Updated 11/9, 8:26 a.m. — SoHo, late June 2013, Manhattan’s Community Board 2 met and voted to “approve” the Washington Square Park Conservancy, amid widespread community concern (to put it mildly) over the addition of a private body set to have some level of oversight, how much remains unclear, at the Village landmark park.
During the multi-year battle over the park’s redesign plans, the idea of a private conservancy at the park had been raised. To those involved, it had been agreed: the issue was “off the table.” Not, however, to the city’s Parks Department. Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, private entities take precedence, community wishes are secondary, if considered important at all. And so the issue resurfaced. But not in a transparent way – it was all done behind closed doors as the community found out about a Conservancy’s existence almost by accident.
Once word spread and people slowly became aware, it was as if any questions raised were too tedious to be dealt with. And so, the Community Board never dealt with them properly, not during the Board’s Parks Committee meeting in early June or the Full Board meeting just TWO WEEKS later. (I had been pushing for a full Public Hearing / separate meeting – which Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber said he’d consider but opted against ultimately.)
Lack of Confidence in Community Board 2 Vote to “Approve” WSP Conservancy — but Resolution Still Passes
Over just a few weeks, the issue came before the full Community Board and there was a rush to a vote. To appease and abate concerns (tho’ whether it did is another matter – note: it did not), the resolution by the Parks Committee (a hearing by this committee was held in early June, it was not well publicized, it had been delayed a month, and there were so many other problems with it) included “stipulations” with language for the Conservancy to consider going forward as to the intention of the “approval” and for the organization to insert into its bylaws.
At the June C.B. 2 Board meeting, Keen Berger tried to postpone the vote, initially, indefinitely. She later modified her position — to postpone until September’s board meeting (July’s Board meeting attendance is typically light and the Board does not meet in August), opting to give more time for the public and the board to view, in theory, the non-profit’s incorporation papers, bylaws, and any other relevant data to make a fully informed decision.
Some on Community Board 2 seemed nervous about this particulary since Berger initially presented her motion as open-ended (‘we’ll come back to it someday’) and she also called the introduction of the Conservancy a “trojan horse.”
The vote on Berger’s motion to postpone was 25 against, 18 in favor. Close but didn’t pass. The original resolution was then reintroduced to approve the Conservancy and passed 31 in favor, 13 against.
I spoke to Matt Borden, Chief of Staff for NY State Assembly Member Deborah Glick (she had many concerns about the unanswered questions related to the Conservancy), the day after the vote. He said that it was clear there was not a level of confidence in the vote “when you look at how the board voted.” Borden said, “There were so many votes against it. That is something you don’t usually see.”
C.B.2, What’s the Rush?
It was clear that there were some on the Board very much vested that the Conservancy be approved, despite the fact that so little information was known – and still is unknown, publicly, to this day.
There were those who chose to present the introduction of the Conservancy as … this is just these four innocent neighborhood women who want to do a nice thing for the park with some time (and money) they have on their hands. (As the founding members repeatedly said about usage of the word “Conservancy” at the two meetings and in interviews: “Every other name was taken, we’re not really a Conservancy, it’s just a name.”)
Oh, please. The Parks Department’s fingerprints were all over this.
And, in fact, they may be “nice” individually – who knows? – but, collectively, they were intentionally vague and obscured information from the Board — and the Board allowed them to do so.
Former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe may not be in charge now or even when the vote came up but he was involved at the very beginning implementing this in 2012. He was not a very truthful man. I encountered Benepe lying on more than one occasion.
Is it possible the Parks Department wrote parts of the Committee’s resolution? As you read the language — which I had not posted here previously but have now posted below — it’s just very curiously worded.
Fast Forward to Today: Conservancy Bylaws Still Unseen by the Board
As of November 6th, 2013 — four and a half months after the vote — the Community Board has not seen the organization’s amended bylaws despite the fact that the last line of the Board’s own resolution with regards to the Washington Square Park Conservancy states:
“that the by-laws be submitted to the Community Board to verify compliance and be posted on its website; that WSPC come before the Community Board and seek its approval and consent in the event of any changes in the above-noted agreements.”
The October 2nd meeting of the Parks Committee was when I first inquired as to whether the Board had seen the bylaws. Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo said, “No.” but that he’d look into it and studiously wrote it down on his pad.
Voices sprouted up amidst the board members: “Oh we should see them.” “That’s public information.” “That should be on their web site.” Washington Square Park Administrator (and Washington Square Park Conservancy Executive Director) Sarah Neilson sitting in the second row, said, “No, I don’t think so.” Nobody seemed to hear that.
Just this week, one month later, at the November Parks Committee meeting, I was informed by someone present that Neilson, when asked again about the Conservancy bylaws (which apparently no one on the Board had looked into further), told the Board, in order to see them, they could come up to her office.
