Perhaps the most surprising thing about the March 5th Community Board 2 committee meeting addressing Washington Square Park and the Washington Square Park private conservancy and its “activities” was the tone put forth by the committee itself via a sense of defensiveness. Recognizing that the Parks Committee’s vote was to approve the conservancy back in June 2013 (vote: 11-1) and that it can be hard for groups to admit they made a mistake, possibly the committee members have felt the need to *defend* their vote. But a truly measured, reasonable and thoughtful response from a Community Board would be to give an airing of the issues: the committee acting as an independent entity, an intermediary almost between the community members and the private organization. What meeting attendees received instead was the Chair reframing questions asked and putting them in the context of questioning a person’s “character” and a not thorough at all “grilling” of the Conservancy.
THE CONSERVANCY MODEL & STRUCTURE – HOW THE PUBLIC IS INVOLVED (OR NOT)
Audience member Kevin Axelson asked whether the Conservancy would consider “having board meetings held in a public place” to bring it up to a “comparable level of transparency [of a city agency].” He said that “There isn’t a large flow of information. … [yet conservancy] wants a large important role.” He summed up the sentiment of the issues brought forth at the meeting thus far: “All of these are transparency issues.”
Sitting in the front row, the two Conservancy Board members, Elizabeth “Betsey” Ely and Gwen Evans, seemed to hesitate in answering the question of having public meetings. Parks Committee member Tobi Bergman shouted out, “The Conservancy has said ‘no’ to this.” If they did, no one in the audience heard them say so.
Axelson continued, “There are ways of modifying the way the conservancy interacts with the community. It would be a powerful way to change [the existing structure in making meetings open to public]. We don’t have any say [now] over what a private conservancy does.”
There was a back and forth about whether funds could be earmarked directly into the city budget for a specific park such as Washington Square Park. Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo said no.
Community Board 2 Member of the Executive Board Keen Berger was in attendance. She had spoken out at the full Board meeting with concerns about the conservancy being a “Trojan Horse.” At this meeting, she said, “It is not a matter of whether we trust her [Sarah Neilson] or not. We all want money going to parks. We all think Sarah is a nice person. The concern is how major decisions are being made. … It’s not about the people – it’s about the process.”
THE LICENSE AGREEMENT QUESTION
Audience member Hellen Osgood asked, “Is the license agreement still on the table? What were the plans for the license agreement? Have you changed your bylaws to include this?” She read the text from the email Conservancy Board member Gwen Evans sent from April 2013.
Gwen Evans jumped up as she said the email came from her that was being referenced. Evans said, “We have no license agreement. We have no plans [to have one].” She said that the emails were “taken out of context.” She said that there had been discussion about entering into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city but they decided against it. She said no such agreement exists. And that was enough for the committee.
Refresher : Some Background from the FOIL (Freedom of Information Letter) documentation emails:
WSP Blog note: As a refresher, please see the actual documents received via FOIL here and this interchange below to see if there is a question of “out of context.”
April 22nd, 2013 from Gwen Evans:
“We look forward to agreeing a license agreement with the City. Please send us a proposed draft. We will make sure the bylaws are changed before the license agreement is executed so that should not be a concern.”
From Sarah Neilson earlier that day:
The next step will be a “license agreement” with WSPC and he’ll [Parks attorney] want the changes in the bylaws at that time.
NYU & THE CONSERVANCY, NYU’s $500,000 “GIFT TO THE PARK” | “Has NYU given money to the park?”
When the topic of New York University and ties to the Conservancy came up, the way this meeting was structured allowed for an imperfect airing of the issues related to this. The question solely focused on was: “Has NYU given money to the park?”
Neilson responded stating that NYU had given $1 million to the park’s renovation (which was well known). She said that “1/2 went into the renovation, 1/2 wasn’t spent.” So that left $500,000. Later referring to NYU’s money as a “pledge… a donation to be spent on Washington Square Park,” she said it would be under “the purview” of herself and Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro (note: one of the chief orchestrators of the Conservancy’s public appearances and what was said – and not said – to swing C.B. 2 “approval”).
Curious how Bill Castro never mentioned this money when he spoke in June 2013 before the public. And, in fact, in September of 2013 at a City Council hearing on Oversight of Conservancies, current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, then a City Council Member, said, on the topic of Washington Square Park having a conservancy: “Now that’s a little weird for me… then we’re all worried NYU is going to take over.” Assistant Commissioner Liam Kavanagh laughed. He later said (probably to cover himself), “And, yes, we do expect NYU to give money.” Yet, he also omitted mention of the $500,000 to Gale Brewer.
When Commissioner Castro painted his picture of potential future doom and gloom for Washington Square Park if left to its own devices without a conservancy (or “little friends group”), he intentionally left out this NYU $500,000.
(WSP Blog ed. note: Do I believe this is money “left over” from the redesign? That is a bit hard to believe. And what were all the meetings the Conservancy ladies had with NYU higher ups about then? Why was it referred to as a “gift to the park?”)
REFRESHER: NYU EMAILS from the FOIL documentation:
Reviewing the email chain of NYU-related emails:
March 13, 2013 Washington Sq Park Conservancy Executive Committee meeting notes:
Rollout [of Conservancy]
– Press office meeting Thursday 10 am sharp!
Timeline for WSPC, Sarah hire, NYU gift to the park, etc.
March 14, 2013 Email from Sarah Neilson WSP Administrator/Wash Sq Conservancy “Executive Director” to Betsey Ely, Conservancy founder:
Since we weren’t able to get time with Betsy Smith today, I’m trying to set up a pre-meeting with her on Monday at 12:15, prior to our 1 pm meeting. That way we can check in and be sure we’re all on the same page before we talk with Lynne Browne and Alicia Hurley.
(Note: Betsy Smith is Assistant Commissioner for Marketing and Revenue at the Parks Department. Lynne Browne is NYU’s Senior Vice President for University Relations and Public Affairs. Alicia Hurley is NYU’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Community Engagement.)
(Remember these emails are from THREE MONTHS before Community Board 2 presented the “formation” of the Conservancy as an agenda topic at its meeting and that same night “approved” the body.)
April 4, 2013 Email from Betsey Ely to Sarah Neilson (Subject: “a heads up re: the mean blog” – a note: that is this blog; Neilson’s reference.)
I understand that you are working on the budget for the park but I think it is essential that we know what the City is committed to so we can start to plan. I am sure NYU will be interested to know what we are going to do with their monies.
April 5, 2013 Email from Sarah Neilson to Conservancy Board:
… I have to be at the Arsenal at 2 pm Thursday for a meeting about how NYU’s EXPANSION effects the other parks, so that I can prepared for our next meeting with Lynne Browne.
April 18, 2013 Email from Sarah Neilson; ‘to’ blocked out but addressed to “ladies of WSPC”:
“As for the NYU $500K, I am still trying to get in with BC Castro to discuss. He has not been in the office today. I’ll get him tomorrow.
TOO MANY “MURKY AREAS” REMAIN REGARDING WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK CONSERVANCY
As I mentioned at the Board meeting on March 5th, this email from May 2, 2013 puts into perspective everything else that has followed to date with regards to the Washington Square Park Conservancy:
Dated May 2, 2013 From Betsey Ely to Sarah Neilson:
We have to meet with Bill [Castro, Manhattan Parks Department official] before the CB meeting. There are too many murky areas for which we do not have answers that would satisfy public inquiry.
Sarah, can you coordinate?
Without the FOIL response emails, I would have had many issues about this private group inserting itself at Washington Square. I’ve followed the problems at other public parks with private conservancies in the city closely, and the true affects of privatization. Washington Square Park’s neighboring parks are very much commercialized and sold to the highest bidder (think Madison Square Park, Union Square Park, Bryant Park). To cavalierly usher in a conservancy at Washington Square Park (even one disguised as “a little friends’ group”) is irresponsible. I told the C.B. 2 Parks Committee that they should have seen all these documents (WSP Blog obtained) first. Chair Rich Caccappolo asked me, “We should have FOILed to get them?” “No,” I replied. “You should have made sure you saw the documents before voting.”
The FOIL documents raise significant questions about what was left out of the conservancy’s presentation at the June 2013 meeting – and why this information was omitted and misrepresented. Statements by the Conservancy founders at the March 5th meeting don’t sufficiently answer them. Community Board 2 has refused – thus far – to take the issues seriously. And they continued that practice at the March 5th meeting. At the end of the meeting, one person summed it up: “I didn’t realize the Community Board was so against the community.”