Warrie Price: A Woman Who’s Made a Difference

Upper Promenade 2000The Battery Upper Promenade, 2000. (Photo: The Battery Conservancy)

Picture this: 25 desolate acres at the southern tip of Manhattan—most of the soil covered with asphalt, with patches of green struggling up here and there. This, the Battery—New York City’s birthplace park—had been forlorn since the 1940s, when the earth was torn up so the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel could be inserted 40 feet below. Sure, these acres offered magnificent views of the mighty Hudson, but this park was not a destination; it was the bleak area you hurried through to get to the ferries going to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis and Staten Islands.

That was in 1993, before Warrie Price was asked to make the Battery bloom.

The Battery Bosque gardens in September, Credit Ilana MarksThe Bosque: 53,000 square feet of gardens set among 140 mature London plane trees. (Photo: Illana Marks)

See it now: a lush landscape made up of five parks; 134,000 square feet of gardens (perennials, a grove of plane trees, an “Urban Farm” that has produced thousands of pounds of vegetables, fruits, herbs, grains, and flowers, and a “Forest Farm” made up of fruit trees, berries, and medicinal plants); sculpted paths and bikeways; the Labyrinth, a walking path outlined with 1,148 granite blocks forming seven circular rings; the restored Castle Clinton, a fortress built in anticipation of the War of 1812; a decorative fountain; monuments to worthies like Emma Lazarus; and, not least—opened last August—the delightful SeaGlass Carousel. (see Ruth J. Katz’s story, “Riding the Sensational SeaGlass Carousel”) Here’s a map of the Battery today: Today, the park attracts some 6 million visitors a year.

And the site was transformed . . . how?

Warrie Price (Photo: Terese Loeb Kreuzer)

In 1993, Warrie Price, a leader in community-based planning in New York City, was tapped to find a way to implement a master plan for the park that had not been acted on since its creation in 1986. Her mission: raise money, contribute her vision, and get the various agencies that had jurisdiction over the park to work together to rebuild and revitalize The Battery. In short, she became the civic engine that got things done.

She wanted a single-focus job:  “I was on various boards, my children were in school full days; this gave me more flexibility. My husband and I had started our professional lives downtown, and had a great sense of honoring our beginnings in the training we had received—he in financial services and I in government. And I was drawn to The Battery because it is the first or second impression people around the world have of New York City. This is a birthplace park—the land most continuously in use in all of the five boroughs. [The Indians fished from its banks; the Dutch settled there in 1623.] It has always been a place that people walked, people relaxed, looked out at the water. And it was in appalling shape.

“I had a wonderful mentor at the Central Park Conservancy, the mother of all conservancies,” Price says. “The woman who founded it, Betsy Barlow Rogers, asked me if I’d look at using the conservancy model for the tip of Manhattan.”

Price, like Betsy Rogers, is “a Texas girl”; both were born and raised in San Antonio, and their families knew each other. Asked what particular qualities a Texas girl brings to a job, she said, “I think Texas women—and Texas men, to some extent—are very tenacious. They fix things. They look at problem-solving as an action agenda, not something just to discuss, and they have a hard time when people say no when they see something that could be done so much better.

“Betsy said, ‘I have a little desk outside my office; you should come and let’s get started,’” Price explains. “So I organized a founding board to draft the 501(c)(3), qualifying it as a nonprofit/tax exempt organization, and started raising money. The first grant was $15,000. We got the tax-exempt status in ‘94, then we moved downtown, and I had my first employee in 1995. Since then we have raised over $135 million, employ 24 staff in spring/summer/fall, and the park is 90 percent completed design/build.”

Ariane BurgessfrontThe Labyrinth (Photo: Ariane Burgess)

Before any piece of the master plan could be implemented, Price had to untangle the jurisdictional knots created because three government entities—the city, the state, and the federal government—had regulatory power over the site. She is grateful for the help of Adrian Benepe—Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and then Parks Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Benepe’s long-term presence gave the project a rare consistency of partnership: “I had the same individual for almost 10 years; that almost never happens in government,” Price says. “Usually leadership tends to be a three- or four-year cycle. We all worked together to make this a great park.”

