A new leader for central park
Posted December 13, 2017 12:10 a.m. EST
NEW YORK — Elizabeth W. Smith grew up in Rye, about an hour north of Manhattan, and said her earliest memory of Central Park was from when she moved to the Upper East Side after college. She would go running around the park — not in the park itself, but on the sidewalks just outside the stone walls that surround it.
This was in the mid-1970s. She carried pepper spray.
“Central Park, believe it or not, was a place not to go,” she recalled Tuesday. “We didn’t think it was scary, but in retrospect it was a scary place. Actually going to Central Park wasn’t on anyone’s radar.”
In time Smith took a job that put going into the park on her radar — she was an assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. And Tuesday, she was named to a job that will put her squarely on the park’s radar, as one of the park’s top stewards, the president and chief executive of the Central Park Conservancy.
Smith, 65, will succeed Douglas Blonsky, who announced in June that he would step down after 32 years with the group, which is largely credited with rescuing the park after decades of neglect. It has been renovated and refurbished, renewing the lawns and meadows envisioned by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed it in the 19th century.
“The challenge is to envision a fresh Central Park Conservancy,” she said. “There are new sources of wealth and new priorities for giving and new technology.” She added that with the Institute for Urban Parks, the conservancy’s educational arm, “there’s a focus on helping other parks and sharing our expertise.”
Blonsky said she had “incredible passion for the park,” and the current parks commissioner, Mitchell Silver, said that “she knows the park system and she knows Central Park quite well.” He added, “She is a genius at public-private partnerships” like the conservancy.
Mark Levine, the chairman of the City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation, said he was a “big fan” of Smith.
“I think she understands deeply, because of her involvement with the park and with parks citywide, that Central Park is essential to the health of the city as a whole, and for Central Park to thrive is a major undertaking,” Levine said. “And when you’re trampled by more than 40 million visitors a year” — more, he noted, than the total for the Magic Kingdom theme park at Disney World in Florida — “it is a major undertaking.” Smith and Blonsky, who wears a Central Park baseball cap nearly everywhere he goes, came from different backgrounds — he was trained in landscape architecture, she in finance, beginning in the training program at what was then Morgan Guaranty Trust.
She later moved into venture capital and private equity. In the late 1990s she was a senior vice president at Sotheby’s, the auction house. Her father and his father — her grandfather — were executives at Goldman Sachs. On her mother’s side, her great-great-grandfather, Amory Houghton, founded the Corning Glass Works in 1851. Her husband, Richard Cotton, became the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in August.
She joined the Parks Department as the giant art project “The Gates” was being prepared for installation in Central Park in 2005 — she called it a “shocking orange stream going through the brown and white of the park” in midwinter and said it made her look at the park “in a completely different way” — and was involved in planning events in the park.
“She had a lead role in making sure events were fun and safe and the city was reimbursed but that the park was protected in the loading in and loading out,” said Adrian Benepe, who, as the parks commissioner in the Bloomberg administration, was her boss. “She was capable of getting in high dudgeon if somebody tried to drive a semi truck across the park. Betsy is an unceasingly polite person, but she could get her back up.”
She will not all wear all of Blonsky’s hats when she takes over in March, officially or otherwise. Blonsky has been the administrator of the park, a city position, since 1998. Silver, the parks commissioner, said the new administrator would be Christopher Nolan, who will continue as the conservancy’s chief operating officer and chief landscape architect.
Under Blonsky, the conservancy raised nearly $1 billion, including $100 million from the Paulson Family Foundation. The conservancy spends about $44 million on the park every year, about 75 percent from donations.
She talked about the ways the conservancy has reinvigorated the park. One consequence is that she now runs in the park, usually around 6 a.m.
“I feel safe in the park,” she said.