Report-back: Community Board 2 Parks Committee Meets On WSP Private Conservancy – Part I

by cathryn on June 13, 2013

Updated 8:45 p.m.

Last Wednesday, June 5th, Community Board 2′s Parks Committee held a meeting to discuss the private Conservancy “in formation” at Washington Square Park.

Well, let’s be clear: the organization is already formed, but, in theory, the structure (or something like that) is still up for debate.

The takeaway is that C.B. 2′s Parks Committee, accustomed to even the Village’s smallest parks having some private entity attached to them, believes that they can control how a private Conservancy functions at their largest and most important park and so they were not ready to vote against the idea as a committee. More on that to follow — first, the meeting.


Above, left to right: Justine Leguizamo, Veronica Bulgari, Gwen Evans, Elizabeth Ely – “founding members” WSP Conservancy

The meeting

Community Board 2 Parks Committee’s June meeting was the second in a row that featured a ‘hot’ topic which also involved Washington Square Park.

The meeting, held at the Lesbian and Gay Community Service Center on 13th Street, was chaired by Parks Committee member Susanna Aaron (Parks Committee chair Rich Caccappolo was not present due to business travel).

The meeting was attended by more than 100 people and there was definitely a battle going on —  perhaps the true battle for Washington Square.

There was an introduction of the four “founding members” of the Washington Square Park Conservancy – Veronica Bulgari, Elizabeth Ely, Gwen Evans, and Justine Leguizamo, a short statement by new WSP Administrator Sarah Neilson (who currently has a dual role as “executive director” of the Conservancy), an overview by Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, questions from the Parks Committee for the Conservancy members, and then public comment with some additional questions interspersed.

The commentary from the public seemed like a a volley of “yes to conservancy,” “no to conservancy.” I didn’t tally which way the numbers were going however my impression was that people in favor of a Conservancy had different concerns than those against a Conservancy. People in favor did not seem concerned about the park remaining accountable to the public or maintaining the park’s spirit. They appeared mainly concerned with having a “clean, safe and beautiful” park – at least that is what a number of them said in different ways. (I think that is ‘code’ for something else but I’ll come back to that.)

For the most part, the people who attended on behalf of the Conservancy were asked to come by the Conservancy board which placed flyers in some nearby co-op lobbies. Some of the people in favor in the audience held bright canary yellow 8 1/2 x 11 pieces of pro-Conservancy literature: “Yes to WSPC” and “More plants” (???) were two I noted. (WSPC = Washington Square Park Conservancy.)

The founding members revealed that they first started floating the idea around last summer (2012) and even met with former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe before he departed. Of course, we know that Commissioner Benepe was a huge fan of “public-private” partnerships and privatization of parks in general and not so concerned with community wishes. So it makes sense he might not have mentioned to the four women that the community had previously stated their opposition to a conservancy at Washington Square Park. (In The New York Post article, an “insider” is quoted as stating: “Park officials met privately with the nonprofit’s founders because they feared a public backlash could halt talks.”)

Conservancy board member Gwen Evans said, in setting up the organization, they were “encouraged to proceed all along the way.” However, even if Commissioner Benepe did not bring up the community and park-goers’ reservations about a conservancy at Washington Square Park, it is difficult to believe that nobody else did. One of the first things I learned writing this blog was that the community and park-goers were not in favor of a Conservancy at Washington Square Park.

The board members stated that they are there to raise funds, to provide for some items, such as night-time garbage removal, a playground associate in one of the playgrounds and perhaps hiring other park staff such as gardeners and maintenance personnel.

Elizabeth Ely (who would seem the most likely to know about the opposition to the idea because she clearly was involved in at least some of the contentious meetings around the park redesign) said, “We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. The city runs the park.”

Sarah Neilson WSP Administrator speaks (conservancy board members and Parks Committee behind her)

Questions

This all brings up so many questions such as … why should the Washington Square Park administrator, a Parks Department employee, also be the Conservancy “executive director?” 

Sarah Neilson, the person holding that position, has been a Parks Department employee for the last 2 1/2- 3 years as a “staff analyst” in the Capital Projects division. At the meeting, she stated that “it makes sense for the two roles to be held by the same person. … [that way we can] share news and events about the park.”

Bill Castro said something similar: “It allows us to have both of them working in harmony.”

Call me confused. If the Washington Square Park Conservancy is mainly working to raise funds and not “running” the park, what’s the big deal about sharing news? Can’t they just send each other memos?

This seems like an incredible slippery slope making it easier for the park to go from having a Conservancy that “just” raises money to eventually running the park. If it’s not right now, down the line.

As I wrote in a piece in a “Talking Point” in this week’s Villager:

At Madison Square Park, an innocent “friends” group formed with restaurateur Danny Meyer at the helm. Two years later, it morphed into a full-on conservancy running the park, with Meyer’s private business, Shake Shack, granted exclusive rights to set up shop in the park.

Community Board 5 has complained over the years about the commercialization of parks in its district — Madison Square Park, Union Square Park, Bryant Park — all run today by private entities.

Community Board 2 seems to think they can regulate this just by putting some stipulations on how the Conservancy functions going forward. This is a flawed strategy.

Why can’t this organization just be like the Washington Square Association, Friends of Washington Square Park, Funds for Washington Square Park, etc.? Raise funds and that’s (pretty much) it. 

The Conservancy members offered no mission statement, no bylaws. When asked for their projected 1st year, 5 year budgets, they had no answer.

As Community Board 2 member Keen Berger stated, “It is very suspicious how this is happening. Don’t we already have organizations like this?”

Community member Mary Johnson said, “We were promised there would not be any conservancy. The Washington Square Association has been doing this [raising funds] for many years. We do not need another [organization].”

So why DO we need another? And why was the Parks Committee so quick to approve such an entity despite negative public sentiment?

__________________________________________

See Part II here.

 

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