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When John Paulson gave $100 million in 2012 to the nonprofit organization that helps New York City run Central Park, there were cheers for the gift.

There were also some groans as the billionaire hedge-fund manager took the business of private funding for public parks to stratospheric new heights.

Those reactions are still reverberating in Seattle, where a group of civic leaders is pursuing new public-private partnerships for the city’s downtown parks.

Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council have budgeted $125,000 this year and $570,000 in 2016 for the initiative, which will focus on Westlake Park and Occidental Park with an eye toward a new park planned for the central waterfront.

Pointing to the success of several New York City parks, initiative supporters say partnerships bringing private resources to bear on some of Seattle’s most important public spaces can succeed where the city has struggled.

But the supporters also say they are aware of the potential for park partnerships to stir controversy. They insist they will safeguard public access and equity.

“There is tension between government, which is there to protect the land for the use of all people, and private entities, which may have limited interests,” said Barbara Wright, who recently co-chaired a citizen committee on the future of Seattle’s parks.

“Defining the role and mission of a partnership is really important. In structuring a partnership agreement with the city, you’re looking for that sweet spot.”

Already in use

Park partnerships are not new in Seattle and elsewhere. Each operates on a different model, some under contract with the city and some not.

The Seattle Parks Foundation is a nonprofit that manages capital campaigns for community-led public-space projects.

The Arboretum Foundation, another fundraising nonprofit, has provided stewardship for the Washington Park Arboretum since 1935.

Seattle’s public zoo and aquarium are operated by a pair of private nonprofits.

What is new, across the country, is a marked increase over the past 25 years in the number of large conservancies managing high-profile parks. So says Florida-based consultant Kathy Blaha, an expert on park partnerships.

“There are a couple reasons for that,” Blaha said. “To start, cities have made cuts to park budgets. But also, people are demanding and expecting more from their parks, particularly in high-density neighborhoods.”

That is how Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), talks about Westlake Park and Occidental Park, plazas with crime problems.

Last summer, the DSA set up tables and chairs in Westlake Park. It hosted World Cup soccer viewing, yoga classes and pingpong matches there.

“Downtown has grown as a residential neighborhood, and downtown residents want fitness classes, playgrounds, great sandwiches from food trucks,” Scholes said.

The experiment was part of a broader conversation.

In 2013, the city had directed a Parks Legacy Citizens Advisory Committee to explore new parks-funding options.

The overall result was a ballot measure, approved by voters last August, establishing a new taxing authority in the form of a parks district.

But another outcome was a consensus that the city should pursue downtown partnerships, says Thatcher Bailey, executive director of the Seattle Parks Foundation and a member of the Parks Legacy Citizens Advisory Committee.

“There was widespread recognition that the downtown parks were presenting a set of maintenance dilemmas that the city didn’t have the resources to address, and that the ability to attract private dough to improve those spaces was limited,” Bailey said.

“There was also some looking forward to the development of the new waterfront, which, almost by nature, is going to need a sophisticated public-private partnership.”

New York’s lead

For inspiration, the civic leaders looked to New York City, including Dan Biederman, a private consultant who has worked on urban parks all over.

Biederman’s first feat was remaking Manhattan’s Bryant Park from a seedy square into a sparkling plaza with flowers, cafes and free entertainment. The Bryant Park Corp. and Bryant Park Management Corp. run the park exclusively with money from neighboring property owners and revenues from concessions, special events and other sources — no taxpayer dollars and no philanthropic donations.

The Alliance for Pioneer Square and the Seattle Parks Foundation, with funding from the R.D. Merrill Co., brought Biederman to Seattle in late 2013.

Early the next year, a Seattle group visited New York City to see Bryant Park — and other conservancy spaces such as Brooklyn Bridge Park and The Highline — for themselves.

“This is going on across the country right now,” said Scholes. “Not just in Central Park and Bryant Park. We think this is a necessary model. We can’t expect city governments to handle the day-to-day management and the little details alone.”

Funding for Seattle’s downtown partnerships initiative will come from the parks district. The $125,000 budgeted for 2015 will hire a replacement for Victoria Schoenberg, who supervises the downtown parks, said acting Parks Department Superintendent Christopher Williams.

That will free up Schoenberg to work on the partnerships initiative full-time, Williams said. Her job will be to study different partnership models, assess how they might work in Seattle and support ongoing efforts, he said.

In the meantime, the Downtown Seattle Association will ramp up its activities.

“Last summer was a trial-and-error period for us,” said Scholes. “We want to now build on that and in the process develop a proposal to take to the city for the spring and summer. We want to take this to the next level. Bring in more plants and flowers. Create a play space. Create a great lawn. Bring in food trucks and live music.”

Not all prosper

After Paulson made his $100 million donation, some critics argued that the gift highlighted a tale of two cities among New York City’s parks.

The Central Park Conservancy, they noted, had an endowment of $144 million, an annual budget of $40 million and an executive director with a better salary than the city’s Parks Department commissioner.

Meanwhile, about 15 percent of the city’s parks had been rated “not acceptable,” many of those in poorer or outlying neighborhoods.

A concerned state senator proposed requiring the city’s wealthiest park conservancies to share 20 percent of their operating funds with other parks.

That legislation, which has stalled in New York, doesn’t make sense anywhere because dictating the terms of philanthropy can discourage it altogether, says Bailey.

Seattle has a leg up on New York City because the new Parks District here will fund improvements and programming in spaces all over the city, said Heidi Hughes, executive director of Friends of the Seattle Waterfront.

“That puts us in a different situation,” Hughes said, calling a commitment to equity “part of our ethos as a city” and arguing that partnerships foster community engagement.

There are other potential flash points where private meets public.

The nonprofit running the Woodland Park Zoo has been criticized for lacking transparency. The Downtown Seattle Association plans to deploy additional security guards in Westlake Park. And private money can come with strings attached.

“No private entity is going to invest $1 million with no expectation,” Williams said.

But Seattle’s downtown parks will remain open to all, he said.

“The cornerstone of any agreement we enter into will be rooted in access,” he said.

Seward Park neighborhood activist Grover Haynes hopes that is the case. It was volunteer power, not gobs of money, that cleaned up Seward Park in his neighborhood, he says.

“My concern is where will the power lie,” said Haynes, 84. “The parks should be designed and used by the people.”

Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or dbeekman@seattletimes.com