Updated again November 13, 2013
Updated June 28, 1:07 p.m. from previous version on 6/27 at 9:28 p.m.. Additions are noted with a plus sign (+).
Note: this post may be long but I felt the need to place all this information in one post. Please stay with it. Thanks.
Manhattan’s Community Board 2 represents the section of Manhattan, bordering from 14th Street to Canal Streets, the Hudson River to the Bowery, with Greenwich Village falling notably within its boundaries. The June meeting of the full board which took place last week was not just any meeting of the board. This meeting, held Thursday, June 20th in SoHo’s Scholastic Building auditorium, was set to address a resolution passed by the board’s Parks Committee earlier this month. It was now coming before the larger body for discussion and potentially a vote by the 51 member board.
The issue: that looming private conservancy at Washington Square Park, the district’s largest and ‘iconic’ park.
At the 6 p.m. start of the meeting, as at every board meeting, for 2 minutes, members of the public could address any issue that existed within the board’s jurisdiction. For those who chose to address the “proposed” conservancy at Washington Square Park, this was the only place to present commentary and direct questions, notably with no mechanism to obtain answers, following the Parks Committee meeting held two weeks prior (June 5th) dedicated to “addressing” the topic. (Again, with no mechanism to receive answers to the many questions and concerns that arose there.)
Somewhere between 1 to 1-1/2 years ago, the city’s Parks Department begins secret talks with individuals regarding a private Conservancy at Washington Square Park
The city’s Parks Department first met in private at some point 1 to 1-1/2 years ago (the time frame keeps shifting) with the four Conservancy founding members – Veronica Bulgari, Elizabeth Ely, Gwen Evans, and Justine Leguizamo – to discuss a conservancy at Washington Square Park. Presumably, it was with these four women — though perhaps some came on board later; it remains unclear who was at the initial meetings.
The NYC Parks Department was very aware that there was community opposition to a conservancy at Washington Square Park. (Something the conservancy founders say never came to their attention at any point prior to coming before the Community Board. “We were encouraged all along the way,” said board member Gwen Evans at the Parks Committee meeting.)
Former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe met with these individuals about installing a private conservancy at Washington Square Park at some point before his departure around Labor Day 2012. Not surprising: Commissioner Benepe was never really a fan of implementing fair and transparent process or accommodating community wishes; in fact, he often seemed to go out of his way to do just the opposite.
At the Parks Committee meeting, Conservancy board member Gwen Evans said it was the summer of 2012 that they first met with the Parks Department. At the full Community Board meeting later in the month, Veronica Bulgari said it was 1-1/2 years ago. Let’s just it was at least one year ago that a conservancy began to be formed.
(The question of who brokered or initiated this meeting is unclear. When I first got word that a Conservancy was being formed earlier this year, I was told Washington Square Association President Anne-Marie Sumner was in the mix. Despite statements to others that she is not involved, it is very possible that she was a figure in the initial discussions. Note: I am happy to correct this if this is untrue. The Washington Square Association has existed for 107 years. They have taken some questionable positions over the years — way back, when they supported keeping traffic running through the park, and, more recently, when they supported the park’s dramatic redesign. However, people feel relatively comfortable with their involvement with the park. The organization doesn’t try to exert too much control, they raise money for the park, and they reliably help support two events at the park each year – in December, the Christmas tree lighting, and, in the summer, the Washington Square Music Festival. Many have wondered why this organization was not utilized here in raising funds for the park – if that is indeed the issue.)
+ October 2012:
While community remains in the dark, Washington Square Park Conservancy Certificate of Incorporation Application submitted to New York State. The organization also filed for 501(c)(3) status either before this or at the same time. Mission statement and bylaws would have been prepared. Yet, at every step of the way, when this documentation has been asked for by elected officials and at public meetings – this information has been obscured and never been presented to the public – to this day. (A mission statement was finally read – out loud – at the C.B. 2 full board meeting.)
March 2013: WSP Admin Sarah Neilson Starts Her Job With “Dual Role” as Exec Director of Conservancy
Despite how long ago this secretive process began, the community and park-goers only became aware of the conservancy’s existence a few months ago around March or April and were then placed in the position of having to rush to catch up to everything that had been done in private out of public view.
Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson assumed her position sometime in early March (previous park administrator Rebecca Ferguson left in August 2012 and the Parks Department obviously seized upon this ‘opportunity’) and began using her “dual title” as admin and Washington Square Park Conservancy “Executive Director” in emails, voicemail and letters almost immediately. The Conservancy had its 501(c)(3) status “in place” well in advance of March when Neilson assumed the position, something that takes a bit of time to come together. Yet it took many months before this was even brought to the attention of the community.
