Enter the Conservancy

In 1979, Davis tapped Yale-trained city planner, writer and Olmsted expert Elizabeth Barlow (later Rogers) as the first Central Park administrator. Barlow soon saw what David was up against. As she recalls: “Parks was a traditional dumping ground for political hacks… When Gordon came, he began to ship out some of the dead wood and began slowly to build up an administration.” [5]

Although a city appointee, part of Barlow’s job was to raise private funds to support her office. Beginning with less than $100,000 (donated by the Astor Foundation), she hired an environmentalist and a horticulturalist, and brought in summer interns with horticultural training. [6] In the first year, she initiated small-scale restoration projects, both to signal to New Yorkers that the park was a valued civic amenity on the mend and to demonstrate to potential donors that their philanthropy would be well placed.

The next year, (Barlow) Rogers was named president of the newly-created Central Park Conservancy, formed through the merger of the Central Park Community Fund and the Central Park Task Force. Rogers was in an unusual position. She was to fundraise from the private sector, designate effective ways to use those private dollars for public good, and maintain good relations between donors and the city. She recalls:

Some of my fellow advocacy people said the private should always be private. [They said] you can’t criticize the city if you are connected somehow, if you are part of city government... I said, ‘I don’t want to be critical. I want to work with the city.’

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers: video.

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and Gordon Davis

William Beineke was named the Conservancy’s first chairman. Mayor Koch assured him that, as the nonprofit raised funds from private sources, the city would not reduce its financial commitment to the park. The city provided most of the funds for the park during the Conservancy’s first years. The Conservancy initiated numerous projects: restoration of the Bethesda and Cherry Hill fountains, re-sodding the Sheep Meadow, renovation of the Belvedere Castle, and rescuing ball fields and playgrounds. It also commissioned a comprehensive study of the park. The resulting report, Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan , became the playbook for the park’s rejuvenation.

Davis could not be sure that restructuring the Parks Department’s administrative staff would be effective. Rather, he saw it as something of an experiment. He says:

I learned that there was something, not quite magical but very dramatic, that began to happen when you decentralized authority. Instead of everything having to come to the commissioner, you start pushing it down and creating people in charge of pieces of it who have a sense of their own, the breadth of authority you're willing… to delegate to them. You begin to have more efficient things begin to happen, more innovation. So Central Park for me was a test case for that.

Partners . Commissioner Davis and Administrator Rogers were aware of the delicacy required to create a public-private partnership. Davis, for one, was adamant about keeping the city’s relationship with the Conservancy fluid, eschewing formal contracts or announcements that might suggest the city was ceding control of the property to the private sector. As he recalls: “There was no lease. There was no license agreement. There wasn’t anything.”

Initially, relations between the specialized Conservancy staff and longtime city parks workers were tense. The existing staff needed retraining, new uniforms, proper equipment and support. Over time, through budget cuts and attrition, the city workforce dwindled and the Conservancy’s grew. By the mid-1990s, Central Park was staffed about equally by public and private employees. As Central Park administrator and head of the Conservancy, Rogers saw the civil service workforce as mostly unproductive and unaccountable; she preferred the flexibility of a nonunion, private workforce. AFSCME DC 37 tried unsuccessfully to organize the Conservancy rank and file in the 1990s.

Landscape architect Doug Blonsky joined the Conservancy in 1985 as director of capital projects. In 1995, he became chief of operations for the park and took charge of both Conservancy and Parks Department staff. “That was actually the first time a Conservancy person was doing that,” he remembers. [7] “It was a real culture shock for people, because we quickly came out with a new way of managing the park.” Over the next few years, he organized it into 49 geographic zones, coordinated maintenance under a master restoration and management plan, and reorganized the workforce into units accountable for the condition of their zones.

By the late 1990s, the Conservancy had an impressive track record of improvements and Central Park was widely seen as having made a comeback. Part of the turnaround was due to the Conservancy’s strategic planning and adept management. In addition to its fund raising prowess, the Conservancy was well positioned to garner city funds for capital projects. Recalls Blonsky:

We were very good at having projects truly shovel-ready and prepared.  We would do the designs, have the plans complete, and then at the end of the fiscal year, City Hall would go to the Parks Department and say we have this pot of money, do you have any projects ready to go? It was a great way for us to get city money into the park, as well as a way of leveraging private dollars, because we’d pay for those designs with private dollars.

Douglas Blonsky: video.

