Central Park, Bucolic but Aging, Is in a Quest for $300 Million
July 13, 2016
By Robin Pogrebin
Belvedere Castle in Central Park looks indestructible, a fortress of stone presiding over the Great Lawn. But the 144-year-old-building leaks like a sieve.
“Rain pours into the building,” Douglas Blonsky, the president and chief executive of the Central Park Conservancy, the park’s private custodian, said on a recent tour.
The Conservatory Garden on Fifth Avenue still blooms with flowers, but the cracked paving hasn’t been touched since the 1930s, and its elegant geyser fountain requires constant repairs on plumbing that dates to the Robert Moses era.
The Ravine near 104th Street, with its rushing waterfall, has pools clogged with sediment and needs dredging.
Central Park this summer may seem a bucolic oasis, and it is widely considered one of the nation’s most successful urban parks. Yet beneath the surface, experts say, it is suffering the debilitating effects of time and modern use, and it will decay further unless its historic structures and landscapes are restored. On Thursday, the Central Park Conservancy is set to announce an ambitious 10-year, $300 million fund-raising and improvement effort.
The conservancy’s plan, “Forever Green: Ensuring the Future of Central Park,” might sound excessive, an effort by rich New Yorkers to spruce up their backyard when other neighborhoods are in dire need of better open spaces. Only four years ago the conservancy received $100 million from the hedge fund manager John A. Paulson. But others argue that the park has been a victim of its own success. As it has been improved over the years, the number of annual visitors has mushroomed to 42 million, from 12 million in 1981.
“It’s being trampled to death — visitation now is heavier than ever in its history,” said Adrian Benepe, the former New York City parks commissioner who is now the director of city park development at the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. “This is America’s great work of art of the 19th century because it set a standard for what a great urban park should be that has been copied all around the world.”
Some have said that Central Park’s success in securing private support only highlights the need of parks all over the city for public dollars.
“It’s a reminder that the city should be investing more of its budget in parks,” said Daniel L. Squadron, a Democratic state senator. “The fact that some conservancies are able to solve it doesn’t reduce the need to do more.”
But others counter that the private support of Central Park enables the city to spend public dollars in other boroughs. “It frees up the city to put its capital dollars into other parks,” Mr. Benepe said.
To this end, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan in 2014 to spend $285 million over four years to improve parks in poor neighborhoods and last year struck a deal with eight of the largest park conservancies to donate expertise, workers’ time and cash to those areas.
“Central Park really has happened without tax payer debt service,” said Tupper Thomas, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy organization. “They’ve set the precedent that you can give money to parks privately.”
Ethan Carr, a landscape historian and preservationist, said the park requires ongoing repair. “There were decades of deferred maintenance,” said Mr. Carr, who edited the eighth volume of the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, the social reformer who designed Central Park with the English architect Calvert Vaux. “That’s a tremendous burden of upkeep, and the conservancy has taken that on.”
The conservancy has served as the steward of Central Park since 1980 and today has an annual budget of $65 million for operating and capital expenses, 25 percent of which comes from the city through a 10-year management agreement that was renewed in 2013. (The conservancy must raise the remaining 75 percent privately.)
It has already raised $112 million toward its $300 million goal, which includes a $25 million gift from the Thompson Family Foundation that will fund the restoration of Belvedere Castle and the park’s Children’s District, including the Dairy, Kinderberg, and Chess and Checkers House.
The intention of the park’s designers went well beyond pastoral scenery to promoting a civilized, improved life for citizens. The Dairy at the southern end, for example, was constructed in 1870 as a place where farmers could bring children fresh milk. Today the stone-and-wood structure needs new doors, windows, and stairs; floors sag and the loggia could use a paint job.
The Naumburg Bandshell, a site of free concerts, needs a new facade, stage and upgraded infrastructure.
The new campaign also aims to return arches, bridges and waterways to the original vision of Olmsted and Vaux, much of it inspired by woodlands in the Adirondacks and the Catskills, as depicted in art from the period, like Asher Brown Durand’s painting “Kindred Spirits.”
The designers “wanted the North Woods to be the Adirondacks for people of New York City who couldn’t afford to go to the Adirondacks,” Mr. Blonsky said.
Olmsted and Vaux were also meticulous managers of the park, though they found themselves ousted by Boss Tweed and frustrated by having to put the park back in order when they returned after his 18-month tenure.
“The natural underwood has been grubbed up,” Olmsted wrote at the time, “the trees, to a height of 10 to 15 feet, trimmed to bare poles.”
“Forever Green” hopes to rebuild the gazebo-like landings surrounding the boat pond, some of which disappeared 100 years ago and were redone in the ’70s in a different style
“We even brought the pitch pine back,” Mr. Blonsky said, referring to a type of tree.
The landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh said the conservancy’s efforts represent a growing recognition of the importance of city parks by the private sector. “Private philanthropy is making extraordinary contributions to support and build urban parks at an unprecedented scale across the nation,” he said.
Mr. Paulson, whose 2012 gift amounted to the largest monetary donation in the history of New York City’s — and possibly the nation’s — park system, said that of all his philanthropic activities, his investment in the conservancy “has had the highest impact by positively affecting more people per dollar invested than any other organization.”
Mr. Blonsky said that Mr. Paulson’s gift had been “transformative,” enabling the conservancy to start on many infrastructure projects and leverage other funds.
Part of the goal of “Forever Green” is to make the park more self-sustaining. (The conservancy already turns fallen leaves into compost and recycles its garbage.)
Ultimately, all the refurbishment may not be visible to the eye, like redoing a shore edge; replacing the invasive Japanese knotweed with varied plant material; or caring for the many species of trees, including willow, locust, dawn redwood, maple, oak and London plane.
But parks all over the world will be learning from these efforts. The conservancy has long made a point of training park users and managers. Three years ago, the conservancy formalized this effort by establishing an educational arm: the Institute for Urban Parks, which is exploring a partnership with organizations like the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Despite having started at the conservancy 31 years ago — as a landscape architect — and having logged about six miles a day walking the park, Mr. Blonsky seems to retain a child’s sense of wonder about the place.
“You’d never know you’re in the middle of Manhattan,” he said, as he trudged up a dirt path. “That’s the beauty of the park. It was all done to look like it was God’s work.”