Henry Stern in NY Daily News: DeBlasio, Side with Villagers vs. NYU | + New York University & Washington Square Park

l-to-r Deborah Glick, Letitia James(speaking), Arthur Schwartz, Jim Walden, Andrew Berman, Bo Riccobono, Daniel Squadron
l-to-r Deborah Glick, Letitia James(speaking), Jim Walden(blue), Andrew Berman, Bo Riccobono (Comm Bd. 2), Daniel Squadron; foreground: (CB2:) Terri Cude, Doris Diether

DeBlasio, side with Villagers vs. NYU

by Henry Stern, Opinion, New York Daily News, October 4, 2014

As the gap between rich and poor in New York City widens and a raft of new real estate plans are approved, the public has been losing ground in the tug of war over parks and open spaces. And government, once the defender of public assets, appears all too eager to surrender them for private development.

The most current and painful case in point: the struggle over NYU’s 2031 expansion plan. …

LaGuardia Park, LaGuardia Gardens and Mercer Playground are in NYU’s crosshairs for development. The university claims they’re not really parks — based on the fact that they’re technically overseen by the city’s Department of Transportation.

That argument holds no water. Not every slice of open public land is technically part of the city’s official park portfolio, but it’s how the space is used by the community that determines its status.

In this case, even though the strips of land in question were never formally turned over to the city’s Parks Department — as Parks Commissioner for 14 years, I tried repeatedly to make this happen — they have been used by the community as parks for decades.

A recent decision in state court set back NYU’s plans — by declaring that LaGuardia Park, LaGuardia Gardens and Mercer Playground are, in fact, entitled to basic protections as public space.

The city is now appealing that court’s decision, fighting in court on the same side as NYU. If successful, not only could the already scant open space available in the area become greatly diminished, it would be a continued violation of the Public Trust Doctrine.

That doctrine, which dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, is a crucial part of America’s common law tradition. It maintains that the government holds the titles to certain waters and lands in trust for the people. This has evolved to extend protection to scenic resources, open space in general, energy generation and preservation of ecosystems and historical sites.

In New York State, if an entity wishes to develop or remove a parcel of parkland from public ownership and use, it must follow a legal process called “alienation,” which, among other conditions, requires approval from the state Legislature.

Not only did NYU fail to take these steps, but our City Council then blatantly disregarded its obligations.

For the city to now use the judicial system to protect the rights of powerful institutions over the rights of individual citizens is terrible precedent and bad policy. In fact, it is no policy at all; it’s an abnegation of government responsibility.

The de Blasio administration can begin to change this with one important act: Drop the city’s appeal, and stand up for communities that want to protect and even expand their parks, gardens and open spaces.

City Hall should be the first — not the last — to act in the public interest.

Stern, former city parks commissioner, is co-founder and president of New York Civic.

Photos from a rally/press conference at LaGuardia Park prior to the case going back to court that afternoon, September 24th.

NYU and Private Conservancy and Plans for Washington Square Park

With regards to New York University and its never-ending expansion into Greenwich Village: NYU operates as a real estate behemoth and is regarded warily and not trusted – and with good reason.

Yet, many members of Community Board 2 did not take seriously community concerns in relation to NYU and Washington Square Park, particularly when it came up in relation to the “in formation” (the truth is it was already “formed”) Washington Square Park Conservancy.

Documents obtained by this blog via FOIL (Freedom of Information Letter) request illustrate that multiple meetings took place between the Washington Square Park Conservancy and NYU higher ups – and that is a concern because no information from these discussions that took place – and any agreements that came out of them – has been shared with the public. (More to come on this.) CB2 Parks Committee, as of March of this year, either never viewed the documents or chose to ignore/misinterpret them. The Parks Department and the Conservancy members downplayed (by omission, misrepresentation and evasion) at the few public meetings any role the private organization would play at Washington Square Park – and so we still do not have the entire truth. This is another example of “terrible precedent and bad policy” as well as “abnegation of responsibility.” The Community Board should not be protecting and shielding private individuals from scrutiny over the public’s right to the truth.

Washington Square Park is money to NYU, it is another form of real estate to the University – the public needs as much scrutiny over the corporation’s plans for the park (and what those plans entail), as we do around its mega-expansion.

