The Villager: Hot dogs will return to park, but questions simmer regarding Washington Square Park Conservancy

The Villager: Hot Dogs Will return to park, but questions simmer, January 30, 2014

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |   To the joy of frankfurter fans everywhere, the Parks Department recently reversed itself and decided wieners will, in fact, return to Washington Square Park.

Nevertheless, many are still digesting so-called “Hot Dog-gate” and all its ramifications — even as the Washington Square Park Conservancy’s founders are set to return this week to Community Board 2 to give an update on their doings.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Parks had decided to bring the dirty-water dogs back to the landmark Greenwich Village park.

However, just a month prior, thanks to blogger Cathryn Swan, the lid had been blown off the “hot dog purge,” in which Parks announced it would let the contracts of the park’s two sausage slingers expire by the end of 2013, with no plans of renewing them. Meanwhile, a new, more upscale vendor — Melt $4 ice cream sandwiches — would be brought in, Parks said.

Veronica Bulgari, the new conservancy’s president, was quoted at the time saying that neighbors had complained to the conservancy that the hot dog carts were “unsightly.”

In addition, in a taste of possible anti-hot dog attitude, blogger Swan unearthed an e-mail from March 13, 2013, between the conservancy members and Sarah Neilson, the new group’s executive director — who also doubles as the park’s salaried administrator — in which they asked her to “follow up on progress of moving the hot dog guy away from the Arch view corridor.”

Through a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request, Swan, who maintains the Washington Square Park Blog, obtained a slew of revealing e-mails between conservancy members, Neilson and Parks officials. She also tracked down the conservancy’s 501c3 filing for nonprofit status, which sheds light on what the group — at least, initially — was claiming its primary goals would be.

Got frank feedback
Returning to the hot dog reversal, Phil Abramson, a Parks spokesperson, said the response to the carts’ removal had prompted the decision.

“We evaluated the feedback that was received, and alerted Community Board 2 of our intent to put out a new request for bids later this winter,” he told The Villager. “Our hope is to have two hot dog vendors in place by late spring.”

Just the month before, Abramson had told the newspaper that the then-planned hot dog eviction was “part of a broader initiative that has been in place since 2008 at parks throughout New York City, to move beyond the standard hot dog carts, and bring a more diverse selection of food choices to New Yorkers.”

E-mail from Sarah Neilson, executive director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, cites tips from Tobi Bergman, a former C.B. 2 Parks Committee chairperson, for helping the conservancy win approval from C.B. 2 last June.
Obtained by blogger Cathryn Swan, an e-mail from Sarah Neilson, executive director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy.(The bracket marks and underlining are by Swan.)

Doesn’t relish micromanaging
David Gruber, chairperson of Community Board 2, said Parks’ 180-degree sausage swivel was kosher by him, but he’s staying neutral on the whole affair. It’s not a C.B. 2 issue as far as he’s concerned.

“I’m fine with it,” he said. “It’s completely handled by the Parks Department. If the Parks Department wants to have hot dogs in the park, it’s O.K. with me.”

Asked if he felt the frankfurter about-face stemmed from the media coverage alleging that the conservancy had influenced the initial decision, Gruber said no.

“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “I don’t think there was an order to eliminate all hot dog vendors in the park.”

C.B. 2 shouldn’t “micromanage” the park anyway, he said, but should “focus on bigger issues.”

Pols bite into the issue
However, the area’s local elected officials aren’t taking such a laissez-faire attitude toward what went on with the links. In fact, the frankfurter flip-flop seems to have left a bad taste in the mouths of six of them, who wrote a joint letter to Veronica White, the Parks commissioner, expressing their concern.

“The Washington Square Park Conservancy was created with the express commitment that the conservancy would not have direct influence over the policies and decisions of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation,” they said. “We write now to remind the Parks Department of that commitment. … While we understand and support the idea of more food options for park users, we also believe it is important to preserve and maintain the iconic fare, at affordable price points, that people have come to love and expect in Washington Square Park. Therefore, we ask that any future requests for proposals [R.F.P.’s] for vendors recognize how important these staples are for New Yorkers and visitors alike. We would also urge that these reviews be done by the Parks Department without influence from the conservancy.”

