Last Wednesday, April 24th, a special notice came from Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber outlining the agenda for the next meeting of the Parks/Waterfront Committee on Wednesday, May 1st, stating topics of discussion including:
Washington Square Park: Introduction to the new Administrator, Sarah Nielson, for discussion of park-related projects and issues, including status of Phase 3 renovations, PEP officer staffing, and planned creation of a Conservancy.
Changes to Parks Dept rules governing expressive matter vendors: Senior Parks Dept. representative will attend to explain the new rules and enforcement thereof.
Later that week, I was told that the Parks Department had told the board that they wouldn’t attend if the Conservancy was on the agenda. When I heard this, I felt that “the clock is ticking” on this topic of discussion, but, perhaps, a separate full Community Board hearing on the matter (as the board did with the performance issue when it cropped up in 2011) was in order anyway. Yet, the more I thought about it, of course, it serves the Parks Department if the discussion is pushed far into the future so that it becomes a done deal. The Parks Department made their bed — now they have to lie in it.
Behind Closed Doors
Discussions related to “the creation” of a Conservancy were all done behind closed doors (as I first wrote April 15th at the Huffington Post). Sunday’s New York Post confirmed this: “Park officials met privately with the nonprofit’s founders because they feared a public backlash could halt talks, one insider said.”
It is astounding. So, “four [wealthy] women” work behind the community’s and elected officials’ backs to create a private Conservancy, having decided that is what Washington Square Park needs, while ignoring overwhelming community sentiment which says just the opposite.
Working “with” the community while ignoring them?
Justine Leguizamo, actor John Leguizamo’s wife, one of the people involved, is on the board of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation(GVSHP) and I gather that is supposed to give her credentials. She told The Post, “We want the park to be clean, safe and beautiful… We want to work with the community to make this park as great as it can be.”
It’s curious… if Ms. Leguizamo “wanted to work with the community,” why did she agree to discussions behind closed doors? Why wasn’t the community consulted first?
And, as much respect as I have for much of GVSHP’s work, when it came to Washington Square Park, the organization took no position on anything related to the redesign, including the moving of the park’s historic fountain. In fact, George Vellonakis, the park’s controversial redesigner, had served on their board. So, unfortunately, we cannot count them as an ally here — both Elizabeth Ely and Justine Leguizamo, two of the “four women” involved in the Conservancy who met secretly with the Parks Department, are on their board.
Non-profit needed to plant daffodils?
As long-time park advocate Jonathan Greenberg said to me, “I … wonder why these things cannot happen with a professionally staffed, sufficiently funded public agency: The Parks Department. They do not require a private non-profit to plant daffodils or run an art program.”
I’ve started to think that the Parks Department has a self esteem problem and the agency doesn’t believe that they can run a public city park anymore – but note to Parks Department: tho’ I may have been critical of you at times, you are preferred to a private Conservancy!
There is no reason these “four women” could not be raising funds on their own without being handed control of this public park … IF that is the issue – again, as I wrote yesterday, that’s never been said.
What happened to a Transparent Process?
As I wrote at this blog April 22nd:
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.”
In addition, Council Member Alan Gerson 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.”
Qualifications of New Park Administrator Unknown
It’s unclear what credentials new park Administrator, Sarah Neilson, has beyond having been a “staff analyst” in the Capital Projects Division at the Parks Department since 2010. That does not exactly utilize the same skills as running and managing a city park. Requests for this information from the Parks Department have gone unanswered.
I attempted to attend Ms. Neilson’s so-called “Arch Hours,” as announced (only) in The Villager, yesterday (“she encourages you to stop by and say hello,” stated Bill Castro). She was supposed to be there Monday from 11 a.m. to 12 noon, one hour. Yes, it was lightly drizzling but nothing too overwhelming. I got there at 11:45; she had already left. I spoke to some Park workers, one of whom said, “Sarah, she was here, she just left.” He smiled, “She’s very nice.”
Note: No formal announcement has been made to the change of agenda of the Parks Committee meeting tomorrow so here is the information:
Community Board 2 Parks Committee Meeting
Wednesday, May 1st, 6:30 p.m.,
Grace Church School, Tuttle Hall on 1st floor
86 Fourth Avenue at 11th Street
My new series in the Huffington Post: