoration of the park's natural landscapes and historical structures.

Cornucopia of activities

And there is a lot more to fund than most of Central Park's 15 million annual visitors realize. Did you know the park has 22 playgrounds, a zoo, a chess and checkers house, a croquet pitch, two ice skating rinks, two restaurants, 30 tennis courts, a swimming pool, a reservoir, two theaters, 58 miles of pedestrian paths, 1,400 species of trees, shrubs, and flowers, and a pond for fishing (the Harlem Meer) that's stocked with large mouth bass, bluegill, and catfish?

"Not since Central Park opened in 1873 has it looked so magnificent or had so much going on," says Sara Seeder-Miller, the park's historian and photographer.

A problem, though, is that too much has been going on. In the last few years, the Conservancy has opened the park to events like the world premire of Disney's "Pocahontas" and a pro beach volleyball tournament. Hosting such events puts millions of dollars into Conservancy coffers, but also compromises the park's image and angers people who are forced to find other places to play and relax.

"We are going to take a hard look at big events in the future," says Putnam. "It can't be business as usual or people will lose trust in us."

They also might stop contributing, something Putnam fears might happen regardless of what type of events the park allows. Since 1986, the Conservancy has been administrating a restoration project that includes most of the park's major landscapes and buildings. Every contribution is earmarked for a specific project, and big donors get structures and areas renamed in their honor. The goal is to have the work completed by 2000. So far, things are proceeding on schedule, with the biggest part of the restoration, a two-year, $18.2 million refurbishment of the 55-acre Great Lawn, scheduled to be completed next summer.

Funding for maintenance

After the renovations, however, the park will have to be maintained. And persuading people to donate money for maintenance doesn't have the same appeal as it does for restoration. "Soon the goal will be to protect what we've done," says Putnam. "That'll be the real test."

Putnam knows that donations alone won't cover regular maintenance costs, which, if done properly, will add millions to the park's current budget.

Putnam has a few ideas to generate new cash streams. One is to begin routing concession revenues, which last year totaled $4.25 million, to the park. Now, every penny from concession sales goes directly into city coffers, not the park's. Putnam would also like to expand the scope of contributors - now mostly companies and wealthy individuals - to include a cross section of the city's population.

But, like Betsy Rogers, Putnam is not afraid of a few roadblocks. She knows that the Conservancy is an idea that works, and one that has been copied by parks from San Francisco to Atlanta to Europe.

"I hope we can provide encouragement and be a model to parks all over the world," says Putnam. "No matter what anybody says, it can be done."

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