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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Warrie Price

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-01

Warrie Price is living history.

It's been that way, in fact, since her late teens back in Texas when the father of a college roommate unexpectedly became president of the United States. The roommate's name was Lynda Bird Johnson.

"Her mother, whom I called Mrs. J, asked me to come and live in the White House when Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of President Kennedy," Ms. Price said. "She wanted me to help Lynda and Luci, her daughters, through this traumatic transition. Because of a friendship, my whole world changed dramatically.

"I was witness to a very incredible time in modern history. I was witness to LBJ's initiatives, and I was witness to Mrs. J's work with parks around America. They were special moments of seeing and feeling the government of the day closely. I was there when people had great dreams," she said.

That was four decades ago, to be sure, and as with America much has happened in Ms. Price's life. These days, as founder and president of The Battery Conservancy, she nurtures her own special dreams.

"They have to do with New York's history," Ms. Price said of her dreams. "The Battery is the birthplace of New York, and its landscape must be treasured and come alive - respecting its past and reflecting its dynamic future."

For the last dozen years, that has involved founding and sustaining the Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization. Its mission is to rebuild the Battery, which covers 23 acres of city-owned property, and revitalize Castle Clinton National Monument, the park's major landmark. The park, located at the tip of Manhattan, commands breathtaking views of the 11,000 acres of water that constitute New York Harbor.

"Those 23 acres - they are the doorstep to New York," Ms. Price said, with a motion of her hands that suggested high excitement. "They are the doorstep to America. Just think of the history that the Battery has seen."

She recited that history with speedy brevity: Native Americans fished off Manhattan island's banks; Dutch immigrants settled and colonized what would become the most active commercial center in the Americas; and Wall Street would become synonymous with industrialization and capitalism.

"Today, the Battery is the only public assembly space downtown - a vital resource for a growing community," Ms. Price said. "But it had been long neglected. It needed a civic engine. We followed in the footsteps of the Central Park Conservancy, creating a public-private partnership to revitalize the area through design excellence and innovation."

Ms. Price has developed just such a partnership between the federal, state and city governments, and the business community. This partnership has raised $62 million since the Conservancy began in 1994. Their work was recently lauded by First Lady Laura Bush as a model for public-public partnerships.

Indeed, it isn't surprising that Ms. Price's handiwork has been widely perceived to be successful in harnessing ideas, energy, and funds from the public and private sectors. After all, she worked in both sectors before starting the Conservancy.

"I know government wants to achieve great public works, and I know that private sector can be a part of keeping the focus and making it happen," Ms. Price said.

After her six-month White House interregnum, Ms. Price obtained an undergraduate degree in education from the University of Texas at Austin. She returned to her native San Antonio, and began to teach. But a friend and mentor, Margaret Pace Willson (CORRECT), a well-known artist and philanthropist. Willson, a great booster of San Antonio, encouraged Ms. Price to join her in studying city planning.

"You never know when the light bulb of life will go off," Ms. Price said. "Margaret taught me that each one of us possesses creativity. It's really a question of how you tap that creativity and apply yourself."

She applied her creativity to urban projects in San Antonio, where earlier, as one of two daughters of Warfield and Dorothy Smith, she had come under the influence of her maternal grandparents, John and Rose Toudouze.

"They were very civic minded. My grandfather served on the city council. And my grandmother was a leader in women's projects," Ms. Price said. "I am where I am today because of grandparents who worked and cared for their community."

Her route to the Conservancy wasn't linear. Ms. Price spent four years in the US Foreign Service, assigned as the assistant cultural attache in Santiago, Chile.

"But I began to want to be engaged with domestic issues, so I switched from foreign affairs," Ms. Price said.

That switch was also driven by her realization that, when it comes to foreign policy, Washington, and not US diplomatic outposts, is where the key governmental decisions are made.

To understand government decision making better, Ms. Price accepted a fellowship at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She obtained a master's degree in public administration, and was recruited by the city of New York.

It was a clangorous time to be in New York. John Lindsay was winding down his mayoralty. Ms. Price worked at the budget bureau, and became fluent in the ways and byways of municipal government.

An assignment with Citicorp followed. There she learned about technology and private-sector management.

She had meanwhile married an investment banker, James David Price. As she raised their three sons - Warfield, Myles and Leland - Ms. Price became involved with Community Board 8 in Manhattan.

"As a community board member, I studied land use, and community-based planning," she said. "New York for me became a matter of loving neighborhoods, and understanding their dynamic. Being a community board member was a training ground for taking on a new paradigm - public-private partnership."

The partnership that Ms. Price fostered has resulted in a new look for The Battery, an area frequented by more than five million visitors and 12 million commuters annually. She has launched a Web site that includes an electronic archive of more than 10 million records from the Castle Garden period of 1855-1890, when immigrants were processed at the site of what is now Castle Clinton National Monument.

Ms. Price has also launched a capital construction campaign of $80 million. She's raised nearly $10 million so far.

What about the rest?

"I'm working on it," Ms. Price said. "I'm hopeful and I'm tenacious. And I have my dreams."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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