An aerial view of Central Park and midtown Manhattan show just how massive the park really is.
In a recent 10-year stretch, 41 of the 50 most expensive residential real-estate deals in the city were done on blocks surrounding Central Park or one block away. The highest retail rents in the world, now up to $2,000 per square foot, are along Fifth Ave. just south of the park. Around 110th St. in Harlem, home values rose by more than 115% in the last 10 years compared with 54% in all other areas of Manhattan.
That’s real-estate power. More specifically, a penthouse in Trump World just sold for $33 million. The Time Warner Center defined “five-star living” less than eight years ago and brought the city’s sagging real-estate market back from the doldrums that followed Sept. 11. A building counted by many as the most successful condo in history, 15 Central Park West, where some apartments sold for more than $5,000 per square foot, is home to Denzel Washington, Sting and the wealthiest bankers in the world. All those buildings are on the park.
The famed Dakota building at 1 West 72nd Street.
“Central Park is the biggest, most powerful draw in New York City,” says Barbara Fox, founder of Fox Residential Group, who for 20 years has sold apartments in the area and has a listing at 834 Fifth Ave., overlooking the park, for $29.5 million. “More than any other request, people say, ‘I want to live or be close to the park.’ In some cases, if they can’t be on the park, they absolutely will not buy.”
It hasn’t always been that way. For almost all of its first 120-plus years of existence, Central Park was a dump. Twenty years after it was built in 1858-74, Frederick Law Olmsted, who with Calvert Vaux designed and built the 843-acre park with 6 miles of perimeter and 136 acres of woodland, all accessible to the public, said it had “gone to the Devil” and was plagued by the “impossibility of getting it taken care of.”
By 1974, it was known as the world’s biggest drug den. Weeks with rapes, murders and violence were more numerous than weeks without them. Buildings, like the Belvedere Castle, were left to decay. Most New Yorkers were afraid to go in the park.
But none of the above is newsworthy. Almost anyone in the world could tell you Central Park was a mess. How it was saved, and who saved it, however — those are things most New Yorkers don’t know. It’s high time they did.
The Central Park Conservancy was one of the first privately founded and funded groups of its kind in the world to work with a city to protect, preserve, manage and restore a park. Since its inception in 1980, the Conservancy has rebuilt the park to its highest-ever levels of natural beauty and public use. Around the world, it’s known as the go-to organization for big-city park care. In short, it is the New York Yankees of park management.
Best of all, it has also almost paid for itself. Aided by donations from individual citizens and corporations, the Conservancy has invested more than $530 million in the park, raising $412 million itself, with just $118 million coming from the city. In other words, relatively few taxpayer dollars go to the park for its care.
“People don’t even know the Conservancy exists, or they think we’re part of the city,” says Douglas Blonsky, the Conservancy president and Central Park administrator. “The city owns the park. Anyone can use it. We just take care of it. This is the most democratic space in the world. It generates more money for New York and the surrounding area than anything else in the city.”
That said, here are 10 things about Central Park and the surrounding real estate you never knew:
1. Surrounding population
Approximately 550,000 New Yorkers, or almost one-third of Manhattan’s residents, live within a 10-minute walk of the park. Another 1.15 million people live within a 30-minute subway ride. More celebrities (Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld and Robert De Niro among them) live near the park than anywhere else in New York City. There are also 109 schools in the area, with 48,000 students.
2. Traveling population
Hotels near the park account for 37% of all hotel rooms in the city and employ almost 14,000 people. Seventy-eight percent of those rooms cost more than $400 per night.
3. The world’s most expensive real estate
The apartments for sale along Fifth Ave. from 96th St. down to 59th St. help make it the most expensive stretch in the world. According to Streeteasy.com, there are at least eight Fifth Ave. apartments on the market for more than $20 million. Barbara Fox’s listing at 834 Fifth Ave., at 64th St., is an 11-room duplex on the 12th and 13th floors of a 1925 co-op that contains just 25 apartments. The maintenance alone on the $29.5 million home is more than $16,000. The apartment overlooks the zoo and has views overall of Central Park. “You can see the pandas sunbathing from your terrace,” says Fox. The Dakota, on Central Park West, is considered one of the city’s most iconic buildings and famed residences.
4. The role of donations
More than 35 million people visit the park each year, sometimes more than 200,000 on a weekend day. That’s more than Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined. Over 42,000 people contribute to the Conservancy. The largest individual gift was $17 million, in 1994 from Richard Gilder, who with billionaire George Soros founded the Central Park Community Fund in the late 1970s. That group was an early private organization dedicated to improving the park.
The fence around the reservoir, whose running track is perhaps the most used of the public spaces in the park, was installed in 2003. As the story goes, a couple who loved Central Park were volunteering for the Department for Environmental Protection by scuba-diving in the reservoir. They found a part of the original cast-iron fence.
