Updated 5/16 10:50 a.m. – Six months, 22 applicants, four interviewees, one outcome: After an (arguably) extensive “search,” George Vellonakis, the landscape designer responsible for the 2007-2014+ redesign of Washington Square Park, has been chosen as the park’s new administrator in charge of day-to-day operations and more.
Presenting his “symmetrical” vision for the iconic park in the early-to-mid-2000s, Vellonakis, who has never run or managed a park, was often at odds with the public. He begins in the position today, Monday, May 15th replacing Sarah Neilson who vacated the position in November 2016.
“I’m disheartened by this appointment of a designer who has shown disdain for meaningful park planning participation involving the public,” stated lawyer Joel Kupferman upon learning of the decision. Kupferman litigated one of the lawsuits on behalf of Greenwich Village residents which attempted to halt the redesign. The suit cited harmful environmental impacts if the plan moved forward, including the threat of death to park trees, something which has certainly come to pass, among other failings with the design.
The Parks Department press office confirmed late last week that Vellonakis had been chosen: “Yes – George Vellonakis has been appointed Washington Square Park Administrator. He will also serve as Executive Director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy. George was interviewed and selected by a panel, made up of: Manhattan Borough Commissioner Bill Castro, (former) Manhattan Chief of Operations Namshik Yoon, and Manhattan Chief of Recreation Kim McNeal. He will begin on Monday.”
When the job was posted in 2012 before the hiring of Neilson, who held the position for three-and-a-half years, it was advertised “citywide” – inside and outside of the Parks Department. This time, the job was offered only “internally” to existing full-time Parks Department employees. This certainly narrowed the pool, particularly, if, according to the agency, only four of 22 applicants were even interviewed.
History of Washington Square Park Administrator – WSP one of few non-privatized larger parks run by publicly paid employee
Washington Square Park has been managed and run by the city Parks Department with a Park Administrator (previously manager) since
1986 1996, unlike its privatized park neighbors to the north and west which are run by “public-private” “partnerships.” Greenwich Village neighbors and park users fought hard for years to keep Washington Square Park from becoming formulaic and sanitized, voting down the concept of a conservancy repeatedly, to prevent NYU and corporate interests from gaining behind-the-scenes sway, after watching what happened to the other commercialized, overly programmed parks.
Their push back led Bloomberg Administration Parks Department officials to strategize and put in place a “murky” plan in order to ensure a private conservancy in 2013. The script stated that the organization would not run the park: it was, after all, just run by four wealthy women – Elizabeth (Betsey) Ely, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari, and Justine Leguizamo – with time on their hands. Their only goals, according to their oft-repeated mantra when they came before the public and Community Board 2 in June 2013, was to keep the park “safe, clean and beautiful.” Never revealed were their larger plans later exposed by WSP Blog which obtained and published emails and other documents containing information kept from the public. (Reference these documents to start.) Some of their plans became stalled with the release of these documents – for the moment. Their statements before the Community Board were full of evasions and omissions in order to get “approved” (it is important to note that CB2 allowed them to be evasive and duplicitous – although a number of board members had great reservations).
Yet, the private Washington Square Park Conservancy looms, aiming to seize more turf, with now George Vellonakis, a (long-time) friend of the founders, at its helm. When this private “fundraising” organization was “formed,” the conservancy ladies angled to share a Parks Department employee in what is termed a “dual role” – a controversial practice which should be considered a conflict of interest, a model that the fully privatized parks follow, think Bryant Park, Madison Square Park. (Sarah Neilson said earnestly at the one woefully inadequate public hearing Community Board 2 held that it was so they could better “share news about the park.”)
In 2012 (pre-conservancy), the focus for the Washington Square Park Administrator, per the job posting, was to: “oversee long-term planning goals and daily maintenance operations of Washington Square Park.”
In 2016: “the development, management, and programming of Washington Square Park.”
Questionable Role of Private Conservancy in Hiring Public Position
In 2012-2013, NYC Park Advocates revealed that Elizabeth Ely, founder of Washington Square Park Conservancy, asked the majority of the questions of the candidates to find an administrator for Washington Square Park during the hiring process as part of the then-four person panel; this was many months before the “formation” of her private conservancy or its “approval” by the Community Board. The “dual role” was not noted in the job listing. A “city source” later told NYC Park Advocates: “They all seemed to defer to her. I was thinking why is this person even here. Elizabeth was asking all the tough questions. It was clear she would be the person working with who ever was hired.”