The letter was signed by Congressmember Jerrold Nadler (who this reporter has at least once observed eating hot dogs in the park after a press conference), Borough President Gale Brewer, state Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Corey Johnson.

So there was a budget!
Beyond the hot dog hoopla, Swan also uncovered revealing information by obtaining the conservancy’s application for 501c3 nonprofit status. For example, an “Attachment A” to the application outlines the conservancy’s projected revenue and expenses in roughly annual installments through June 30, 2016, at which point the projected total “gifts, grants and contributions received” is listed as $771, 250.

The expenses are itemized for such things as “Compensation of officers, directors and trustees” ($10,000 to $15,000 per year), plus “Horticulture, Programming, Furniture for the Park” ($18,000 per year), “General Park Operations Expenses” ($50,000 per year) and “General Office Expenses” (about $35,000 annually).

The application is dated May 21, 2013. Yet, according to Swan and others, the conservancy’s steering committee, during two Community Board 2 meetings in June — the Parks Committee and the full-board meeting — maintained they didn’t have a budget they could share publicly.

Also in this attachment is a subparagraph headlined “Strategic Planning and Programming.”

“In particular, WSPC [the conservancy] is working to establish a program to bring theater and performing arts events to the Park,” a part of this section reads. “WSPC hopes to use the Park’s historic setting as a venue for film festivals, theatrical productions, art exhibits, and other programs for the cultural benefit of Park patrons.”

The Villager reached out to Betsey Ely, the conservancy’s chairperson, for an explanation about this programming and a definition of “Park patrons” — namely, whether this is meant to refer to general park users or the conservancy’s benefactors. Ely said the conservancy is now referring media questions to their executive director, Neilson.

“ ‘Park patrons’ was meant to describe all park users, regardless of their relationship with the conservancy,” Neilson responded. “WSPC is committed to its mission of supporting the park and keeping it clean, safe and beautiful for all users. At this time,” she added, “the conservancy has no plans to engage in such programming in the park.”

Focus on furniture?
Under another section of the attachment, “Operations, Horticulture and Maintenance,” it states that the conservancy “has already begun exploring options for installing benches, tables and other outdoor furniture in the Park and increasing the presence of security personnel to enhance public enjoyment of the park.”

Asked if C.B. 2 or anyone else would get a chance to review any of this new furniture, Neilson responded that this issue is also moot — at least for now.

“WSPC is not currently pursuing the possibility of creating additional seating,” she said. “If the Parks Department in the future would like to increase seating in the park, WSPC would work closely with the Parks Department and follow all channels for review and approval for such a project, and any other project that helps the park remain clean, safe and beautiful for all users.”

As for the additional security, Neilson said the conservancy would provide funds for Parks to hire additional Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers.

Neilson added that the conservancy’s board of directors also includes a representative from Community Board 2 (Maria Passannante-Derr) and one from Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Office, “who will be aware of current and future plans.”

In an interview with The Villager this past October, the conservancy’s founding members said they were mainly interested  in keeping up the recently renovated park in a “supplemental” way, specifically through plantings, garbage pickups and funding a summer playground associate.

‘No hot dog linkage’
As for the hot dog flare-up, Neilson said there is no linkage the conservancy has to  Parks’ initial decision to boot the links from the park. In other words, it wasn’t done at the conservancy’s bidding.

“The Department of Parks and Recreation manages all aspects of concession activities in Washington Square Park, including vendor selection, location, revenue collection and renewals,” Neilson stated. “WSPC has never advocated against renewal of the hot dog vendors.”

The attachment to the nonprofit application also states that the conservancy may in the future pay its executive director a stipend “not expected to exceed approximately $25,000.”

No do-over, but an ‘update’
So, in light of everything that has come to light — from the lingering hard feelings over the hot dogs, to the conservancy’s claims not to have had a budget — should C.B. 2 revisit the whole issue of the conservancy and, essentially, do a “do-over” on whether to recommend approval of it? No, Gruber said, the board will not do that.