After they set it on the ground near the chain-link fence then surrounding the water, another couple walked by and saw the original piece. They fell in love with it and told the Conservancy they would pay for the reservoir to be surrounded by a fence just like it. The entire capital improvement cost almost $2 million, but the new fence looks as the original was intended to in the 1800s.“Most of our best gifts come from individual donors,” says Blonsky. “We’ve had a recent couple anonymously donate a playground. They liked the result so much, they want to do another.”
5. Unbelievable facilities
At most park visitor centers, the Conservancy hands out items to be used for recreation for free, and its employees man the booths. At Belvedere Castle, they lend out Discovery Kit backpacks with binoculars, a guidebook, maps and sketching materials. (You have to leave two forms of identification.) Fishing poles are given out at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center near the Harlem Meer at the park’s northern end.
6. A grand restoration
Before the Conservancy took over the daily management of the park, many sections were in total disrepair.
The Great Hill was frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. Belvedere Castle was almost covered in graffiti.
One of the most trafficked areas of the park was Bethesda Terrace, designed by Vaux. Its restoration in the early 1980s breathed new life into this section of the park. The Bethesda Fountain celebrated the coming of fresh water to New York City via the Croton Aqueduct in the 1842.
“In the mid-1800s, it was believed the two ways New York City had to grow as a city were to get fresh water and to have a park that could push the residents of the city more north so it could grow,” says Blonsky, who has been with the Conservancy since 1985. “Those two things happened with the Croton Aqueduct and Central Park, and that allowed New York to become the greatest city in America.”
7. Biggest real-estate growth
Between 1997 and 2007, the average value of properties on the blocks between Central Park West and Columbus Ave. increased 73% faster than the average value of properties between Columbus and Amsterdam Aves.
That means the closer you to live the park, the more your apartment is likely to go up in value. Ten years ago, apartments one block off the park were slightly more expensive than those closer to it.
Now, at an average of $1,603 per square foot, the value of properties on the blocks closest to the park is 20% higher than that of those one block farther from the park and 44% higher than the average value another block farther than that.
8. Serious conservancy
In the late ’70s, when private citizens living near the park started to form groups to help its upkeep, Betsy Barlow Rogers, a city planner and author, formed the Central Park Task Force.
In 1980, Rogers’ organization and the Central Park Community Fund became part of the newly formed Conservancy, which she would head for the better part of a decade. Rogers, in her 70s, still jogs in the park daily. Blonsky credits her as one of the main reasons the park was revitalized. She credits him.
“I could not let my optimism and care for the park flag,” says Rogers. “The entire park had to be restored. Doug understands that we had to keep the consistency and vision of the original park plan, and that the day-to-day landscaping and restoration go hand in hand. You have to really feel that.”
Today, working closely with and under the advisement of New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, Blonsky and the Conservancy continuously help manage and improve the park. The Conservancy signs contracts with the city to maintain the park.
Benepe understands that joining forces benefits the park and people who visit and use it everyday.
“The Conservancy is a model for empowering people citywide to play a role in the public realm,” says Benepe, who is spearheading the mayor’s campaign to put a park within 10 minutes of every New Yorker’s front door and who worked as a ranger in Central Park in the 1970s. “You can’t have economic development without good parks. Central Park is the greatest park in the world. The concentration of wealth around it just doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
9. Ensuring continuous maintenance
In a park double the size of the country of Monaco, Blonsky had to figure out a way to ensure that every inch of Central Park received close care. Breaking the park into 49 sections, each with a zone gardener and staff responsible for garbage removal, tree care, landscaping and more, Blonsky made people accountable for entire areas.
“One of the biggest problems was garbage pickup,” says Blonsky. “Once people had responsibility for a certain area, things really cleaned up. Now, if I see anything wrong in any section of the park, I know where to call.”
10. Attention to detail, from trees to bridges
The Central Park Conservancy takes its job very seriously. For example, it uses GPS technology to identify and catalogue the more than 24,000 trees in the park. The most abundant, numbering almost 5,000 trees, is the black cherry, which ironically was never even planted in the park: Droppings from migrating birds prompted its growth. The stand of American Elms along Literary Walk is one of the last historic rows left in the United States. Similar stretches elsewhere fell to Dutch elm disease.
Bow Bridge and Oak Bridge were recently restored to look as they did when the park opened. Instead of the original carved oak, steel and aluminum were used to be stronger and more durable.
To support the Conservancy’s efforts to preserve the park or for information on events, visit centralparknyc.org. Annual membership costs $50, but any donation, even $5, is always welcome. Most figures cited are from the Appleseed Report, a study done by the Conservancy to measure the economic impact of the park.