The role of Community Board 2
Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber and Community Board 2 Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo were both made aware of the pending formation of a conservancy as far back as last summer. C.B. 2 Chair David Gruber said at the June 20th board meeting: “It was so long ago… I don’t remember.” Caccappolo stated, “I had no idea people would be against [it]. I was not on the board in 2005.” (Note: At that time up until 2008 at least — Washington Square Park and its redesign was the topic of numerous board meetings.)
+ Rich Caccappolo said the formation of the Conservancy was brought to his attention before he was chair of the Parks Committee.
Just step back a minute. How could neither be aware of the controversies and implications of conservancies in New York City? How could they not have consulted with others on the board? (Beyond former Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman, previously a Parks Department employee who always ‘errs’ on the side of the Parks Department.) For example, executive officer of the board, Keen Berger, only became aware of the Conservancy earlier this year when everyone else did.
April 2013: Sarah Neilson’s “Dual Title” Revealed Publicly – by Chance
Sarah Neilson’s hiring along with the fact that she held a “dual role” at Washington Square Park — as park Administrator and “Executive Director” of the Washington Square Park Conservancy — was first mentioned in an entirely off-hand manner at the early April meeting of the Parks Committee, when Parks Department Staffer Ralph Musolino was asked if a replacement had been found for previous park administrator Rebecca Ferguson.
Media Coverage of Conservancy and Concerns – Mid to late April 2013
It was after this meeting, coverage of the existence of the Conservancy first appeared, including:
* My piece on Privatization of the Commons in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York Huffington Post (April 15, 2013),
* here at Washington Sq Park Blog (April 22, 2013 and onward),
* Bill Castro’s (Manhattan borough Parks Commissioner) “Talking Point” in The Villager (April 25, 2013), and
* New York Post (April 28, 2013)
It was apparently then that Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber and Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo realized they had AN ISSUE on their hands.
May 1st Parks Committee Meeting – Conservancy moved off agenda
The topic of the Conservancy (and its “planned creation”) was initially placed on the Community Board Parks Committee’s May 1st meeting agenda:
1. 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.
2. Changes to Parks Dept rules governing expressive matter vendors: Senior Parks Dept. representative will attend to explain the new rules and enforcement thereof.
Note: “planned creation of a Conservancy” (tho’ the conservancy already existed).
The response to this email alert was “huge,” per Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo. However, not so fast.
The Parks Department said they would only discuss the issue of performance / “expressive matter vendor” rules at the park at the meeting – an issue which had resurfaced. New Parks Department “rules” were going into effect on May 8th. No one knew what this would mean for performers at Washington Square Park.
Parks officials told Caccappolo they would not attend if the Conservancy was on the agenda. A combination of caving to Parks Department’s demands combined with fear of another “performance crackdown” led the Parks Committee to move the Washington Sq Park Conservancy topic to its June meeting. (What transpired at the May 1st meeting can be read here.)
Yet, as of 1:30 p.m. on April 30th, no email alert had gone out to the community announcing the fact that the Conservancy was no longer a topic on the committee’s agenda, so, in fact, a number of people came to that May 1st meeting to talk about it. (A Community Board announcement finally went out via email late on the 30th or on May 1st.)
You can’t really blame people who appeared at Grace Church Hall, where the meeting was being held, who attempted to discuss the Conservancy, not having gotten word that the topic had been removed from the May meeting agenda. When they attempted to speak about it – after all, many of them had come expressly for that purpose — Parks Chair Rich Caccappolo shut them down. (None of these people were for the Conservancy by the way. And many of these people I never saw again — at either the June 5th Parks meeting or before the full board’s vote June 20th.)
I advocated to the Community Board that the full board should hold a separate public hearing on the issue of the Washington Square Park Conservancy and not wait until June – to no avail.
June 5th: Parks Committee Meeting
Community Board 2 Parks Committee Meeting announcement for June 5th Meeting:
*Presentation by and discussion with the Parks Department regarding the formation of a Washington Square Park Conservancy.
(Note: “creation” … “formation” words used to describe a body that already exists.)
Parks chair Rich Caccappolo was unavailable to attend the June 5th meeting, a meeting he typically always chairs. The meeting was chaired by Susanna Aaron. (Full WSP Blog coverage of this meeting can be viewed here.) Afterwards, in executive session, members of the committee seemed to reject the validity of community concerns and proceeded as if there was no option but to accept the product of the Parks Department’s secret negotiations involving their landmark park.
Yet, instead of standing up and saying, “no, this is not acceptable,” the Parks Committee further caved, somehow determining that there was no alternative but to act right away and determine this body – the Washington Square Park Conservancy – should be put into play.
+ After cursory discussion by the committee, Aaron, as acting chair, moved to call the vote. “Public” member of the committee Sharon Woolums said she did not feel prepared to vote without additional information, without seeing, for example, the organization’s bylaws and mission statement. Aaron responded that she didn’t think the group had those documents yet and pushed for the vote to occur. The Parks Committee approved the Conservancy 11-1.
