Gov picks woman with ties to mayor & Pataki for park post


By Lincoln Anderson

>> Diana Taylor

“Day one, everything changes” isn’t exactly how one would describe Governor Eliot Spitzer’s appointment of Diana Taylor as the new chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors last week. However, the verdict is out on whether that is, in fact, a good thing, if the governor’s tapping Taylor — a member of the Trust’s board for the last eight years — is more of the same old business or precisely what the park needed.

In addition, raising some major eyebrows is another position Taylor has held for the last seven years — namely, that of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s girlfriend.

Park watchers have been trying to decipher the meaning of Spitzer’s appointing someone so close to the mayor to be the Trust’s chief, some seeing this as a sign perhaps that Bloomberg is now calling the shots on the park. Others are even going as far as to speculate that Spitzer has been so weakened by the Troopergate scandal that he’s desperate to make all the political friends he can.

But most appear to see Taylor’s appointment as representing continuity, as well as sorely needed financial expertise at a critical moment for the park.

The mayor and governor each make five appointments to the Trust’s board of directors, and the borough president makes three. Technically, the chairperson is supposed to rotate every two years between a state and city appointee. But since the Trust was formed in 1998, the board’s chairperson has always been someone put in by the governor.

Spitzer and his lieutenant governor, David Patterson, made the announcement in a joint press release last Friday.

“With more than 20 years of experience serving in both the public and

private sectors, Diana’s expertise in finance and business management make

her uniquely qualified for this position,” Spitzer said in the release. “She will bring her leadership to the Trust’s efforts to develop the Hudson River Park.”

In the same press release, Borough President Scott Stringer said: “I am very pleased that Governor Spitzer has appointed Diana Taylor to chair the Hudson River Park Trust.  For too long, this project has been in a holding pattern and good ideas advanced by neighborhood residents have languished. We all want a Hudson waterfront that is accessible, economically self-sustaining and a first-class addition to Manhattan. I look forward to getting down to work with my partners from the community and in government.”

A lifelong Republican, Taylor, 52, grew up in Greenwich, Conn. She is currently managing director of Wolfensohn & Company L.L.C., a small investment company. She was superintendent of the state Banking Department under former Governor Pataki from 2003 to 2007.

Although Spitzer invited Taylor to continue as Banking superintendent, with the change of administrations, she chose to step down earlier this year, taking the Wolfensohn job in March.

From 1996 through 2003 she held various positions in state government, including chief financial officer of the Long Island Power Authority and deputy secretary to the governor for housing and finance.

Taylor serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including the International Women’s Health Coalition and Literacy Partners. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth and graduate degrees in business and public health at Columbia University.

However, in recent years Taylor has been known, as much as anything else, for being the girlfriend of Mayor Bloomberg. On Monday, in her highest-profile moment yet, she was featured in a front-page Daily News article headlined “Life With Mike: The woman in Hizzoner’s life opens up about her career and their relationship.”

In a telephone interview Monday, Taylor declined to discuss the tabloid’s coverage, saying “I’m not a public person.”

Somewhat similarly, up until now, Taylor has been a relatively quiet, no-nonsense member of the Trust’s board. At the park authority’s bimonthly board meetings, she typically doesn’t make quips or tell anecdotes as some of her more loquacious colleagues are wont to do.

But on Monday, Taylor expressed enthusiasm for her new post and confidence that the 5-mile-long Lower Manhattan riverfront park will get completed. As for when she officially assumes the unsalaried post, she said she’s “basically starting now,” replacing Trip Dorkey, the previous chairperson.

Getting the park built

“It’ll be great,” she said. “I’m definitely looking forward to it. The priority is to get [the park] done. Get it done and get it funded — because it’s such a great resource. Obviously, we need to get it funded.”

Referring to the hotly debated redevelopment proposals for Pier 40, as well as the stalled redevelopment of Pier 57, among others, Taylor said, “There are projects that we need to get done. There’s a lot of negotiating to do and making changes. It’s impossible to make everybody happy. We’re operating within the constraints of the [Hudson River Park Act] legislation. It’s very good legislation, I think.”

