CONservancy? Intent to Privatize Washington Square Park Confirmed With Newly Uncovered Documents | NYU “Gift to the Park” Never Revealed to the Public & More (Part I)

Updated 6:11 p.m.

CONservancy? Intent to Privatize Washington Square Park Confirmed With Newly Obtained Documents

Private Conservancy Group Colluded with Parks Department Officials to Withhold Critical Information from Community to Push Through Board “Approval”

NYU’s $500,000 “Gift to the Park,” Future Licensing Agreement and Other Known Plans Never Revealed to the Public At Meetings

In mid-June of 2013, Manhattan’s Community Board 2 voted to “approve” a private body, the Washington Square Park Conservancy, to help, in the Board’s words, “raise funds and organize volunteers around Washington Square Park.” The Board, in its vote, overruled requests from elected officials, members of C.B.2, and community members to hold off on voting and allow time for review of information that had not been provided — such as bylaws, budgets, incorporation papers.

For years, the community and park users said no to a Conservancy-type organization at famous and beloved Washington Square Park.

So, how exactly did this privatization push pass through the Community Board mechanisms?

Documents uncovered by Washington Square Park Blog reveal that the Washington Square Park Conservancy founders were coached by members of Community Board 2 and by City Parks Department officials on what to say, and, more importantly perhaps, what not to say before the Board’s two meetings, held within two weeks of each other, which would determine C.B.2 approval or rejection. Board approval opened the door to what amounts to a takeover of the park: the handing over of control of Washington Square Park based on inaccurate and incomplete statements by the Parks Department and the private conservancy members.

Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro emerges as a key figure – Commissioner Castro knew that the idea of a Conservancy-type organization at Washington Square Park had been voted down many times over the last 15 years. The community expressed concerns over New York University Inc. gaining control over Washington Square Park — the corporation continues to feature the Park’s famed Arch in its advertising, as though it were their own — as well as other corporate entities looming.

Would the community prevail over private, commercial and real estate interests scheming to exert influence over who controls the Park?

Former New York City Council Member Alan Gerson represented the District containing Washington Square Park from 2002-2009. During meetings around the Park’s controversial redesign, at which the aforementioned Bill Castro was often present, Gerson confirmed that it was “absolutely” clear to Parks Department officials that IF a Conservancy were to be considered at Washington Square Park, the process by which this came into being would need to be vetted: it would be “an open and transparent process, subject to community input and normal oversight.

After all, the Board had been repeatedly lied to by the Parks Department about the years of construction, costs and look of the park. Questions have long been raised over NYU Inc.’s influence on the Park’s (and neighborhood’s) bohemian character and radical history. Yet, some on the Community Board didn’t seem to grasp these concerns. Nor did they understand why, when private conservancies had been proposed for the Park previously, they had been rejected by the community.

To avoid any “open and transparent process,” Parks Department official Bill Castro just waited a few years for a more compliant Board, now chaired by real estate broker, David Gruber.

During the (only) two meetings devoted to evaluation by the Board, both the Conservancy and the Parks Department concealed the fact that NYU, which is gobbling up huge chunks of the Village, had become a major player in the financial make-up of the Conservancy. They knew how inappropriate this would seem to Board members, some of the board members are deeply involved in the fight against NYU Inc., the leviathan in the Village. One Board member said, “I am concerned about NYU. When you give money, you have control. What about NYU?”

NYU has secretly contributed $500,000 as a “gift to the Park,” which the Parks Department decided to funnel into the private hands of the Conservancy. New York University’s “gift to the Park” was known to Parks Department officials and the Conservancy; yet when asked about NYU’s connection, they scoffed at the possibility and failed to disclose NYU’s involvement.

NYU’s concealed involvement, the Parks Department’s role in that, and Board officials’ hidden collusion with the Conservancy prior to their testimony are grounds for rejection of the Washington Square Park Conservancy and merits further investigation by elected officials.

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Next in series:

Bloomberg’s Parks Department to NYC: Privatize! | City Conspires to Legitimize Private Conservancy at Washington Sq Park Before New Mayor Steps In, Withholds Critical Info from Public: PART II

Hot Dog! Private Conservancy Secrets: Food Cart Vendors Vanishing, $5 “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches” On Way, Mario Batali & More at Washington Sq Park: Part III

Previously at WSP Blog:

Timeline of Road that Led to Community Board “Approval” of Conservancy at Washington Square Park

5 thoughts on “CONservancy? Intent to Privatize Washington Square Park Confirmed With Newly Uncovered Documents | NYU “Gift to the Park” Never Revealed to the Public & More (Part I)

  1. CB2 members should also consider other specific behaviors of this conserancy which may be at cross-purposes with the CB effectively vetting the bona fides of the conservancy during the summer 2013 meetings:

    1. The name “Conservancy” places an organization into a specific framework by which the city typically cooperates in a special exclusive manner with one and only one nonprofit per park, in most cases for the sake of big fundraising, concession licensing, contracted park management, etc. It is the engine though which private interests obtain influence over and benefits from parks, supposedly in exchange for the public gaining financial support.