However, following a meeting with Gruber and the leaders of the board’s Parks Committee, at which some of these issues were discussed, the conservancy members agreed to return to C.B. 2 to “give an update” on the conservancy’s doings. The meeting is set for Wed., Feb 5, starting at 6:30, Judson Church (assembly hall), 239 Thompson St., south of Washington Square.

Blasts ‘affluent group’

Swan, for her part, continues to maintain that the conservancy orchestrated the hot dog purge.

“The city Parks Department’s decision, in response to public pressure, to enable the hot dog food cart vendors to return to Washington Square Park is good news, but it should never have gotten to the point where a private and affluent conservancy group was able to influence decisions at the park,” she said. “The Washington Square Park Conservancy began operating and making decisions months before it was approved by Community Board 2, a conditional ‘approval’ that stated this private group would not be influencing any decisions at Washington Square Park; an approval that was also based on a manipulated process in which information was intentionally withheld from the public and the board.

“All decisions going forward at this city park need to be transparent and accountable to the public, not private entities or individuals,” Swan stressed. “The relocation and booting of the hot dog vendors has brought to light one of the key problems with this conservancy: that the private group’s privileged insider status, where it shares a publicly paid employee [Neilson], gives them access to making and influencing decisions at Washington Square Park, and, in most cases, the public will never know.

“The hidden documents brought to light via my blog and at The Villager give the community board a starting-off point in which to now rescind its approval of this private body and take a strong stand to keep our city parks transparent and accountable to the public.”

Hot dogs for the people!
Sharon Woolums, a public member of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, said the issues of the hot dogs and whether the conservancy runs film or theater festivals in the park are very important in her view.

“The hot dogs represent class warfare to me,” she said, “in that hot dogs are food for the common man. … And the beauty of that park is that it has not been programmed — ever.”

Coached the conservancy
Speaking of Woolums, Swan dug up a revealing May 10, 2013, e-mail from Neilson to the conservancy members that indicated the independent-minded C.B. 2 public member could cause problems for them as “a potential naysayer” and needed to be worked on. In fact, Neilson, in the e-mail, cites the recommendation of Tobi Bergman, a former C.B. 2 Parks Committee chairperson, to try to soften up Woolums. Neilson also relays to the conservancy members Bergman’s advice on how the public should testify in favor of the conservancy — basically, simply and to the point.

In response, Bergman told The Villager, “I don’t think I’ve seen any e-mails about any suggestions I may have made, and I don’t specifically remember it, but it is certainly possible I encouraged the Washington Square Park group to reach out to people on the committee who had expressed opposition.”

Bergman confirmed he is a supporter of conservancies, in general.

“Based on experiences I had as a Parks Department employee in Central Park years ago, I have for many years openly supported creation of an effective fundraising organization for Washington Square Park, whatever it would be called,” he said.

“It’s a good thing that the Washington Square Park Conservancy be discouraged from efforts to unduly influence the use of the park, but we should also be careful not to stir the pot in ways that undermine their ability to raise needed funding for the park.”

Muckraker turns to Villager
Swan uncovered more of what she charges is evidence of a pro-conservancy bias among the C.B. 2 leadership. This time she didn’t have to file a FOIL, she just searched The Villager’s archives. A Dec. 22, 2004, article, “Washington Sq. renovation could take almost three years,” reports about a meeting of the Washington Square Coalition — a then-15-year-old group, originally organized by N.Y.U. — at which the idea of a conservancy was broached. Gruber was a member of the coalition and attended that meeting, but is not quoted advocating for a conservancy.

Dismissing Swan’s accusations, Gruber told The Villager he was mainly interested in Washington Square back then because of his concern about the reconstruction project displacing people from that park, who would wind up in Father Demo Square, near where he lives, and other small parks along Sixth Ave., putting an added burden on these parks.

One leading C.B. 2 member —  not Gruber or Bergman — urged The Villager not to write this article, feeling that the conservancy had already been under too much scrutiny.

 

*   *   *

Reminder:

Community Board 2’s Parks Committee Meeting Wednesday, February 5th, 6:30 p.m. Washington Square Park Conservancy members to provide “update” on their “activities.”

Judson Church (assembly hall), 239 Thompson St., south of Washington Square.

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