Under the legislation, Hudson River Park is supposed to be financially self-sustaining. To that end, the Trust hopes to increase revenue flow from Pier 40 — one of the park’s main “commercial nodes” — by finding a private development team to revamp the pier with commercial activities under a long-term lease. One of two current proposals, a plan by The Related Companies and Cirque du Soleil for a “Downtown Lincoln Center”-type entertainment destination on the 14-acre W. Houston St. pier, has generated intense community opposition. The Trust may vote on the issue as soon as next month.

“I am hoping we can come to a positive resolution,” Taylor said of Pier 40. “There are a lot of very concerned people who have very legitimate concerns — I hope we can make everybody happy about this. I’m looking forward to talking to everybody and hearing everybody’s concerns — as we have been.”

Downtowners are also concerned about the Tribeca section of the park. The $70 million Lower Manhattan Development Corp. grant for the project once was thought to be enough to build the whole section but now it won’t be enough to pay for any park elements in Tribeca.

As for financing the whole park, which could need up to a few hundred million dollars more to complete, Taylor said, “I am hoping to be able to bring my expertise to bear on that and be persuasive to get funding. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think that everyone was behind [the effort].”

Noting she just had been appointed chairperson four days earlier, she said she couldn’t provide details yet on her plans for ensuring that the full funds are obtained for the park’s construction and ongoing maintenance.

“Give me a little while,” she said.

No shakeups

Taylor said Trust president Connie Fishman and executive vice president Noreen Doyle are both doing a great job.

“I think they’re excellent,” she said, giving the impression there won’t be significant staff shakeups.

At the same time, Taylor added, the board of directors must keep up on the issues.

“It’s important to let the staff do their jobs,” she said. “Things like Pier 40 and Pier 57, I think you need to be pretty involved, if nothing else, as a backup to the staff. These are big issues. I think that’s why it’s important for the board to be informed.”

Taylor was appointed to the Trust in 1999, before she even was dating Bloomberg “and definitely before he was running for mayor,” she said.

In terms of politics, she said there’s nothing unusual about a Democratic governor appointing her — a G.O.P.er — as chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust.

“This is a very bipartisan park,” she said. “It’s not a Democratic or Republican park. You try to do the best for the greatest amount of people. It’s too important to have partisan differences.”

She said as state Banking commissioner, she operated the same way, nonpartisan.

Asked if the mayor, who recently switched from Republican to independent, had a hand in her appointment, she said not at all.

“The mayor had absolutely nothing to do with this,” she stressed. “Believe me. Trust me on that.”

Spokespersons for the mayor and governor confirmed that Taylor’s appointment was based on the merits.

“This is a gubernatorial appointment,” said Jennifer Givner, a Spitzer spokesperson. “She headed the state Banking Department. She has a proven track record. The governor has put his trust in her to take the wheel and move ahead with some of the great initiatives that the Hudson River Park Trust has going on.”

Added Stu Loeser, a Bloomberg spokesperson, “All I can say is the mayor obviously thinks Diana Taylor is an extraordinarily remarkable individual. But he in no way asked the governor to do this.”

Givner added that any suggestion that Spitzer’s anxiety over Troopergate — in which the governor’s office used State Police to try to smear Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno — may have somehow compelled Spitzer to pick Taylor to curry favor with the mayor was way off base.

According to a source, as soon as Taylor left the Banking Department in March — more than three months before the Troopergate story broke — she was being considered for Trust chairperson.

“I know Diana Taylor stepped down long before this began,” Givner said of Troopergate. Givner emphasized that to infer any connection between the Albany scandal and Taylor’s appointment would be “a disservice to Diana’s years of public service and her incredible qualifications.”

Local reactions

Local park advocates were generally favorable to Taylor’s selection, but some had strong reservations.

Henry Stern, the city’s former Parks Department commissioner, was bullish on the former Banking superintendent.

