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Parks Boss' Schedule Shows He Met With Rich & Famous, But Few Local Groups

By James Fanelli | November 19, 2014 7:41am
 Globe-trotting Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver has been criticized by community groups for not meeting with them about parks issues. But Silver has found time in his busy schedule to meet with celebrities, including Dr. Ruth and Bette Midler, about their pet projects.
Parks Commissioner Has Time to Meet With Celebrities and Billionaires
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NEW YORK CITY — Globe-trotting city Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver has taken flak for being too tied up to meet with local community groups since he took office — but his busy schedule didn't stop him from rubbing elbows with celebrities and billionaires.

Since he started his $205,180-a-year job, Silver has had sitdowns with Bette Midler, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Donald Trump, billionaire real estate investor Douglas Durst and the wife of a Russian oligarch to discuss their pet park projects, according to his daily schedules.

DNAinfo New York obtained Silver's calendar for the period of May 12 to Oct. 8 through a Freedom of Information Law request.

The schedules show that during that time, Silver missed 28 days of work because he was either out of town for family-related reasons, giving a speech overseas or teaching a class at Harvard University.

Since Oct. 8, he's missed at least six more days to teach Harvard classes and travel to South Africa to attend a Planning Africa 2015 conference. His last class at Harvard is Friday.

Silver's longest trips away from work were to Singapore, where he spent five days at the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum, and to England where he spoke at Oxford University and Sheffield University during a six-day tour.

DNAinfo reported on Nov. 3 that community groups like the Union Square Community Coalition have had a hard time getting a meeting with Silver to discuss issues related to their local green spaces. The groups blame Silver's many out-of-town obligations — commitments he had made before accepting the job as commissioner.

But Silver's schedules show that he held scores of meetings with heads of powerful nonprofits, wealthy donors, lobbyists and celebrities while he only had five meetings with local community groups.

The community events included one on June 5 when he attended a town hall meeting about the future of the long-shuttered marine transfer station at 135th Street. He met with the East Brooklyn Congregations, a nonprofit coalition of churches, schools and volunteer groups, on June 6 to discuss park improvements.

On July 21 Silver met with Inwood residents about La Marina, a controversial nightclub and restaurant on waterfront parkland. On Sept. 30 he met with Councilwoman Inez Dickens and a local Harlem community group to discuss the deteriorating fire watchtower in Marcus Garvey Park. He also met with the Astoria Civic Association on Oct. 7.

Meanwhile, Silver's schedule reveals that he held dozens of one-on-one meetings with the highly paid heads of park conservancies like the Friends of the High Line, the Bryant Park Corporation and the Central Park Conservancy. Conservancies are private nonprofits that raise funds for certain green spaces and oversee their care.

The schedules also show that Silver has made it to nine cocktail parties for various park-related benefits.

Parks Department spokesman Philip Abramson said Silver has met with hundreds of agency employees and dozens of elected officials and community groups, and "to characterize the commissioner as anything but wholly committed to the task at hand is inaccurate and misleading."

The Parks Department said that Silver has met with more than 25 community groups and nonprofits. It said some of those meetings, including one with Rockaway residents and one with the Friends of Soundview Park, happened after Oct. 8, a time period for which DNAinfo does not have Silver's daily schedules.

The agency also said that Silver talks to community board representatives and friends-of-parks groups during the more than 40 ribbon-cuttings and ground-breakings he has attended.

The Parks Department said Silver's sitdowns with celebrities and billionaires were not vanity meetings, but key talks with important partners of the agency.

A June 17 meeting with Dr. Ruth was to talk about Fort Tryon Park, the agency said. The sex therapist sits on the board of the park's trust.

A July 29 meeting with Bette Midler, the founder of the nonprofit New York Restoration Project, was to discuss plans to improve open space in Mott Haven, according to the agency. The Parks Department said Donald Trump gave Silver a tour of the soon-to-open Ferry Point golf course, which was built on city land.

On July 24 the commissioner met with Emily Blavatnik, the wife of Ukranian-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, who recently paid $80 million for a Fifth Avenue co-op apartment. She met with Silver because she's interested in funding free swimming programs for kids and improving the infrastructure of public pools, according to the Parks Department.

The agency said Silver took a Sept. 30 meeting with billionaire developer Douglas Durst because he and his family have been longtime park supporters and have been board members of various park-related nonprofits.

During the meeting, Silver thanked Durst for funding a partnership between the Parks Department and the Parsons New School for Design to rehabilitate the Highbridge Recreation Center in Washington Heights, according to the agency.

"The Parks Department's close work with community groups and leaders has played a large role in Commissioner Silver's comprehensive plan for addressing parks equity," Abramson said, referring to the agency's Community Parks Initiative.

Geoffrey Croft, the head of watchdog group New York City Park Advocates, lauded Silver for pushing parks equity, but he said the commissioner should focus his time on wrangling more funding from the City Council and taking meetings with elected officials.

"The priority has to be dramatically increasing the amount of government funding while ensuring that resources are distributed in an equitable manner," Croft said.