Q&A: John Paulson Says $20 Million Public Gardens at Lake Agawam Requires Closure of Pond Lane - 27 East

Q&A: John Paulson Says $20 Million Public Gardens at Lake Agawam Requires Closure of Pond Lane

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John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled.    DANA SHAW

John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled. DANA SHAW

John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled.    DANA SHAW

John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled. DANA SHAW

John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled.    DANA SHAW

John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled. DANA SHAW

John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled.    DANA SHAW

John Paulson at the August 22 Southampton Village work session where new Agawam Park plans were unveiled. DANA SHAW

Pond Lane in Southampton Village.  JOHN PAULSON

Pond Lane in Southampton Village. JOHN PAULSON

Joseph P. Shaw on Sep 5, 2023

Billionaire investment manager John Paulson has been a part-time resident of Southampton Village for nearly 40 years, first as a renter and, starting in 1994, as a property owner. He’s been a First Neck Lane resident since 2007 and helped to create the Lake Agawam Conservancy with neighbors who surround the lake in 2019, focusing on cleaning up the notoriously polluted water body.

Starting in 2021, the conservancy quietly began working on a proposal to create a new public gardens project adjacent to Agawam Park, on the east side of the lake. The idea, unveiled in August at a Southampton Village Board meeting, would turn just over 11 acres into gardens designed, free of charge, by noted landscape architect Peter Marino.

The $20 million proposal — which includes a $10 million endowment to cover the cost of maintaining the gardens — is pitched as paid for entirely by fundraising. It would require the closure of Pond Lane, which would be converted into a lakefront walking and biking path.

Paulson, 67, planted the seed for the idea by purchasing two properties on Pond Lane, saving them from development; he’s said he will sell one to Southampton Town, via the Community Preservation Fund, for the same price he paid for it. He would donate the second parcel for the park.

On Sunday, Paulson spoke about the project in an interview via Zoom, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: Your family foundation bought the Pond Lane parcels, I think it was in November 2021, right?

Yep.

Q: What was the reason that you bought those parcels? And when did the idea of a park come into being? Was that part of the plan from the time they were purchased?

Yes, absolutely. I’m chairman of the Lake Agawam Conservancy, and we’ve got a great board of village residents that’s committed to improving water quality in Southampton, particularly Lake Agawam, which many view as the crown jewel of the village.

And as part of that, one day, Bob Giuffra and I were walking — we like to walk — we’re taking a walk down Pond Lane, and he goes, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we bought this land and turned it into a park for all the residents?”

The old Wyman estate sort of starts around the curve in Pond Lane and goes all the way almost into town. It’s 12 acres in total. And I immediately agreed with Bob that it would be wonderful if this could be, instead of two sites for two families, a park for the whole community.

Q: That was part of the reason to buy it, right — to keep it from being developed as individual parcels?

Yeah, exactly. So when we mentioned it to the board, and some village trustees, they were all 100 percent, thought it was a great idea. The problem was that the town needed more definitiveness before it could commit to buying one of the parcels. And the estate was about to sell the parcels to a developer.

So what the trustees of the estate told me was, “Look, if you match the price the developers are paying, I’ll sell it to you.”

And the only way to preserve the option for having a public park was for me to buy the parcels and take them off the market while the village went ahead to approve the ultimate plans. So that’s what I did.

I have no commercial interest in this site. It was just to take it off the market, give it the necessary time to get the necessary approvals, so if it was a positive outcome, we could proceed with the park.

Part of the plan was to sell one of the pieces to the town. The town has a very large fund for land preservation. And they’re prepared to do that at the same price I purchased the lot for, so there’s no profit impact. The town has already done an appraisal, which reaffirmed that price.

And then the other lot of equal size I would donate to the park.

Q: And were you aware at the time that the town had already purchased another parcel there, 2.9 acres that’s adjacent to those? Was that part of the thinking?

Absolutely, absolutely. The town already had one of the three frontage lots, but they’re not doing anything with it currently, so it’s kind of an abandoned lot. No one uses it. And an important part of the creation of this park would incorporate that 2.9 acres they already own as sort of the forest, garden part, with walkways and pathways that would integrate with the other two lots.

Peter Marino’s plan includes a plan for all 12 acres, including the plot that the town already owns.

Q: So, to clarify, when you stepped in and purchased those lots to save them from being developed, it was already with the park in mind. The park was already something that was on the table.

Absolutely.

There’s no commercial interest in this property. It was strictly to preserve the option to create the park.