“It’s a wonderful appointment,” he said. “There’s always a risk in politics that it can be a political appointment — a contributor, or someone chosen to please someone, a person chosen from a certain group.

“She can’t go into the Bloomberg administration, so it’s the ideal spot,” Stern continued. “It’s midway between city and state. Everybody on both sides really likes her. She gives the impression of being warm-hearted. Hopefully, she can use her influence with both the governor and the mayor to get the park funded.”

Tom Fox, the first president of the Trust’s predecessor, the Hudson River Park Conservancy, from 1992-’95 and an early planner of the park, was also positive on Taylor. Fox now operates New York Water Taxi — which makes stops in Hudson River Park — and is a board member of Friends of Hudson River Park, the park’s leading advocacy group.

“I think it’s a great choice,” he said. “She’s been on the board eight years. She knows the park. She knows finance — which is critical to the park. She obviously straddles both sides of the political aisle and the city and state.”

To those critics who wanted an environmentalist as chairperson, Fox said, “We have environmentalists on the board — Carol Ash [state Parks commissioner], Adrian Benepe [city Parks commissioner] and Pete Grannis [Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner] — but we don’t have the money to finish the park. When we put the park together [back in the 1980s], we knew the finances would be the challenge.”

Fox said the Friends will issue a report next month arguing that since Hudson River Park has so clearly increased real estate values along the waterfront, some of that financial windfall should be directed back to the park.

Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Waterfront Committee, also was glad to hear of Taylor’s selection.

“She’s a very straightforward person, thoughtful,” he said. “When she was on the Trust’s board she was always there. She attended meetings. She asked questions, which was more than some board members. She’s got the ear of the mayor. I think she brings something the Trust has been lacking — good business planning.”

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, though, was not pleased.

“Of course, I’m disappointed the governor didn’t select somebody with either an environmental or a park background,” she said. “And there are certainly people who have strong financial credentials but also have an environmental record. And, of course, it’s peculiar that the governor would appoint Diana Taylor, since the mayor already has substantial influence on the Trust board. Taylor clearly will have a great deal of connection to the mayor.

“I’m hopeful the focus will still be on the park,” Glick continued, “although the mayor’s bent when it comes to parks seems to be more toward privatization and moving toward spending more effort on Versailles/Gramercy parks, rather than maintaining open access to parks — the Randall’s Island deal [allowing private prep schools to use the fields much of the time in return for their providing funding] being one of those indications.”

Also discouraged was Ed Kirkland, a former president of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council and a Community Board 4 member. Kirkland had supported former State Senator Franz Leichter, a co-author of the ’98 park act and a Trust board member, for chairperson.

“I’ve attended most Trust board meetings and I don’t remember her as saying very much,” Kirkland noted of Taylor. “Look, everybody just says ‘yes’ most of the time,” he added, implying that the board’s votes are basically a rubber stamp of the staff’s recommendations.

Kirkland took the selection of Taylor as a sign that Spitzer “doesn’t seem to be interested in the park.”

As opposed to Hudson River Park, with its Greenwich Village section completed and its Chelsea and Tribeca sections well underway, Kirkland noted, “Some say Spitzer wants to make his mark at Governors Island — someone needs to take hold of it — where he can make a new initiative and make a difference.”

That the governor took seven and a half months to appoint a Trust chairperson fuels such speculation, some say.

Tobi Bergman, president of Pier Park and Playground Association, which runs youth sports programs and a baseball camp on Pier 40, struck a cautiously encouraging note.

“Of course, I’m concerned about how she will handle Pier 40, because the city’s lead member on the Trust board, [Deputy Mayor] Dan Doctoroff, who is also close to the mayor, is Related’s strongest supporter,” Bergman said. “But I’m a park advocate and therefore relentlessly optimistic by nature. So I think she will take her leadership role very seriously. And along with her professional qualifications, experience and contacts, if she has an open mind, her tenure will bode very well for the future of the park.”