NYC Parks Commissioner Veronica White Appears Before City Council Parks Committee Misinformed About “Evolution” of Conservancy at Washington Square | Parks Department Says “No Danger” NYU will “Take Over” The Park

The following is an updated version of a post that first appeared yesterday 9/26.

Parks Department(l-to-r): Larry Scott Blackman, Veronica White, Liam Kavanagh

Last week, the New York City Council held a public hearing on an important and under-scrutinized topic, Oversight – The Role of Conservancies in Managing Public Parks. Except for the listing on the City Council’s website calendar, there was no real public notification of the 9/17 hearing which came as a surprise to many who follow park issues (including me – I dashed over to 250 Broadway at the last minute in order to attend).

As the meeting progressed, it became abundantly clear that current Parks Commissioner Veronica White had possibly been given some, shall we say, misinformation about the “evolution” of the “new” conservancy at Washington Square Park. She ultimately stated “I think it’s finally taken off” which made me wonder … can we back up a step? Can we still stop it? During the discussion, Council Member Gale Brewer expressed concern about NYU taking over the park (a concern of many which local Community Board 2 glossed over).

Clearly, the meeting was not a surprise to the 30 or so representatives from the city park-related public-private partnerships who had ample notice, time to prepare, and, in fact, were urged to come before the committee by the city’s Parks Department to voice their support of the model.

Chaired by Council Parks Committee chair Melissa Mark-Viverito, the hearing led off with comments by Parks Commissioner White summarizing her perspective on how important conservancies are to our city’s parks (and its budget). Of course, not all the entities present were actually involved in managing the parks so the title of the hearing was a bit deceptive (many of the comments from the conservancy/alliance/”friends” groups didn’t speak to the title of the hearing but did serve the purpose of bolstering the concept of “public-private”).

“Concerns” with the conservancy model were the reason for the hearing stated Council Member Mark-Viverito, particularly the view that “the practice [of conservancy-run parks] results in a disparity between parks in affluent areas and parks in lower and middle income areas.”

Prior to public comment, there was a spirited exchange between Council Member Brad Lander and Commissioner White. Lander is not on the Parks Committee and attended to ask some hard-hitting questions about lack of transparency with conservancies (to be covered in Part II). This happened as former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was seated in the back row of the room. In my view, Benepe is concerned about this as he clearly sees New York City’s privatizing of parks “trend” as his “legacy.” Also, he’s been hired by Trust for Public Land to increase the use of the model across the country. It seemed a little strange that he was there sort of lurking in the back row.

Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson was there, also Executive Director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, seated with Veronica Bulgari (who spoke) and Gwen Evans, both “founding members” of the Washington Square Park Conservancy.

Gale Brewer asked whether there were any “new” conservancies. Commissioner White responded that there were “three conservancies in nascent stages” and she listed them. Washington Square was not among these three. However, as she was answering a question about a new conservancy at Jamaica Bay, Liam Kavanagh, First Deputy Commissioner, seated next to her, was slipped a note which he moved into her view on the table.

Veronica White: Washington Square Park Conservancy has “been in evolution for years… I think it’s finally taken off.”

It was then that Commissioner White added, “A fourth that I hadn’t mentioned that’s been in evolution for years but I think it’s finally taken off is the Washington Square.” The idea that this conservancy has “been in evolution for years” is inaccurate except via a very questionable interpretation. (More on that at the end.)

City Council Member Gale Brewer: “It does have a feeling that NYU is going to take over”

Council Member Gale Brewer (also not on the Parks Committee) interjected, “Now that’s a little weird for me… then we’re all worried NYU is going to take over.” (Commissioner White looked as if she had no idea what to say in response.) Brewer continued, “When you say Washington Square, it does have a feeling that NYU will be in charge of the park.”

Commissioner Liam Kavanagh: “What’s different now is that we have an administrator dedicated to the park” (Ignoring all the WSP park administrators since 1997?)

Commissioner Liam Kavanagh stepped in, “I don’t think there’s any danger of anyone other than the people who use it every day being in charge at Washington Square Park.” (Laughter.) He continued, “There have been support groups for Washington Square Park which have been very active for many years. They’ve contributed to performances, events, the Christmas Tree lighting. What’s different now is that we have an administrator there dedicated to the park who can bring all those support groups together.”

This is curious. Since there had previously been an administrator, Rebecca Ferguson, at WSP for five years, and one or two or more people before her in that position. In fact, I believe the first full-time park administrator at Washington Square Park came on in 1997, sixteen years ago.

Regarding NYU, Kavanaugh offers: “Yes, we do expect NYU to contribute [money] to the park — their students use it very heavily.” He continues, “It’s important to note that Community Board 2 supported the formation of a conservancy at Washington Square Park when brought to the board for a vote.”

(Oh Community Board 2, such a bad decision you made here in your vote almost thinking it didn’t matter! That vote was contentious, remains controversial, and was only a majority because it was rushed through and minimal information was presented in advance.)

Kavanagh: “We certainly want to include the community at large in developing this conservancy.”

As for Kavanaugh’s next statement: “We certainly want to include the community at large in developing this conservancy.” That is also interesting … because the community at large would have liked to be involved in “developing” the conservancy and was not.

Instead, this private body was “secretly assembled.” (Someone else used this phrase to me recently about this and it is so fitting.)

Misinforming the New York City Council: Whose Decision?

  • Was Parks Commissioner Veronica White unaware of the controversial history of a proposed conservancy at Washington Square, the negative reaction from the community to such a private entity for years, the controversial vote behind the Community Board “approval”?
  • Is it possible that Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro and Parks Staffer Steve Simon give her an alternate history of the situation? She seemed honest in her testimony but, with regards to the Washington Square Park Conservancy, she outright misinformed the NY City Council.
  • Commissioner White took over as head of the Parks Department in September; that was after the Conservancy ladies first met with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe last summer and had begun doing their secret and selective rounds in the community. So secret that when people starting learning of its formation, it was a shock. People active in the redesign process were under the impression that the conservancy idea had been taken “off the table.” That’s why the meetings to form it all occurred behind closed doors via private meetings.
  • Does Commissioner White not know that there were more than a few previous Park Administrators? Did Commissioner Kavanaugh forget this when he said “What’s different now is that we have an administrator there dedicated to the park…”? (There has been a full-time park administrator since 1997.)
  • Former Park Administrator at Washington Square Park, Rebecca Ferguson, stated publicly: “There are no plans for a conservancy.”Was Commissioner White uninformed of this?

As far as the idea that the conservancy at Washington Square was “evolving for years,” that’s only in the sense that the Parks Department and a few individuals wanted this but it kept getting shot down. I suppose you could say that’s “evolving” but I’d say that’s a big stretch of the definition of that word.

*   *   *

Part II to follow.

** You can watch video of the hearing at the City Council web site here.

(p.s. Up to the moment I wrote this piece, I was under the impression that Community Board 2 chair David Gruber and current Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo were unaware of the history of negative community sentiment towards installation of a conservancy at Washington Square. They pointed to that often and seemed uninterested in learning more. However, it turns out David Gruber was part of a group in 2004 that was pro-Conservancy. They couldn’t get the idea off the ground then so they just waited nine years until he was in charge. I will come back to this.)

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