Has the Community Board forgotten the language in its own resolution?
Community Board 2’s Resolution of June 20, 2013:
Community Board 2 Resolution Re: Washington Square Park Conservancy :
1. Betsey Ely, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari and Justine Leguizamo came before CB2”s Park Committee to describe their plan to create a private 501C-3 charitable organization named the Washington Square Park Conservancy (“WSPC”), whose mission will be to raise funds and organize volunteers in support of Washington Square Park; and have sought public comment and Community Board approval for their plan; and
2. Commissioner William Castro of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (“Parks”) confirmed that WSPC will have no formal agreement with Parks – neither License Agreement, Memorandum of Understanding, nor Contract – now or in the future, and that Parks will maintain its authority and operational jurisdiction over WSP; and
3. Funds raised by WSPC will be allocated for Washington Square Park expenses in a separate budget line and will not be used for Parks’ overall budget or mixed with the City general fund, and the City commitment to funding park operations will not be reduced as a result of the availability of private funds; and
4. For the sake of administrative efficiency, the Washington Square Park Administrator – a City employee whose salary is paid entirely by Parks now and in the future – will also serve as Executive Director of WSPC, but in all instances and at all times will be an employee of Parks and will represent foremost the interests and policies of Parks; and
5. Parks will maintain its authority in permitting activities in the park and will not generate revenue for WSPC through concessions, promotions, advertising, or corporate branding or activities that limit public access or commercialize the park; and
6. WSPC will not have a role in policy, planning or event creation, and all policies concerning the park will continue to be set by Parks with input from CB2; and
7. Public comment included concerns regarding process, transparency, control, and accountability, where noted and thusly addressed in this resolution; and
8. Additionally, public comment included concerns that, without private support, Parks would be unable to provide sufficient maintenance of the recent $40 million renovation to the park, especially to trees, shrubs, lawns, and gardens*; and
9. Washington Square Park serves as our community’s “flagship” park and also as an important regional attraction, world-renowned landmark, and historic point of interest attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually; and
10. The special character of the park and its intense use creates a need for enhanced maintenance and security beyond what can be funded through the City’s expense budget*; and
11. Parks agreed, as recorded in the “Gerson-Quinn Letter” to Commissioner Adrian Benepe on October 6, 2005, that “In the event that a conservancy-type organization is established to raise funds for the park, the Parks Department will encourage this entity to include a representative of Community Board 2 as well as the local Council Members as ex-officio members,” and the representatives of WSPC have agreed to this stipulation as well;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT COMMUNITY BOARD 2 MANHATTAN
1. Appreciates and endorses the effort of this group of private citizens to create an organization to build community stewardship of the park, raising additional funds for maintenance, plantings, horticultural activity, increased PEP presence, and organizing volunteers and the like;
2. Strongly encourages the WSPC to work with other established organizations – especially the Washington Square Association, the Friends of Washington Square Park, the Village Alliance, and others – for the benefit of the park and the community;
3. Encourages the WSPC, once it establishes itself, to support other smaller parks in the city that do not have equally dynamic fundraising abilities or infrastructure;
4. Insists that this organization incorporate into its by-laws the terms of the agreement represented in the “Gerson-Quinn Letter”;
5. Insists that WSPC make public its budget and activities;
6. Insists that its by-laws include a stipulation that WSPC appear periodically (or at the request of either WSPC or CB2) before the Community Board to apprise the community of its plans and activities; and that the by-laws be submitted to the Community Board to verify compliance and be posted on its website; that WSPC come before the Community Board and seek its approval and consent in the event of any changes in the above-noted agreements.
* Regarding language in the resolution as far as funding, who says? The last figure I received from the Parks Department Press Office TWO WEEKS AGO added up to $31 million for all three phases, not $40 million. Where is the Community Board getting their figures? (Tho’ I do not doubt that the cost of the Park’s redesign will reach $40 million, that is not a figure that exists TODAY.)
Why did the Board not insist that the Parks Dept come to them and say “There is not enough money in the City budget and we need xx amount to keep the Washington Square Park going.” vs. what they did — enabling the City to force a private organization on the community?
It’s a different way of thinking that a number of these Community Board members have. They refused to even consider the comments that members of the Community made; their attitude was ‘we know better.’
But, in actuality, did they?
My perception was that ALL of the language above was to be incorporated into the Conservancy bylaws, but, on re-reading now, clearly that is not so.
Will Community Board 2 follow through and insist on obtaining a copy of the Washington Square Park Conservancy bylaws? And also reiterate that the bylaws be on the Conservancy web site per their own Resolution? Stay tuned.
Inquiries to Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber and Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo have thus far gone unanswered on the topic.
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Previously at WSP Blog: