This will be in
two three parts.
WSP Blog Ed. note: When I heard that Manhattan Community Board 2’s response to the information this blog obtained via FOIL (which I first began documenting here in November 2013) was to assert that they didn’t see any issues and didn’t want to get involved (Community Board 2 chair David Gruber told weekly The Villager he didn’t want the Board to be involved in “micromanaging” the park), I further lost confidence in the Board’s ability to navigate the terrain they now found themselves in after rushing to approve a private Conservancy at Washington Square Park over two short weeks in June 2013.
Their ‘response’ to the information revealed here and subsequently at The Villager was to place an agenda item on the Parks Committee calendar announcing that the Washington Square Park Conservancy would give an “update” on its “activities.” The meeting was postponed due to snow from February 5th and ultimately held on March 5th at Judson Church Assembly Hall. It was an important meeting to attend and for people to speak up, and the only venue, up to this point, for discussion, in some form, to be held.
I don’t question that the initial goal of the four women who founded the Washington Square Park Conservancy — a conservancy, they said, in name only as “every other name [they’d considered] was taken” — was well-meaning. But the minute they followed former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and (current) Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro and their wish to keep everything secretive over two years, that was a turning point for them.
Former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was well aware of negative sentiment towards a conservancy at Washington Square Park – after all, for over 12 years, at various points, the Bloomberg Administration had been pushing for one, and the concept had been turned away again and again. To circumvent this, Benepe, and Bill Castro, along with others on the Parks Department staff, met in secret forming this entity behind closed doors.
Adrian Benepe knew that the community expected to be included in the discussions so he waited a few years, found a more compliant Community Board, one which remained willfully oblivious to community concerns and refused to hold off to address those concerns on their vote to “approve.” Whatever pressure was exerted behind the scenes also worked. The Community Board’s Parks Committee decided they knew better, despite seeming profoundly unaware of the issues that other Community Boards were having with private conservancies across the city.
And so this same board’s Parks Committee, twelve members who hold, to some degree, Washington Square Park’s future in their hands, again met 9 months later on March 5th to discuss the Washington Square Park Conservancy. This is my report-back from that meeting.
TO C.B. 2: NONE OF THIS IS PERSONAL
I was reading a Letter to the Editor in the New York Daily News last week and a reader mentioned an article by columnist Juan Gonzalez about charter schools in which he quoted Gonzalez as writing “Listen, it isn’t personal — it’s just fairness.” I couldn’t help thinking how this applied to Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting of March 5th.
When a criticism or concern was directed towards Sarah Neilson (Washington Sq Park administrator, working for the city, and also Washington Square Park Conservancy “Executive Director”) or members of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, Community Board 2 Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo would make it “personal” and insert comments such as: “You are challenging her honesty and integrity.” “You are questioning her character.”
To this, I’d like to respond similarly – “listen, it isn’t personal — it’s just fairness.” In addition: “It isn’t personal — it’s just transparency. It’s isn’t personal — it’s just about honesty. It’s just about accountability. It’s about a seriously flawed process. It ISN’T personal.”
One way it is personal is that I, and others who care about Washington Square Park as an iconic, important public space, are personally offended and alarmed that the Community Board is taking this issue so lightly.
AND IT ISN’T “CHARACTER ASSASSINATION”
At the Wednesday night meeting, Parks Committee member Susanna Aaron accused me of conducting “character assassination.” The truth is that directing attention to the many misrepresentations and omissions put forth by the Washington Square Park Conservancy to the public AND to the Board is not character assassination. It’s asking for an open and transparent process – one that has been squelched to date by both the Parks Department and the Community Board.
Susanna Aaron played an important role the evening of the June 2013 Parks Committee vote on the conservancy – she chaired that meeting in which the rushed vote by the committee to “approve” the conservancy took place. When asked that night by committee member Sharon Woolums (a “public member” and the only “no” vote) if there were organizational documents, mission statement, bylaws of the conservancy to review before voting, Aaron replied that she didn’t think those existed and then pushed for the vote to occur right then and there without them. Well, actually, that documentation DID exist and was concealed – so Aaron, of anyone involved, is the one who should be outraged.
The new documentation which has come to light since the C.B. 2 vote now gives the committee the impetus to push for further review; I would think that they would not be taking the position of maligning those asking the questions and/or providing the information.
TOPIC: THE MOVING AND ELIMINATION OF THE “HOT DOG” VENDORS
At the meeting, there was a long discussion of the the vendor process at city parks and at Washington Square. Sarah Neilson said that the hot dog vendor permits were scheduled to end at the end of December 2013. She said that the contract was for a “5 year duration” and you [vendor] “know this before you even bid.” She also mentioned that the existing vendor can re-bid for the contract. Neilson was wearing “two hats” at the meeting – at times, speaking as Washington Square Park’s administrator (and as a public employee) and at other times as the Conservancy “Executive Director.”
A bit of snarky tone came through at this point when Neilson repeated a few times that the contract was ending; she wanted everyone to know that the conservancy was not involved. And this is where Chair Caccappolo jumped in to say: “Anyone who believes there was undue influence, she is saying otherwise. [You are] challenging her honesty and integrity [by doubting her].”
However, the truth is that at one point the Parks Department came out publicly and said they were getting rid of the hot dog vendors. It’s not coincidental that Conservancy meeting minutes from March 2013 state that the the Conservancy directed Neilson, as their Executive Director, to: “move the hot dog guy away from the Arch view corridor” and look into “new and different vendors [at the park].”
When asked by audience member Mitchel Cohen about the moving of the vendors “out of the line of sight of the Arch” and “under what authority does the conservancy make those decisions?,” Neilson replied that “It was a brief discussion while looking at the Arch one day.” She repeated “It was a really brief discussion.” And then, “[it was] a brief passing comment from a conservancy person.”
However, to note, it was a “brief passing comment” that was noted in the conservancy’s actual meeting minutes (from March, months before the organization even came before the Community Board).
Cohen replied that the conservancy is “not supposed to be doing that. What about when more and more situations come up?”
Neilson asserted that she takes in feedback from many different people and this was just one of many, had no special significance — except that the vendors were moved away from the Arch within one month, and then “hot dog” vendors were being removed from the park.
Due to public protest, the hot dog vendors will be brought back – tho’ it’s pretty unlikely this will be in the form of the previous vendors, who were just old-time New York, rough-around-the-edges, green umbrella hot dog vendors. The new vendors will have “hot dogs and other food options. Healthy,” Neilson stated.
Audience member and park regular Harvey Osgood asked a question about one of the existing contracts (GelOtto) and questioned the fact that “the person who owns that cart recently joined the board of the Conservancy.”
Chair Caccappolo stepped in, very conscious that this was a potential negative comment directed at the conservancy. Because we all know what happens when a wealthy restauranteur gets on the Board of a conservancy. Think Danny Meyer, Madison Square Park Conservancy, Shake Shack. It’s convenient, of course, that Mario Batali is already in the park. Caccappolo, who this night was all about “mitigating fears,” broached the question about how there could be less fear in relation to vendors and Conservancy donors in the future.
Osgood followed up that he felt that “transparency is the best basis where civic decisions are concerned.”
— Part II to follow. (I know I said earlier that I’d post on Mondays & Thursday but it’s likely Part II will follow
on Tuesday soon!)
* Road that led to Community Board 2 “approval” — WSP Conservancy Timeline
* To see the documentation, go here: Documentation: What was Known yet Concealed in Public Statements by Washington Sq Park private conservancy founders