Jim Walden, attorney for the plaintiffs against NYU’s mega expansion plans, said some illuminating things about conservancies on the Leonard Lopate show in 2013 (“Selling and Giving Away NYC Parks”):

Walden: “Development corporations and conservancies don’t have the same transparency, visibility, sunlight that a city agency would [in theory]. … From a pure public policy perspective, as long as the private interests that are contributing to the park understand that it’s no different than making a charitable contribution, once you give the money, you’re done. [In that case] There wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is control. With the private money coming in to the park, there is some giveaway of control that ultimately allows a foot in the door, ultimately resulting [in] the park either changing, shrinking or going away completely.

unidentified lady with child & sign; Arthur Schwartz, Comm Bd 2; Jim Walden, attorney; unidentified; Tobi Bergman, CB2
Jim Walden, attorney (speaking); in back, far right: Tobi Bergman, CB2
Mark Crispin Miller
Mark Crispin Miller

Photos: Cathryn

2 thoughts on “Henry Stern in NY Daily News: DeBlasio, Side with Villagers vs. NYU | + New York University & Washington Square Park

  1. It seems like such a simple thing: The Community Board should fully (and in an unbiased fashion) investigate the questions being raised by the community regarding the ties between the supposedly public Parks Department (who are city officials on the public payroll) and the private Conservancy.

    But because the Community Board didn’t do that, the situation is mushrooming.

    I was present on numerous occasions when the Chair of the Board ridiculed the efforts to uncover the truth presented at meetings by Cathryn Swan and by others. I have no doubt that the Parks Department officials set the tone for this ridicule of whistle-blowers. Most likely they discussed how best to smack-down the messenger rather than seriously address the concerns Cathryn and others were raising. So she is portrayed, internally, as that “mean blogger” and “crazy blogger”. That’s how they operate, not only in this instance, but in bureaucracies everywhere. If I were Cathryn, I’d wear those designations as a badge of honor!

    In the case of the Community Board chair, his smarmy behavior has had the effect of steering the members of the Board into a pattern of self-censorship, and kept most of them ­- not all! -­ from properly pursuing the serious issues here, which are transforming from what seemed to be an initial “tempest in a teapot” into a gigantic can of worms.

    Some of those worms are in key positions in the Parks Department itself, which is why it is emotionally hard for me to fight for government control of public space, even though that’s the right thing to do. Some of those on the public weal are more corrupt than the private individuals in the Conservancy. Imagine, privately discussing with NYU Inc. and the Parks Dept. officials how to administer and apply large grants and then out-and-out lie to the the Community Board that those discussions hadn’t occurred, in order to try to sail through the approval process. At first, the members of the Community Board took the Conservancy and Parks Department officials at their word. And now, when it’s clear that they were lied to, the members of the Community Board say, “Well, it’s only a tiny thing, a question of timing, of sequence …. ”

    When one starts rationalizing one’s prior decisions in such a way, one is being corrupted, finding excuses for failure to do your job properly.

    Although the above quote is a summary of several comments I heard from Board members, it might as well be an exact quote. Such rationalizations are very important to examine, because they are allowing a private interest group to bypass the public and make decisions about this so very important public park in private. And yet, it all started with allowing and then making excuses for that tiny lie, abnegating -­ a great word that former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern used ­- public responsibility and oversight which IS THEIR JOB, and which is why (supposedly) they were appointed to that Community Board.

    Let me make one more point: It is clear that some officials in the Parks Department were much more deviously clever than others. Bill Castro, for instance, did not use his City-agency computer for sending e-mails about the conservancy and so (he thinks) he is not subject to the Freedom of Information Law. And yet, in the material Cathryn managed to acquire, including explosive emails between the members of the Conservancy and the Parks Department, it is the ABSENCE of any emails from Bill Castro and others on the topic that can and should bring additional criminal conspiracy charges (in addition to perjury charges). A number of the emails written from City computers referred to emails, writings, and meetings with Castro and others, but Castro’s emails are not among the FOILed documents. This is amazing. It reveals an intent by public servants to mislead the public, and engage in surreptitious planning to sneak in a private Conservancy through the back door.

    The privatizing of information and attempt to “get around” the law is a prelude to the privatization of Washington Square Park itself, which the Community Board could and should block. Members of the Board should stop making excuses and appoint an honest and independent committee to tenaciously investigate the entire sequence of events.

    Mitchel Cohen
    Brooklyn Greens/Green Party

  2. Thanks, Mitchel, for your comment. Very spot on and you summed it up brilliantly.

    Your idea of an independent committee to *tenaciously investigate the entire sequence of events* is a good one indeed. It is about time. The Community Board to date has not shown itself able to separate their allegiance to the private individuals who formed the conservancy and to do what is in the public’s and the park’s best interest long-term. The Parks Department personnel who were complicit in keeping information from the public and conspired with the conservancy founders to do so are nefarious figures in the whole tale as well.

    Thanks for stating all this so well. Privatizing of information indeed.

    Cathryn

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