The committee took this vote without seeing bylaws, certificate of incorporation, mission statement, or finding out why exactly it is necessary for the park administrator to also be the executive director of the Conservancy. (As previously noted, none of this documentation has been seen or this question answered to this day.)
+ While the vote was to approve the Conservancy, the actual resolution that would be presented to the full Community Board would contain the addition of “stipulations” which sought to address concerns. The resolution’s language was worked on within the two weeks between the Parks Committee meeting and the full board meeting. (This was done behind-the-scenes almost up to the last minute…. most of the full board did not see the resolution until the night of the meeting.)
Thus, it became a rush to the finish — through Community Board generic mechanisms — after one meeting, not even a public hearing, committee votes on resolution and then presents to full board — a “process” that failed to sufficiently address the challenges this decision required for the board’s most important park, in fact, one of New York City’s.
The community was being pushed to accept this situation pretty much as a fait accompli but was attempting to get its voice heard in the discussion of the matter.
Was King of “Public-Private” Partnerships Mayor Mike Bloomberg behind-the-scenes here?
Behind-the-scenes dealings including pressure by the city’s Parks Department for the Community Board to accept this body seem entirely probable. After all, the Parks Department had gone to great lengths to conceal the conservancy’s development and existence from the community for over a year.
If that was the case, what was the fear that was being forced on the Community Board? That Washington Square Park was going to… fall apart?
Indeed, at other parks, which have full-on conservancies which run, manage and maintain (in theory) these parks, including Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, Central Park, Union Square Park, and Prospect Park, those conservancies took hold when the corresponding parks were at low points – and they have not let go.
As Georgia Silvera Seamans said at the June 20th full board meeting: Washington Square Park in 2013 is not Central Park in the 1970s.
In fact, I wonder if Mayor Mike Bloomberg himself, king of the”public-private” partnership, might have exerted pressure on Manhattan Borough
President Parks Commissioner Bill Castro and that is why he seemed so anxious about making this happen.
June 20th: Full Community Board 2 Meeting
This meeting merits a post (to come shortly) onto its own. Yet perhaps the statement of community member Mary Johnson summed it up well: “Don’t give away the park.”
Statements of some Community 2 Board members inferred that this is so cut and dry and there are no issues. Really?
Perhaps they might think this if they had only read the first ‘whereas’ of the Parks Committee Resolution — which the full board only had a chance to read (if they indeed did) right before the meeting — which said: that the mission of the four founding members of the Washington Square Park Conservancy “will be to raise funds and organize volunteers in support of Washington Square Park.”
That does sound pretty benign, doesn’t it?
And yet what about all the “stipulations” attached? If there are no issues, why are these necessary? Is this really serving the community – to just ignore the concerns and unanswered questions that remain?
What about avoiding addressing the tough questions put forth by elected officials who might, on the whole, know a bit more than these 51 individuals that comprise the Community Board?
Former Council Member Alan Gerson (representing the district from 2002-2009) told me that it was “absolutely clear” to the Parks Department that if a conservancy was to be introduced, it would be an “open and transparent process with full community oversight and input.”
This was not an “open and transparent process.” And yet many of the Community Board members couldn’t seem to absorb what an alternative process might look like.
+(The day of the vote, although with perhaps not enough time to build steam amongst the board and community members reaching out to them, an editorial appeared in influential neighborhood weekly, The Villager: Conservancy Concerns.)
(April-June) Concerns Expressed by New York State Elected Officials – Including Former Community Board 2 Chair
NYS Assemblymember Deborah Glick and NYS Senator and former Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman wrote to Parks Commissioner Veronica White in late April:
It seems that the process for the creation of a Conservancy thus far has intentionally been done quickly and quietly because the Department of Parks understands full-well that the community would have strong opinions if they knew of this plan. We urge you to slow down and engage in the public discourse that this topic deserves and allow for a democratic process.
Upon seeing the committee resolution and after meeting with the Conservancy founders, Assemblymember Glick had a number of questions she felt were not addressed by the Parks committee’s resolution.
The Problem with Sarah Neilson’s “Dual Role”
It’s never been adequately explained why it is necessary for Sarah Neilson to hold a “dual role” or why the Conservancy cannot just raise funds for the park as other organizations, like the afore-mentioned Washington Square Association, do. The existence of this dual role is cause alone for concern. The other full-blown and very commercialized park conservancies have this same set up (such as Madison Square, Central Park, Prospect Park, etc. … tho’ the Parks Department and Conservancy tried to redirect fears by pointing to Riverside Park and Fort Tryon Park — parks that people know little about. And yet, the Riverside Park Conservancy is a full-on conservancy that manages, maintains and operates that park.)