When asked if Ely was involved in the interview process this time, a Parks Department spokesperson responded:
“Elizabeth Ely and Veronica Bulgari of the Conservancy both sat in on interviews, as a courtesy. They did not serve on the panel or participate in the selection.”
But if they had already decided that they wanted George Vellonakis in the role — someone Elizabeth Ely, at least, has known a long time — would they need to formally interview him?
Last time around, Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro let Ely take the lead in the choice; why wouldn’t it be the same this time? And why is a private individual choosing our public park administrator?
It is suspected that it was Vellonakis who connected neighbor Ely with the Parks Department, then led by former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and perhaps suggested the secretive process that was put in place to push the conservancy through the Community Board in June 2013 by presenting it as a group of slightly clueless, affluent women, do-gooders, with extra time on their hands. Bill Castro was very much involved in coaching the group on what to say – and, more importantly, what not to say. (Treasurer Gwen Evans notably told the public they only used the word “conservancy” in their name because every other name they looked into was “taken.”)
In December 2013, when Veronica Bulgari was asked by the New York Post about the banning of the hot dog vendors and the conservancy role in this (information uncovered due to emails obtained by this blog), she was quoted as saying:
“We got some word from our neighbors that [the hot-dog vendors] were unsightly,” said Bulgari, the conservancy’s president. “We suggested moving them based on what other people were telling us. The fact that it was done was Parks’ decision.”
Asked which neighbors complained, conservancy chairwoman Betsey Ely named George Vellonakis, the architect behind the $30 million park redesign. He declined to comment.
Lawyer Joel Kupferman notes of the arrangement, “Now there will be less accountability between the two entities and no checks and balances between the two organizations.”
Role of George Vellonakis in Park Redesign – and Failures of Design
George Vellonakis was a landscape designer and unlicensed architect who worked for the Parks Department when he was handed the reins to redesign Washington Square Park, presumably by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. The previous renovation of the park in the 1970s had been a community-driven effort. Despite pains by the Parks Department to frame this effort — which took over 7 years (technically it is still ongoing as the sidewalk reconstruction is not complete) and cost over $40 million (budgeted and approved at $16 million at its onset) — as “a process of community input unprecedented in scope,” it was never such.
There were two lawsuits which attempted to stop it, holding up the start date, but they did not ultimately prevail in court. Park users wanted the park renovated for sure but did not want so much of the much-loved 1970 design obliterated. Project for Public Spaces, in evaluating the  design said … “[park users] like Washington Square Park just the way it is.” To no avail. Remember, this was the Bloomberg years and things were done in a manner that often seemed to set out to alienate communities (think Union Square restaurant, Yankee Stadium parkland grab). Construction began in late December 2007.
It is George Vellonakis’s design that is killing the trees around the fountain (14 dead thus far, many planted and replanted in the same flawed design locations); that is causing the flooding of the park paths and other areas during the rain. It was Vellonakis who was the public face pushing for moving the fountain 22 feet east to “align” with the Arch despite the fact that its previous – original – location was the exact center of the park on its east-west axis. George Vellonakis told the community that the public space around the fountain would be reduced by around 5%; documents obtained by Jonathan Greenberg for his lawsuit showed that it would actually be a 23% reduction.
Disability rights advocate Margie Rubin, when learning of Vellonakis acquiring the role of park administrator, said, “It’s a slap in the face to bring back a designer who discriminates against the wishes and needs of the broader community and especially against people with disabilities.” According to Rubin, Vellonakis had promised “access points” for those in wheelchairs in the playground and dog run and other areas of the park – none of which happened. Rubin continued, “This is someone who has misrepresented so much to the community over the years. I was at the park today and asked, ’Where are the trees?’”
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Photo from The Truth About Washington Square Park YouTube, by Progressive Source Communications and Matt Davis
Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:
On the two trees that died around Washington Square fountain; Problem with Design December 10, 2009 [14 trees have died since this first article was written]