Q: So the offer to sell 137 Pond Lane to the Community Preservation Fund for the price that you paid is contingent on the closure of Pond Lane to vehicular traffic. Was that your condition, or was that a condition the town put in place?

Well, you’ll have to speak to the town, but I think it is part of their condition to buy the park. And it’s also a condition for us — for me personally, as well as the conservancy — that the whole concept of this park was to have a waterfront park.

And I think it’s important for several reasons. And, by the way, the characteristics of closing Pond Lane, it’s going to be open 24/7 to pedestrians and bicycles. I think they did a traffic study that over 800 people used the park for walking or biking on one previous Sunday.

When I look at Lake Agawam, and this is the largest piece of land with frontage on Lake Agawam in the whole village, none of the homes have a road in front of their homes. All the private homes and estates that front Lake Agawam, the property goes right down to the water, and that’s what creates the beauty. If they had a road in front of it, it would be a much different concept.

So I think one important reason is for the concept to have recreational use and enjoyment requires the closure of Pond Lane.

But, more importantly, I think the first reason is for safety. I have all these pictures of it — there’s no shoulder on the road. When someone’s walking, the car has to go over the double-yellow line to the other side in order to avoid hitting the pedestrian or cyclist.

So with this park there’ll be increased traffic, increased pedestrian and bicyclist use, so it doesn’t work if you have a road there with vehicle traffic.

So it just comes down to a choice. If you want to keep the road open for cars, then you can’t have the park, or at least the park that we envision. Maybe someone else wants to step in and do this … But it’s not part of the plan that either the conservancy has, the town has, or Peter Marino the landscape architect has.

Q: So it’s a deal breaker. Closing Pond Lane is absolutely essential to this plan.

That’s correct. And I think safety would be the first consideration, but aesthetics would be the second.

Let me say, I live on First Neck Lane, and so, to me, I have two choices when I go into town. I can either continue on First Neck Lane and then make a right on Hill Street, or I can go around Pond Lane. So for me and other residents, absolutely zero inconvenience. There’s no hardship at all. I’m not giving up anything just continuing down First Neck Lane. And the trade-off to have this incredibly beautiful park available for all residents seems a very easy trade-off.

I don’t find it inconvenient at all to consider going down Pond Lane. Now, I understand some of the opposition likes driving down Pond Lane, and I would say that it is a nice ride, but I also walk and bike, and hundreds of other people do.

And I will say, whatever experience you may have driving in a car, the experience is 10 times greater if you walk or bike down that road. And all I would say is, if you like driving, just, before you oppose it, get out of your car and walk along Pond Lane or take a bike. And I’m sure you’ll see how much more pleasurable it is to be outdoors and experience the beauty of that property when you’re outside rather than in a car.

And, again, I don’t really see what the inconvenience is to just, if you’re driving, to take First Neck Lane instead of Pond Lane.

Q: Were you at all surprised by how strongly some people feel about … the concerns they have about closing Pond Lane?

I was, because when we had the initial plan and voiced among the trustees of the Lake Agawam Conservancy and any people we spoke with, there was universal approval for this plan — so we really didn’t anticipate the opposition.

But I’d like to say two things about this petition [opposing the plan]. I don’t think the petition is at all representative of how village residents feel.

For one thing, the petition mischaracterizes what we’re intending to do. It says we’re going to close Pond Lane. It doesn’t say we’re going to keep it open 24/7 for bicyclists and pedestrians and for other recreational activities.

Almost everyone I speak to that has concerns, when I explain it, they love the idea of creating a park. They didn’t realize it was going to be open 24/7 to bikes and pedestrians. As a matter of fact, one of the comments said, “Oh, don’t close Pond Lane. I love biking there. I would hate to bike down First Neck Lane.” So I don’t think they fully understand what the proposal is.

The second is, this Change.org is a national website. There’s hundreds of petitions, and it’s almost like a robo-petition. I went to just check it out, signed it. There’s no verification of … Well, anyone can sign it. You could even sign it multiple times using other email addresses — so it’s signed anonymously. And once you sign it, another petition, “Sign this, sign this, sign this.” So everyone’s there to try and get everyone’s petition signed.

I would venture to say that less than 10 percent of these “1,600 signatures” are Southampton Village residents. If it was more than 5 percent, I’d be surprised, but it’s definitely not more than 10 percent.

