John Paulson gives US$100m to Central Park

Billionaire philanthropist donates a fortune to New York's 'most deserving cultural institution'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 4:45am

When the hedge fund manager John Paulson stood in front of the Bethesda Fountain in the heart of New York's Central Park and announced a US$100 million gift to the Central Park Conservancy, it seemed to come out of nowhere, like an errant ball from one of the park's playing fields.

But the largest donation in the history of parks in New York - and possibly the nation and the world - was, in a sense, decades in the making. It stretched back to the days when Paulson, now 56, hung out at the fountain as a teenager, beneath the bronze statue Angel of the Waters, which was then scrawled with graffiti and bone dry. And it took shape more recently on walks with the president of the conservancy, Doug Blonsky, through the park's North Woods.

The gift comes as Central Park is at a high point, after decades of improvements and restorations - of stone bridges and historic buildings, great lawns and bodies of water - undertaken by the conservancy, the non-profit group that manages it on behalf of the city, since its formation in 1980.

The park, by all accounts, has not looked this good since the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created it in the mid-19th century from a 341-hectare rectangle in the centre of Manhattan.

But the conservancy's leaders note that the park's future success was never assured, citing past periods of decline, particularly the nadir of the 1970s. The US$100 million donation should change that.

"The cycles of decline and restoration that this park has suffered for so long will be broken forever," Blonsky told a briefing attended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as past and present parks commissioners and the conservancy's founders.

The donation should also burnish Paulson's image, which has taken some hits in recent years. With an estimated worth of US$11 billion, Paulson started his hedge fund, Paulson & Co, in the mid-1990s. He rose to fame and made his fortune in 2007 by betting against subprime mortgages before the housing market collapsed. He has lost some of his lustre lately, suffering steep losses and causing some investors to pull out of his funds.

But it was Paulson's childhood and family life, particularly as it has intersected with Central Park, that was on display on Tuesday, as city officials turned out to announce the gift, made jointly by Paulson and the Paulson Family Foundation. Bloomberg called the donation "the largest made to any park anywhere" and said it would "benefit the city for years to come".

Half of the US$100 million donation will go towards its US$144 million endowment, which helps finance maintenance, while the other half will pay for capital improvements. In his remarks, Paulson, who runs and rides his bicycle in the park, singled out two projects in particular: restoration of the North Woods, and landscaping around Merchant's Gate in the park's southwest corner, its busiest entrance.

Nothing in the park will bear Paulson's name.

Paulson, born and raised in Queens, described his family's long connection to Central Park: his grandparents had their first date there in the 1920s, his mother was pushed in a baby carriage there, and, later, she took him there as a youngster.

Asked what prompted the gift, he said: "Walking through the park in different seasons, it kept coming back that, in my mind, Central Park is the most deserving of all of New York's cultural institutions. And I wanted the amount to make a difference. The park is very large, and its endowment is relatively small."