The Parks Committee (strangely enough) added on to their resolution that the “dual role” of Sarah Neilson as Park Admin and Exec. Director of the Conservancy was for “administrative efficiency.” Did someone from the Parks Department specify that to them?
Sarah Neilson said at the June 5th meeting that the dual role existed so they could all share “news and events about the park.” As if e-mail does not exist and there was some challenge to this in this day and age.
Control of Washington Square Park – Mantra: “Clean, Safe and Beautiful”
The city says they have “no formal agreement” with the Conservancy.
Conservancy board member Elizabeth Ely said at the June 5th meeting, “We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. The city runs the park.”
And yet their employee, Conservancy “Executive Director,” Sarah Neilson (who they say will not be paid), as Park Administrator is “the city.”
The mantra of the four founding members of the Conservancy as well as Neilson was repeated over and over at the two meetings:
We just want to “Keep Washington Square Park clean, safe and beautiful.”
Somebody said to me, “That sounds like a statement that tested well in focus groups.” I mean, it’s really hard to take issue with that, isn’t it? And yet, there’s something so sanitized about that view. Washington Square Park is not a garden to their Fifth Avenue backyards.
It remains that nobody has seen this group’s bylaws — and what the bylaws state about “succession” in the organization. What happens when these four founding members, who present themselves as benign, “civic minded” and non-threatening, move on?
So, it basically comes down to control, doesn’t it? The Community Board was dazzled on the whole thinking that this Conservancy is these four neighborhood women who just want to organize volunteers and raise funds … oh, and hire PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol) officers… oh, and a Playground Associate which they’ve deemed necessary, … oh, and plant additional flowers … oh and provide “programming” for the park.
I’m sorry but this starts to look a lot like “running the park.”
Community Board 2 Vote
+ The 3 page Parks Committee resolution was not available for the 51 member board to read and digest until pretty much the last minute; the public only had a chance to view the resolution if they knew of its existence on a front table at the venue when they arrived at the meeting. Many probably did not even know it was there.
A motion to postpone the vote to approve the conservancy thereby giving the matter further review and readdressing at the September 2013 board meeting failed. The vote: 25-18. Then, the vote for the original resolution by the Parks Committee to approve the Washington Square Park Conservancy was reintroduced. The resolution passed 31-13.
After the Parks Department held meetings in private with these individuals for anywhere from 1 year to 1-1/2 years ago, how could the Community Board rush this process?
No Meaningful Review
By giving away “control” to this group of individuals who now run this private Conservancy, Community Board 2 has given away its most important park. This has been done WITHOUT MEANINGFUL PUBLIC REVIEW and WITHOUT DISCLOSURE OF ALL ACTIVITIES WHICH UP TO NOW HAVE BEEN CONDUCTED IN PRIVATE.
+ So the Parks Department holds secret meetings over a year and half with private individuals to form a Conservancy (“Park officials met privately with the nonprofit’s founders because they feared a public backlash could halt talks, one insider said.” Source: New York Post). And the Community Board not only moved the Conservancy off the May meeting agenda, at the Parks Department’s request, but when the topic finally was introduced at the June 5th Parks Committee meeting, there was no mechanism for a true discussion with answers to the questions that were raised. There was no ‘counter’ argument or informed discussion to illuminate to the board and the public the larger issues that might be present. Public comment is great but in 2 or 3 minutes there is only so much a person can say.
+ The four Conservancy “founding members” gave their pitch for the Conservancy (again, without mission statement, bylaws, certificate of incorporation) while sitting at the very same table as the Parks Committee. This was not even a public hearing – it was a committee meeting. Many in the public at large probably didn’t even know of the importance of this meeting or what was at stake. It seems fairly clear to me that the full Community Board has demonstrated a lack of vision (and no questioning of authority to boot) and has just given this tremendously important public space away – just like that – with no meaningful public review.
We know, from studying the history of conservancies that exist at the other parks, that they inevitably fall prey to corporate, private, and elite interests.
Oh Community Board 2… how you’ve let me and the community and park-users and the park itself down. How could you not have given this due process, thereby ignoring so many pertinent aspects? This is Washington Square Park. The park deserves more.
What to do now is the question.
Full coverage of the June 20th Community Board 2 meeting
has not appeared at this blog yet.
June 21st, 2013: Post addressed the fact that the Board approved the Conservancy at Washington Square Park at that meeting and also contained my subsequent letter to the C.B. 2 Board and Parks Committee Chairs. As I began to write up my impressions from the meeting, it segued (for now) into this analysis and timeline of the situation.
+ Private Conservancy Watch: C.B.2 “Approval” of Wash Square Park Conservancy Stipulated “Compliance” Via Language to be Included in Organization’s Bylaws — Yet Board Has Not Seen Bylaws & It’s Unclear if They Intend To November 8, 2013
All WSP Blog coverage of private Conservancy at Washington Sq Park can be found here.