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Critics say the city's "green jewel" gets more than the lion's share of funds

Central Park is the largest open space in New York at 843 acres. And the park's reputation certainly lives up to its enormous space -- with an active Conservancy and hundreds of annual children's programs, tours, concerts and fundraisers. But people are starting to question the enormous flow of money pouring in and out of Central Park. The Central Park Conservancy's contract, a $90 million 10-year deal with the city, is up for renewal this year, and Comptroller John Liu has rejected the contract on the basis of equally spreading funds throughout the city's parks, not just to its most famous.

"They were forcing the contract and an enormous amount of tax-payer resources is focused on Central Park," said Comptroller Liu. "Given that the Conservancy has a surplus, why do we have to put more taxpayers dollars when other parks within blocks of Central Park are in dire need?"

The $90 million contract is almost one-third of the city's entire annual parks budget. The Conservancy has resubmitted the contract to the comptroller, and the re-submission, as well as a $60 million contract with the City Planning Commission, is under review. The Central Park Conservancy refused to comment on any aspect of the group's financial situation, from the contract under review, to their assets and fundraising.

In 2012, the Central Park Conservancy had more than $216 million in assets, not including the $100 million gift given by the Paulson Family Foundation in fall, 2012. In fact, 85 percent of the park's annual budget comes from private donors like the Paulsons, according to the Conservancy's Web site. And although the Park's net assets have been down from $220 million in 2011, as Geoffrey Croft, President of New York Park Advocates points out, the funds are way more than any other park in the city receives.

"There's no other park in the world that has the money that Central Park has," said Croft. "I think the comptroller is sending a strong message to the Conservancy and the administration as he accurately points out these deals create huge disparities between have and have-nots."

The Central Park Conservancy was formed in 1980, and has restored almost every inch of Central Park, and has invested over $650 million into the park, according to the Conservancy Web site. The group introduced the park's first visitor's center in 1980, and over the years, restored Bethesda Fountain, Belvedere Castle and Cherry Hill Plaza.

For 18 years, the Conservancy had a public-private partnership with the city, and the agreement was formalized in 1998 with the management contract with the Park's Department. Under this agreement, the Conservancy would receive an annual fee from the city for their services, depending on their expenditures and the amount of private funds raised. The park's contract was renewed in 2006 for another 8 years, and is up in 2014. The new $90 million deal would extend this agreement for another 10 years.

But is the park in more financial trouble than previously thought? This summer, for the first time, the park started charging for its tours, which can cost groups anywhere between $15 and $50 per person. Comptroller Liu was outraged at this change, saying in a statement, "It's especially galling to hear that the Central Park Conservancy is charging $15 for tours that were once free, because this wealthy, privately funded group enjoys plum arrangements with the city that other parks groups don't get."

The Conservancy also launched an initiative designed to raise $2 million, in which people can buy and "tend to" a virtual piece of the Great Lawn. The app, which launched in June, has since been taken down. The Conservancy would not comment further on the project, saying that it was launched "too early" and was not ready for the public yet. In addition to this, the Conservancy also hosts a benefit every year, called Taste of Summer, featuring food from famous neighboring chefs and restaurants. The minimum donation is $400 per plate.

And according to the Parks Department, Central Park does need every penny.

"In recent years, Central Park has experienced a dramatic increase in visitorship, which makes it the city's most visited cultural institution and has increased the costs of its maintenance," said Parks Department spokesperson Phil Abramson. "Part of the park's sustainability is making sure maintenance of the 843 acres is funded for the future, and CPC is a responsible steward in making sure the people's park is protected for years to come."

The Parks Department refused to comment on the Conservancy's decision to start charging for tours, and what would happen to the park if the contract did not go through. However, park advocate Geoffrey Croft speculated that the contract is likely to go through, and that the fundraising efforts were more of a marketing technique than a real cry for help.

"The timing of charging for tours is bad timing." It shows insensitivity to the rest of the parks system because it's nickels and dimes compared to the big donors," said Croft. "I think they deserve closer scrutiny because so much of our parks system has been abandoned."

But the new contract between the conservancy and the city would not just leave other parks in the dark. In fact, according to the Parks Department, the 10-year agreement would require the Conservancy to maintain the fountains at Bowling Green, City Hall Park, Manhattan Park, Columbus Circle, and Frederick Douglass Circle. The Conservancy would also perform day-to-day maintenance on Duke Ellington Circle, the Broadway Malls Greenstreet between West 57th Street and West 59th Street, Morningside Park, St. Nicholas Park, Jackie Robinson Park, and Marcus Garvey Park. Many of these parks are in areas of the city such as Harlem.

In the past, Central Park has provided maintenance for local parks like Carl Schurz on the Upper East Side and Riverside Park. In comparison, the net assets in 2012 of the 15-acre Carl Schurz Park were just under $300,000. In an acre-to-acre comparison, that's $20,000 per acre for Carl Schurz Park and $256,227.75 per acre for Central Park

But this good neighbor policy might not be enough. Amy Freitag, director of the New York Restoration Project, a non-profit organization looking to improve the city's green spaces, said that other parks need to learn from Central Park, and donors need incentive to help small neighborhood parks, so that $100 million in donations does not just go to the wealthiest park in the city.

"One of the greatest gifts of Central Park Conservancy is they changed our understanding in what is possible for the public realm," said Freitag. "We need to get more donors to realize, it's not just that too much money is going to one place, but not enough is going to other parks. You can't just have Central Park. Everyone should have park access to make it a truly livable New York City."



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