    This conservancy has maintained for some time that choosing the name Conservancy was done because there was no other option, and that they had no intention of being a Conservancy. Now the group says “we decided to stop worrying about it”, implying it still is of no consequence.

    And yet…

    a) a search of IRS-approved nonprofits shows few nonprofits named Washington Square Park anything.

    b) at a City Council hearing on Conservancies this month, Parks specifically stated that a “long time in the works” Conservancy has now been created for Washington Square Park.

    c) the WSP conservancy group attended the hearing, apparently by invitation, and spoke in the role of Conservancy and identified themselves as “the voice of the park”. They did not beg off and say they are not a Conservancy, only a Conservancy “of limited scope”.

    2. There was a two week (!) public review process about this group, consisting of

    a) a CB2 parks committee meeting where the group responded to public questions by saying they had no information about their plans or operations except that they want to keep the park clean safe and beautiful and perhaps provide programming.

    b) a vote at the next CB meeting, during which the group also was similarly vague about their plans and claimed there were no planning or organizational documents which could be inspected.

    This “we have no info” approach, stated on the public record as their official position, may be contrasted with:

    i) having spent at least a year in private discussions with Parks and others about what the group would do

    ii) having specifically said at the above mentioned City Council Conservancies meeting, that after lengthy study of a variety of Conservancies, the group had settled on a limited model with specific objectives (that is, one may assume, a *publishable study*)

    iii) having filed for IRS nonprofit status in the fall of 2012, an application which requires statement of purposes and organizational plans, which information the group could have disclosed to the public at any time. The group said “we wanted to wait until the IRS approval came through before disclosing any of this documentation”, as if public discussion would affect the IRS fact checking or approving the application.

    Months after having the IRS approval, the group still hasn’t released their application for public scrutiny. Nor have they released any detailed plan of their operations, or records of their discussions with Parks or others, or documents about their organizational study, even though they claimed to the City Council itself that they have this latter item and even though this had to have existed even during the CB meetings, and one might imagine might even have been distributed privately.

    Clearly, there were substantial, pertinent documents which could have been released during the CB ‘review’ process, and the conservancy testified no such information existed.

    3. One can step back and observe that this conservancy did not oppose the 2 week CB process by which they obtained their “approval” through aggressively shutting out any chance for any public comment or evaluation, or even allowing time for doubtful council members to gather their thoughts and vote one month later. Instead, the group claims that no one ever told them that there was any other point of view except the one they gathered during their secret planning, a view all in favor of them.

    The group states even as recently as the above interview, “we met with everyone who expressed an interest”. Well, yes, that’s a truthful statement, if one first posits that the only people worthy of expressing interest are those who you hand pick to hear your secret plan.

    4. In contrast to this conservancies’ actions, one could easily imagine a conservancy-aspiring committee as a group of individuals who would have disclosed from the start, to the public, details the Parks department arguments in favor of a Conservancy.

    One could imagine such a group allowing and seeking input from challengers rather than just insiders, conducting an organizational design study in the open, and having the intellectual and political ability to create a true consensus of the community and the interested parties about a Conservancy by creating a proposal so compelling as to be lauded on all sides. One could imagine.

    Instead, the work product of this group is basically a secretly created, softly defined (still no bylaws or formal statement of what the group will and will not do) placeholder for any activities which the city or rich or institutional donors may care to ask for in the future “because it is a Conservancy, and therefore must be open to any possibility that has been done in any other Conservancy” – like concession licensing that allows permanent restaurant consessions on scarce park land. Promises from the group notwithstanding, CB2 stipulations for approval not withstanding, there is no document published by the group which binds the group from taking a lease. There’s no document published by the group which defines them in any way other than their mission statement clean safe and beautiful.

    That’s months after the supposed *end* of the public review process.

    A notable outcome of the work product: no constraint on contentious Board possibilities such as whether the group will offer guaranteed slots for NYU, and no method for the public to seek seats on the Board, other than (in the absence of any specifics, one must assume the typical approach) being nominated by the group who is already on the Board, or their committee of Trustees who are notables or big donors. Or as the group’s website puts it, “Board members will be added in the fall of 2013?.

    Yet another: no constraints on donations, that is, rules about accepting earmarked donations, or policies about whether or not Trustees who are typically the pool for Board membership are granted the role based on ability to raise funds (look at the Central Park Conservancy to see how this goes).

  2. the above comments were originally prepared in response to an interview of the conservancy which appeared in the Villager, but not published. A few typos need to be corrected for posting this month on this blog:

    1. “b) at a City Council hearing on Conservancies this month” -> in October

    2. “The group states even as recently as the above interview”-> replace ‘the above interview’ with ‘an interview for the Villager in October’

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