Full-time charity may be Bloomberg's future

July 02, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK --Taking the first steps toward his post-mayoral life, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has all but completed the purchase of a $45 million Beaux Arts building to house the philanthropic foundation he plans to create, according to a person with knowledge of the transaction.

There has been much speculation of late that Bloomberg, one of the nation's wealthiest people, is considering a presidential run. But the purchase of the Upper East Side building suggests that becoming a full-time philanthropist is the focus of the mayor's planning for his future, as he has long said it would be.

Asked about a week ago about the presidential rumors, he said, "It is very flattering, but the truth of the matter is I will finish out my 3 1/2 more years with having the best job in the world and then run a foundation."

Bloomberg has not closed on the sale of the six-story building on 78th Street, on the corner of Madison Avenue, but he has signed a contract to do so and last week sent in a check for the full price, according to the person with knowledge of the deal, who was granted anonymity in exchange for disclosing its details.

Designed by Stanford White, a leading architect of the Gilded Age, the property was built in 1897 as a home for Stuyvesant Fish and his wife, fixtures of the so-called 400, considered the definitive list of the city's high society, according to a brochure from Sotheby's, the sales agent.

Stuyvesant Fish was a railroad executive and the son of Hamilton Fish, who had been governor of New York, a U.S. senator and secretary of state in the Grant administration.

The current owner, a real estate holding company directed by Bryan Zwan, a computer networking entrepreneur, bought the property for $31.5 million from the Limited clothing store company in 2000.

The building has roughly 18,000 square feet and can accommodate 186 people. The building would need extensive renovation and rewiring to create the kind of high-tech environment Bloomberg demands, but the fact that he is purchasing office space suggests that he wants an immediate transition to his next career.

For many years, Bloomberg has spoken about his desire to give away the bulk of his fortune, estimated at $5 billion, before he dies, and he has been steadily working toward that goal.

His largess has increased over the years.

In 1997, he gave $26.6 million to charity; last year, he ranked seventh among the nation's philanthropists in a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, giving away $144 million.

He has given more than $100 million to his alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University.

And now, even as aides continue to fuel speculation in political circles about a presidential run and Bloomberg flirts with the notion at dinner parties, he is beginning to build the framework for the foundation.

Bloomberg has told aides that he admires aspects of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with its close tracking of whether programs are meeting their goals.

In addition, it appears likely that he would focus his philanthropic efforts on the range of issues that he champions, such as public health, medical research, education and the arts, aides say.

Philanthropy experts also say that the way that Bloomberg has been using the bully pulpit since the beginning of his second term, speaking out on issues of national significance, could enhance his role in shaping public policy once he leaves office.

"People like Mayor Bloomberg are kinds of celebrities who have pulling power and can create interest in issues around which people will rally," said Eugene R. Tempel, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"If there are issues that he believes he can bring some attention and knowledge to and at the same time spread some money around, he has the ability to create public interest and attract other contributions and begin to move some of those issues," Tempel said.

Indeed, Bloomberg has said that his aim in traveling around the country, speaking out and coordinating with other leaders on a variety of issues, is to make progress on them, although those actions have been widely interpreted to signal a pending run for the White House, which Bloomberg has consistently denied.

He laid out his plans years ago to sell Bloomberg LP, the financial information and media company, and use the proceeds to finance the foundation.

With billions - it is unclear precisely how many - and a full staff at his disposal, Bloomberg would be able to direct his giving in a more concentrated way.

Although Bloomberg's foundation would be dwarfed by the Gates Foundation, which was already a charity behemoth when Warren Buffett pledged it his billions last week, at least it would be close to home.

The grand building, described as having soaring ceilings, French windows and a five-story staircase rising to an octahedral skylight, is a quick walk from Bloomberg's East 79th Street town house.

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