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)

Conservancy "founders" appearing before Community Board Parks Committee June 2013

Bloomberg’s Parks Department to NYC: Privatize!

Secret Meetings, Secret Agreements, Secret Agendas: Parks Department Withholds Critical Information From Public — Documents Indicate Hidden Plan For Recently “Approved” Washington Square Park Conservancy to Secure License Agreement at the Park | NYU Brought on as Silent Partner

It was early May 2013 and Washington Square Park Conservancy founders were concerned. In another month, the organization would be appearing before Community Board 2, the body that could seal the Conservancy’s approval or rejection from the Board. Community members had already expressed outrage and spoken out to the media and C.B. 2 that they did not like the secretive way the organization had been formed; they were not properly notified about it; and, they were not consulted in the process despite years of saying “no conservancy” for Washington Square Park. At the least, they expected to be consulted as to what this corporation should look like.

Elizabeth Ely (known as Betsey), the appointed “Chairman” of the Conservancy, wrote to the organization’s other Board members:

“We have to meet with Bill [Castro] before the CB [Community Board] meeting. There are too many murky areas for which we do not have answers that would satisfy public inquiry.”

She did not turn to members of the community or users of the Park in forming the conservancy (in fact, everything about the formation of the organization up to this point had been hidden, done behind closed doors for nearly two years); she asked for help from a City Parks Department official well acquainted over the years with areas of ‘contention’ in Greenwich Village. Castro’s familiarity with these issues would play a large role in assisting the Conservancy founders to circumvent the community’s concerns.

And they planned it out well, the Conservancy founder and, Castro, the Parks Department Commissioner for Manhattan. Skirting serious “public inquiry,” Community Board 2 voted to accept Conservancy founders at their word. These were, after all, just four affluent and well-meaning neighborhood women who were “civic minded,” and who represented their mission to the Board as solely to keep Washington Square Park “clean, safe and beautiful” by “raising funds, planting flowers and recruiting volunteers.” What’s to object to? When the Board voted, as reported here Wednesday, it had not seen incorporation papers, bylaws, budget, or even an organizational mission statement. The members voted based on trust.

The three other “founding members” — Veronica Bulgari, Gwen Evans, and Justine Leguizamo – were all present with Ely on June 5th at the Board’s Parks Committee meeting to talk and answer questions about their Conservancy. Also in attendance was the Conservancy’s “Executive Director,” Sarah Neilson, who also just happened to work for the Parks Department as a paid NYC employee in her capacity as Washington Square Park Administrator. In response to questions about why exactly they needed an Executive Director who also worked for the city’s Parks Department and wouldn’t this present a conflict of interest (termed a “dual role”), Neilson said, “It’s so we can share news about the Park.” Instead of worrying about the conflicting interests here, the Board, in its resolution, applauded this great example of “administrative efficiency.”

No one minds if wealthy individuals want to raise money to help the City and community maintain the park – and leave it at that. But that’s not what this is about. What it really adds up to is a privileged insider group being given undue access, influence and control over what happens at Washington Square Park.

Conservancy “founders” appearing before Community Board Parks Committee June 2013

At the Parks Committee meeting, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro also appeared. He invoked a fear-mongering note: We don’t want Washington Square Park to be like Central Park in the 1970s.

Community member Georgia Seamans, speaking against the Conservancy (feeling it was not sufficiently scrutinized) said in response: “Washington Square Park in 2013 is NOT Central Park in the 1970s.” To compare the two shouldn’t even be relevant – but Castro did, using it as a scare tactic to get the Board to approve of a private body with what amounted to an unspecified level of control.

Castro, another paid City employee, wanted the Conservancy; but to sell it to the Board, he had to pretend that no private funds were involved just yet. However, at the point Castro chastised the members of the community, he was already well aware that NYU had committed to a “Gift to the Park” of $500,000. As outlined in Part I, the donation of that money (and really for NYU Inc., that is just spare change) was hidden from the community, never discussed at either of the two (and only two!) public meetings (neither adequately publicized: one just a sub-committee of the board and the other, the full Community Board at its regular meeting). This money could easily have just been placed in the Parks Department’s budget and allocated for future use by the City to maintain Washington Square Park. But NYU wants a private group to administer that money – or, perhaps, the Parks Department made the decision to reject — or delay — receipt of the (allegedly) much-needed funds and saw the not-yet-approved Conservancy as the vehicle to privately administer what gets done with that money and bypass public input. Either way, this critical information was concealed from the public and not available to the Community Board before its vote.

Also not revealed to the Community Board – outlined in documents obtained by Washington Square Park Blog — is that the Parks Department had already agreed to a future License Agreement with the Washington Square Park Conservancy before it was approved of by the Board – and, according to the secret plan, the Conservancy would get approval and then change its bylaws at a later date to reflect this secret agreement.

License Agreements with city parks are contractual agreements to assume certain maintenance and operating responsibilities in particular parks. The Bryant Park Corporation, Central Park Conservancy, Friends of the Highline and Prospect Park Alliance all have similar license agreements, which is what community residents were strongly opposing.

In fact, when some on C.B.2 and members of the public pressed for greater assurance that the Park administration and oversight would remain in public hands, the Board’s Parks Committee added into its Resolution a “stipulation” (and even there, these stipulations can hardly take the place of a proper vetting) that Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro had assured them that:

the Washington Square Park Conservancy “will have no formal agreement with Parks – neither License Agreement, Memorandum of Understanding, nor Contract – not now or in the future.”

And on June 20, 2013 — the full Community Board 2 voted 31 – 13 — after a motion to postpone failed at 25-18 — on this Resolution to “approve” the Washington Square Park Conservancy.

Unbeknownst to the Board and the public, just two months earlier, Conservancy treasurer Gwen Evans wrote, privately (the public has never before been informed of this):

“We look forward to agreeing [to] a license agreement with the City. Please send us a proposed draft. We will make sure that the bylaws are changed before the license agreement is executed so that should not be a concern.”

Contrast that to the Conservancy founders’ public testimony that “We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. The city runs the park.” One thing said in private correspondence to City officials, and the opposite in coached testimony to the public and the Community Board, no doubt to “satisfy public inquiry.”

In the next installment we’ll look at how a group of apparently well-intended individuals became a “Conservancy,” how their plans for the Park differ from what was stated publicly, and how this private entity will also act as a front for real estate and private interests in the Village.

Previously at WSP Blog:

More in series:

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

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

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