They had two major setbacks: the fallout from 911 and the disaster that was Hurricane Sandy. “911 put us back 10 years,” Price declares. “The park was covered with debris. We did not feel the impact of the explosions, but we got the residue. We also had 800 National Guard troops bivouacked throughout the park, and they ruined everything. Not only that: one-fourth was excavated for the new No. 2 subway train, and that took eight years. We wondered, ‘When are we going to be able to get past this?’”

Eleven years after 911 came Hurricane Sandy. “We took the brunt of the 14-foot tidal surge. But we had planted salt-tolerant perennials and many native trees, and the native trees did much better than the non-natives like the London plane. Three years later, we’re still losing trees.”

The conservancy suffered another grievous loss. Because its offices were located in a basement (for budgetary reasons), all of its archives were destroyed. “Twenty years of archives were gone: all written document, drawings, beautiful historical prints, letters from first ladies . . . just all of the things that were the tangible accomplishments of the work we’d done for 20 years were gone.”

The hurricane “taught us how fragile this landscape is.” Price says. “Now we have some pumps and a natural gas generator in case we need it in another storm. Fortunately, the Seaglass Carousel site had been set in the 100-year flood plain, so it was bone dry.” The conservancy is working with the city on a resilient plan, aiming to have the park be a giant sponge, “not repelling the water but in a sense regulating it so it does not damage the residential and commercial properties around us.”

GOR_Credit Ilana MarksThe Gardens of Remembrance, a memorial to those who perished on Sept. 11, 2001, and those who survived. (Photo: Illana Marks)

Price brought a passion for gardens to the job. “The master plan aligned programmatic areas and pathways and got us an acre more of green space,” she points out, “but it didn’t have horticulture, or bikeways, or the SeaGlass Carousel, or the large playscape that is in design. Horticulture—now, truly, we have more horticulture per acre than any other park in the city. I believe in nature’s beauty. We added nutrient-rich soil and aimed for biodiversity.

“Major thinkers are writing about “ecopsychology”—how spending time in green space helps you deal with stress, get a better balance in your life. I felt instinctively that natural beauty makes you feel better about yourself. You want to get in touch with nature once again, not just be pushed constantly to asphalt and verticality and mass, which is New York City. I thrive on that energy and on being with people, but there are moments when you see three acres of just beautiful lawn and trees, and you go “Ahhh!”

Now that the site is 90 percent built, what does Price do day by day? Fundraising, of course. (“It’s an enormous amount of hard work to get a new donor; you never stop knocking on doors.”) Programming the workshops held in the park. Looking for volunteers, horticulturalists, park greeters, teachers willing to start school gardens, and urban-farm apprentices. And implementing designs for a resilient Post-Sandy plan and building the new playscape, organizing and bringing major cultural events to the Battery Oval, and continually maintaining 25 acres of gardens, woodlands, and lawns.

Credit National Parks ServiceCastle Clinton (Photo: National Park Service)

The Battery fronts one of the most storied waterscapes in the world. “Melville spoke so poetically about people drawn to The Battery—‘water gazers,’ he called them. That’s how we classify millions of the people who come to the Battery,” Price says. “But now the park itself is beautiful, with vast gardens and simplified walkways—everything to make our visiting public and our residential and working public build monuments to remember and revisit.”

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  • Susanna Gaertner November 2, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    This will be on my list of things to do on my next visit.
    Thank you, Deb, for this inspiring report.

  • Charger November 1, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Warrie’s vision and tenacity can’t be overstated. She is a truly remarkable woman.

  • Margaretta colt October 30, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Lovely article! It might even inspire a special trip downtown!

  • B. Elliott October 30, 2015 at 8:44 am

    So inspiring! Can’t wait to visit . . .