So, I first mentioned this in my Huffington Post piece, Privatization of the Commons in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York (Part I) last Monday, the fact that a private conservancy has been formed at Washington Square Park to run the park. I’ve covered the privatization of public space almost since the beginning of this blog. It was my understanding, as I’ve written repeatedly, that Washington Square Park would avoid the fate of privatization because community and public sentiment was largely against it. But, alas, in late February, I got word that a private conservancy was in the works for Washington Square Park. In mid March, I learned that Rebecca Ferguson’s position as Administrator of the Park had at last been filled (she left over the summer) and this person would also run a park Conservancy.
In early April, I attended a meeting of the Community Board 2’s Parks Committee. During the meeting, a committee board member asked Ralph Musolino, the Parks Department staffer who looks after District 1 and District 2 parks, for “the latest” on Washington Square Park (the park was not on the agenda). Mr. Musulino said he knew that Phase III of the project was “on schedule” but didn’t really have any other details.
Mr. Musolino was then asked if a replacement had been found for Rebecca Ferguson, former Park Administrator. “Yes,” Mr. Musolino replied offhandedly, “Sarah Neilson,” adding that Ms. Neilson comes from the “Capital Projects division of the Parks Department” and that she is Washington Square Park Administrator and “also executive director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy.” One board member, startled, said, “She’s also ‘what?’ What did you say?” Rich Caccappolo, Parks Committee Chair, stepped in to say that he was aware of this and that it was a “unique” arrangement where Ms. Neilson would hold both positions. (If it’s like many of the other parks that have private entities running them, it doesn’t honestly sound that unique… that’s how the Parks Department does it.) I mentioned some of the history that preceded this meeting… that, if a Conservancy was ever to be put into play, this was supposed to be a public discussion, the community was against the idea, etc. Mr. Caccappolo said that Ms. Neilson would be attending the next Parks Committee meeting.*
At last week’s Community Board 2 full board meeting, I got up to speak. I said that the Community Board, for which I have such respect on many issues, had fallen down on the job in relation to Washington Square Park. And now, a private Conservancy had been formed behind closed doors by the Parks Department (with a few others) at Washington Square Park. I relayed how I had spoken to former Council Member Alan Gerson and he had told me specifically that if such a thing were to be considered, that this would be “open and transparent, subject to community input and normal oversight.”
After I spoke, Rich Caccappolo said to the crowd that he mispoke at that Parks Committee meeting and that he was told by the Parks Department that the Conservancy is “in formation.” (A note: The Parks Department is now backtracking. If you call Sarah Neilson and get her voicemail, it says clear as day that she is Washington Square Park administrator “and Executive Director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy.”) Then, Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber asked if this would be something the full board would pass a resolution about. Mr. Caccappolo said the committee would look at it first.
Shortly afterwards, after several other speakers on other topics, community member Mary Johnson rose to speak and she said:
Five community board chairs ago, in arguments against construction at the park, the community protested what was going on. Now on Phase 102 [of construction at the park], one of the things that’s come up is a conservancy. We discussed this, we protested this. Alan Gerson, Brad Hoylman, Tobi Bergman [all involved]. It was taken off the table. Now, suddenly, we are hearing about a conservancy again. It is a public park, we do not want it privatized.
In researching my series for this blog and the Huffington Post on privatization of the commons, I contacted Jonathan Greenberg, a park advocate who was lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits that attempted to halt the redesign of the park. When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, upon being informed of a Conservancy forming at Washington Square Park, he said, “They seem to not have had any vetting process. I wonder, when did we vote to get New York City out of the business of public parks?” He added, “They just spent millions to fix the park and now look at the dried up grass. They are doing it deliberately. It is back door privatization [so they can say that] a private conservancy can do it better. Who says? The people never voted for this. I want our elected officials to say we don’t have money to fix the grass. This is being done secretly and surreptitiously against the expressed will of the people.”
Margie Rubin, an artist and disability advocate, recalls it stated that, “if they went ahead with the renovation, as it was, there would be no conservancy ever. People are afraid the park will become part of NYU and there would be more rules and regulations than there are.”
When I contacted Former Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman, now New York State Senator (representing the Village) for his thoughts on the conservancy model, he responded: “I’m not supportive of conservancies in general for parks because I think that the design, operations and management of public parks should remain transparent and accountable to the local communities they serve. The conservancy model has a tendency to undermine these goals.”
At a meeting of the (unfortunately abandoned) Washington Square Park Task Force back in summer of 2008, I covered the meeting (in eight parts!), and this came up:
At the meeting, the question was asked: “Will there be a conservancy which will have NYU and other corporate interests on the board?” Rebecca Ferguson, Washington Square Park administrator and Parks Department spokesperson stated, “There are no plans for a Conservancy.”
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*The next CB2 Parks Committee meeting at which the new WSP Administrator will be present is Wednesday, May 1st 6:30 p.m. Location TBD.
Stay tuned… there is more! Part II to follow.