Paulson Plants His Green In Central Park

by , Oct 24, 2012, 7:55 AM
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Money may not buy happiness, but evidently it can buy burnishment. And that should prove to be a good thing not only for the 38 million annual visitors to Central Park but also for the New York City economy, which has gotten a lot greener even as the park has, as Central Park Conservancy CEO Doug Blonsky made clear in an interview with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo in July.

John A. Paulson, the native New Yorker and billionaire hedge fund manager who famously made a killing betting against subprime mortgages, announced yesterday that he was giving a $100 million gift to the Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages the 843-acre refuge in the heart of Manhattan. About half of the money will go toward capital improvements; the other half will plump up its $144 million endowment.

Although nothing in the park will bear the Paulson name, the New York Times’ Lisa Foderaro writes that in addition to breaking “the cycles of decline and restoration that this park has suffered for so long,” as Blonsky put it during a ceremony, “the donation should also burnish Mr. Paulson’s image, which has taken some hits in recent years.”

For one thing, he has been hit by some steep losses after the gamble on sub primes paid off so handsomely. And although he was not named in a suit the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman Sachs for “failing to tell investors that they were buying into pools of questionable loans,” Foderaro points out that his “financial achievements were also cast in an unflattering light.”

Yesterday, however, the light was bright and sweet.

“This past weekend in Central Park I saw babies in carriages, children playing, couples holding hands, dogs running, musicians playing, people jogging, cycling and people from all over the world talking, laughing and exercising,” Paulson said while announcing his gift at the park’s Bethesda Fountain, according to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Henry Goldman. “I thought to myself, ‘Central Park is a paradise unlike anywhere else in the world.’” 

Paulson, who grew up in Bayside, Queens, has a townhouse across from the park at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street. He was pushed through the park in a baby carriage, he recalled, and hung out at the then-decrepit and defaced fountain when he was a teenager.

“The pledge, which will be paid out by Paulson and his Paulson Family Foundation, puts Paulson in league with several of his most charitable peers atop New York City’s alternative asset management universe, in terms of giving to area institutions,” writes Forbes’ Edwin Durgy. 

Paulson immediately takes his place among such beneficent financiers as Stephan Schwarzman, the founder and CEO of The Blackstone Group who gave $100 million to the New York Public Library in 2008; James Simons, founder of Renaissance Technologies, who donated $150 million to SUNY Stony Brook last year, and George Soros, who “has impacted causes from poverty to human rights the world over with $8.5 billion of charitable giving,” according to Durgy. 

“Financier John Paulson makes money grow on trees for Central Park,” crows the New York Daily News in the hed over an editorial today. “In our hyperpoliticized world, rife with vitriol and recriminations, every now and then, the thing to say is: “Thank you.” And it does.

There will be naysayers, of course. "It's wonderful for Central Park, but there are thousands of other park properties in New York City that desperately need funding," New York City Park Advocates president Geoffrey Croft says in a BBC piece about the event. "This gift is a reminder of the enormous disparities that exist between the haves and the have-nots."

Croft, in fact, railed against a “commercial land grab by Bloomberg buddies” in an opinion piece in the very same Daily News on Monday.

“The Bloomberg administration is attempting to push through three major projects that would permanently seize nearly 75 acres of public parkland for commercial projects [in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park] that will also have enormous additional impacts on the surrounding communities,” Croft writes. “We now live in era where not only are our public parklands readily available for commercial development but it is activity being encouraged under this administration.”

Yesterday, New York’s mayor characterized Paulson’s gift as the largest ever made anywhere to a public park, saying that it “will ensure that the park remains as Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned it a century and a half ago." 

It’s nice when burnishment is a win-win.

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