I would say if they want any credibility to this petition, they should disclose all the names. It shouldn’t be done anonymously. And when they disclose the names, they should highlight how many are actually village residents — because this road is owned by the village, so it should be village residents who are expressing their opinions. … You’ll see it’s a very, very tiny fraction of the supposed signatories, and that the vast majority of these signatories probably aren’t even … not only not Suffolk County, not even New York residents.

Q: And it’s fair to say that the upcoming conversation about this is going to be a lot more important, because that will be just local people who are able to turn out to public hearings and voice their opinions.

Likely so, I think. And you’re referring to the meeting scheduled for September 14. Yeah, I think that would be an important occasion.

Q: Another thing that people have pointed to, they worry about the municipal cost of the upkeep of the gardens. Are you confident that the plan to privately fund the gardens’ maintenance is something that’s going to cover those costs?

Absolutely. I’ve had informal conversations with various residents, and Peter Marino as well. No one’s ready to make a hard commitment at this point, because there’s no definitive plans. So fundraising now for something that may or may not happen, it’s just not necessarily productive. But in talking with people, I would say we have soft commitments for about $10 million of contributions.

The way I envision, the budget would be a $20 million funding for the park — $10 million to fund the planting of the gardens, and then $10 million to be an endowment to fund the annual maintenance. And if you use 5 percent, that would provide $500,000 a year in full-time landscaping staff to maintain the gardens going forward. And, of course, that could also be supplemented by annual contributions.

So the intention here is to have this 100 percent privately funded, and just by talking with people who have made verbal commitments, we have verbal commitments for over half that amount today.

Q: And you see the Central Park Conservancy as being sort of a model.

I think it’s a great model. It’s a public-private partnership. The land underneath Central Park is owned by the city, but it’s managed completely by a private group. And the private group is almost 100 percent privately funded.

Q: Philanthropy often comes with a benefit for the donors. And the Lake Agawam Conservancy is a collection of wealthy property owners who live around the lake. Is there some private benefit for you that’s also a motivation for this? Is there something that the property owners will get that makes this a worthwhile cause, beyond altruism?

I don’t see any other benefit. I’m not as young as I used to be — I’m 67. I have this large foundation. And part of my thinking is, rather than support causes around the world, like climate change, all of which are important, at least devote some meaningful portion of the foundation to the communities in which I live, for the benefit of my neighbors.

And I have been a strong proponent of public parks, because they benefit everyone and provide so much enjoyment to so many people. You’re probably aware, I made a very large contribution to Central Park, and that just brings so much joy to so many people.

In looking at this piece of property, it really is the most beautiful property facing Lake Agawam. And the choice is, can this be used for two homes? And, believe me, if there’s serious opposition and the village doesn’t want to proceed, I’ll gladly step back.

I thought this would be something that the village would enjoy, that would benefit everyone. I’m not someone that’s confrontational. I don’t want to divide the community — I’d rather bring the community together. But if there is opposition, we can just resell these to developers, who will put two very nice homes, but then they’ll be preserved for those two families. I think it’s a home run to have this available for the whole community.

Some people have been fortunate to see Peter Marino’s gardens — in my opinion, perhaps the most beautiful in the world. It’s just exceptional to have him agree to design these gardens, pro bono, for the village. It’s just extraordinary.

But instead of being available just to one family, this park will be available to all the residents of the village in Southampton, and all the visitors to our community. So I just thought it was a beautiful idea. I have the resources to support it. I love the gardens, the work that Peter Marino does; I think it’s a piece of art. Landscape architecture, landscape art that can be used, that instead of looking at you could experience and be part of.

So I thought it would be a beautiful opportunity to have this land available to all the residents of the village instead of just to homeowners.

Q: What will the impact be for the village if this park is built? What do you picture?

I think it would be very, very beneficial. Central Park used to have cars running through the park. And they’re two different cities, two different analogies. But used to be 24/7 cars running all around. One by one, they got rid of the lanes, and now there’s no vehicle traffic allowed in Central Park, except emergency vehicles.

And it’s like paradise. There’s people biking, running, walking. Old people, young people, mothers with baby carriages. It’s really the most idyllic part of New York.

And I would envision something like that being here, would just be these extraordinary gardens, would attract people to walk, exercise, be outside in the fresh air. Instead of 800 people, there’d probably be some multiple of that visiting the garden.

I would imagine people from other communities in East Hampton want to come visit Southampton, tour the village, have lunch here and then walk through the gardens. So I think it would become a major draw, certainly for Southampton, but for all of the Hamptons, probably all of New York, Long Island. And, given Peter Marino’s prominence, it would be globally recognized as one of the gems of landscape architecture.

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