Management . In 1998, the Central Park Conservancy signed a formal management agreement with the city. The Conservancy would report to the Parks Department, then under Commissioner Henry Stern. Under the eight-year deal, the Conservancy would receive an annual fee of up to $4 million from the city to manage the park and would be responsible for raising funds for capital projects and maintenance. [8] At the time of the agreement, Central Park was receiving roughly $3 million from the Department of Parks and Recreation budget. [9] The Conservancy accounted for expenses differently from the city, using just one consolidated budget. Blonsky explains:

We don’t even look at it… as capital [versus] maintenance…  We don’t even separate the two. Because we don’t own anything at the end of the day anyway, so we don’t have a real capital project. It’s all maintenance... When we look at the budget, we look at it as one large budget.

There were some objections. The private nonprofit might not be as responsive to park users as the city. The dependence on private funds might lead to a two-tiered system, with fewer resources and political backing for parks in poorer areas. For example, the chairman of the Prospect Park Alliance, a nonprofit patterned on the CPC, worried that the agreement might cause well-heeled Central Park supporters to cease contributions to the city parks system as a whole. Some saw the move as a way for the city to work around the unions. But the bottom line for Deputy Commissioner Robert Garafola was that the Parks Department retained the final say in any relationship with the private sector. He notes:

You don’t want to lose control of the facility. If we have a concession, we will regulate that. There are contracts. There are compliance issues. There’s auditing issues. We have representation on that. We monitor the prices… Also, we make sure they’re doing a capital investment in those particular parks. [10]

Robert Garafola: video.

The NYC-CPC contract was renewed for another eight years in 2006, and again in 2013. [11] In 2011, the Central Park Conservancy had revenue of about $47 million and spent about $40 million. By 2013, the Conservancy had raised about $700 million toward restoring and running the park; it was footing about 75 percent of the park’s $58 million annual budget. Its endowment stood at  $183 million. Through its Institute for Urban Parks, the Conservancy spread the word on PPPs and the running of urban parks. The park’s renaissance was also paying dividends for the local economy. A 2009 analysis by Appleseed Inc. estimated that, in 2007, the “Central Park effect” added $17.7 billion to the value of properties around the park. Those park-side/area properties were valued that year at $114 billion, more than half the $218 billion for all of Manhattan.

Unequal . However, not all New York parks had fared as well. The city’s parklands, including state and federal, made up a higher percentage of total acreage—19.7 percent—than in other large US cities, but that worked out to a relatively low 4.6 acres per capita. More than a decade into the Central Park Conservancy’s operation, the majority of city parks and playgrounds continued to be in dire shape. During the 1990s, the overstretched Parks Department made heavy use of workfare labor—putting welfare recipients to work—employing as many as 6,700 in 1998 when the fulltime Parks Department roster was down to just over 2,000. But it was still insufficient.

As early as the 1990s, there were calls for changes in parks funding, whether through additional private involvement, increased use of workfare, or new taxes. The Parks Department and the Conservancy jointly proposed “park enhancement districts”: special property tax assessment zones around certain parks. The concept was similar to the “business improvement district” model used since the 1980s for New York’s Bryant Park. One advocacy group, the Parks Council, called for a citywide dedicated parks tax, an approach already in use in other US cities. [12]

But at least one new park project found a model in the CPC.

[5] Authors’ interview with Elizabeth Barlow Rogers on February 12, 2014, in New York City. All further quotes from Rogers, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[6] The 1981 Central Park Conservancy Annual Report lists a $30,000 gift from the Vincent Astor Foundatoin for the design of Phase II of the dairy restoration, along with other five- and six-figure donations for restoration design projects.

[7] Authors’ interview with Doug Blonsky on February 12, 2014, at the Central Park Conservancy in New York City. All further quotes from Blonsky, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[8] The city’s payments would average $3.7 million.

[9] Douglas Martin, “Private Group Signs Central Park Deal to be its Manager,” New York Times , February 12, 1998.

[10] Authors’ interview with Robert Garafola on February 28, 2014 in New York City. All further quotes from Garafola, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[11] Under the 1998 management agreement between the Central Park Conservancy and the city, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration agreed to dedicate half of park concession revenues between $6 and $10 million to the Conservancy (for a maximum of $2 million); revenues up to $6 million would continue to go to the city’s general fund. In 2006, the city lifted the $10 million cap ($2 million maximum) on splitting Central Park concession revenues with the Conservancy.

[12] Douglas Martin, “Trying New Ways to Save Decaying Parks,” New York Times , November 15, 1994.