George Vellonakis

New Washington Sq Administrator Vellonakis: Park “Nemesis” or “Cool”?

George Vellonakis
George Vellonakis

Well, one thing hasn’t changed… newly hired Washington Square Park Administrator and its redesigner, George Vellonakis, still provokes charged reactions from the public. I reported on his hiring as Park Administrator for Washington Square Park, now other local outlets have reported on the appointment. Vellonakis, who works for the NYC Parks Department, will likely be the face tonight of Washington Square Park Conservancy, of which he is now also “Executive Director” (presumably this “dual role” cleared the Conflicts of Interest Board, while still remaining a conflict), at the C.B. 2 Parks meeting “updating” on the private conservancy’s “activities.” [This conservancy does not run or manage Washington Square Park; The Parks Department continues to, but the private group has its own set of problems, beginning with the deceitful way it was formed*.]

The Villager reprints some of my questions about previous admin Sarah Neilson leaving, what will happen now, and quotes from A Walk in the Park Blog/NYC Park Advocates’ Geoffrey Croft who labels Vellonakis “much reviled” and Washington Square Park “redesign nemesis”; The Villager suggests that Vellonakis is “cool” and “suffers no fools.”

People who have tried to work with George Vellonakis on his park design projects likely were not “fools,” most wanted community inclusiveness; it seems to be a theme, when working with him, that public participation and meaningful discussion does not occur. How will he run a public park, you ask?

Croft also posts in West View News an abridged version of his blog post which is countered there by Barry Benepe, founder of the Union Square GreenMarket, and, also, father of former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. Adrian Benepe ran the Parks Department under Mike Bloomberg for ten years and handed the redesign of WSP over to Vellonakis, an unlicensed architect. Parks Commissioner Benepe was known to alienate communities pushing through unwelcome plans (Union Square Restaurant, decimating parkland in the Bronx to give the Yankees their stadium, for starters, along with Washington Square Park, and more). Barry Benepe writes that Vellonakis is “nature’s poet.”

The Villager, Scoopy’s Notebook:

[Sarah] Nielsen was the park’s administrator since March 2013. Cathryn Swan, who writes the Washington Square Park Blog, raises some interesting points: “Her leaving the job brings up some questions — Was it her decision to leave? What role did the Washington Square Park Conservancy play here? And is the private organization seeking to sketchily expand its turf at the park now?” However, Rich Caccappolo, chairperson of the Community Board 2 Parks Committee, didn’t see any major conspiracy. “I was told that the opportunity that opened up in the Parks Department was more in line with what she had studied in school and had done previously in her career,” he told us. Vellonakis’s salary will be between $85,000 and $95,000.

Of course, the park’s redesign — which included shifting the fountain slightly east to “center” it with the arch, a move many thought ludicrous — was fought bitterly by some, including with a lawsuit. Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, greeted the news of Vellonakis’s appointment with a blog post calling him the “Washington Sq. Park redesign nemesis.” …

Vellonakis, who lives in the Village, is cool. Yeah, he can be a little prickly sometimes, but that’s just who he is — he’s a demanding person who “doesn’t suffer fools,” as they say. From what we know of him, he won’t be a shrinking violet, so to speak, if park redesign-haters confront him. … Well, this could be interesting!

A note: There were two lawsuits. And Sarah Neilson may have “studied” in an area but that does not mean there isn’t more to the story regarding her leaving. She was the face of this conservancy coming in before the public in 2013 and made many statements that were inaccurate, along with the four wealthy founding members.

Geoffrey Croft at A Walk in the Park Blog Washington Sq. Park Redesign Nemesis Appointed To Head Up Park & Conservancy:

The new head of Washington Square Park is controversial Parks Department landscape architect George Vellonakis. He was responsible for the controversial redesign of the park during the Bloomberg administration.

The irony.

George Vellonakis, the much reviled Parks Department landscape architect behind the much vilified $ 30 million dollar renovation of Washington Square Park has been appointed to head up the historic park.

He will simultaneously serve as both the park administrator, a city job, as well as the executive director of the private Washington Square Park Conservancy.

Mr. Vellonakis has stepped down as a landscape architect for the Parks Department after more than 35 years.

Friday was his last day in the capital division. He starts Monday in his new positions.

His appointments will certainly ruffle a few feathers.

The then unlicensed landscape architect – but licensed real estate salesperson for Brown Harris Stevens – was responsible for the controversial redesign of Washington Square Park during the Bloomberg administration. (He has since gotten his landscape license after his lack of licensure became more wildly known)

And in Westview News this week, Croft expands on the above:

The renovation plan drew considerable public opposition. Controversial elements included: (1) moving the fountain to align with the arch (it had been in the center of the park since 1870), (2) reducing the size of the fountain, (3) eliminating the park’s popular mounds, (4) installing a wrought iron fence to close the park at night, and (5) removing numerous trees. The City was forced to make several concessions after community backlash; the park’s infamous nine-year renovation was completed in 2014.

The formation of a conservancy for the park also raised the ire of the public; it was established behind the scenes with the help of actor John Leguizamo’s wife, Justine, and socialite Veronica Bulgari. The role of a City employee simultaneously holding a park administrator job while serving as the head of a nonprofit affiliated with the same park has raised serious conflict of interest issues.

Barry Benepe had “praise” for George Vellonakis in Westview News:

Through careful and thoughtful research on the park’s original 1836 design, Vellonakis has returned the contemporary park to its welcoming traffic-free green surroundings while at the same time retaining its contemporary music, dance, and cultural attractions. The popular, but unsightly, black asphalt mounds were replaced with even more popular green grass mounds where adults and children can roll and lie as well as run up and down.

[It should be noted that the “Mounds” were removed in Vellonakis’s plans; they are only at the park now because former City Council Member Alan Gerson and local activists fought for their inclusion.]

And from WSP Blog’s post, Park Re-designer George Vellonakis Appointed New Washington Square Administrator:

“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.

and…

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.”

George Vellonakis was one of only four candidates interviewed for the Washington Square Park job.

The redesign of Washington Square Park and its four key phases lasted over seven years (late 2007-April 2014); budgeted and approved at $16 million, it has now ratcheted up to $40 million and counting (the sidewalk reconstruction is still ongoing). The aftermath has been a park plagued by dying trees and inadequate drainage, among other issues, linked to the design.

* * *

*The four founding members of Washington Square “conservancy” came before the public describing themselves as just “a little friends (of the park) group” and went to great lengths to deceive the public to receive Community Board “approval,” and need to be continually monitored because of that.

Tonight is the Community Board Parks Committee meeting discussing Washington Square Park.

Meeting information:

Community Board 2 Parks Committee Meeting addressing Washington Square Park and conservancy
Wednesday June 7th, 6:30 PM- NYU Forbes Building, 60 Fifth Avenue (between 12th and 13th Streets), Room 150

* * *
Photo : Washington Square Park Conservancy

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Park Re-designer George Vellonakis Appointed New Washington Square Administrator

CB2 to Discuss Washington Sq Park and Conservancy After Long Delay Wed. June 7

One thought on “New Washington Sq Administrator Vellonakis: Park “Nemesis” or “Cool”?

  1. Notwithstanding any “is this person good or bad for the park” reflection, perhaps the most important question for the new Administrator to answer is “will you make the complete minutes (excepting personnel matters) of WSPC meetings public, and will you open WSPC meetings to the public?”.

    After that, “will you open the WSPC Board to candidates not nominated by the Board itself?”.

    Parks employees, like all city employees, are bound by certain ethics rules. For example in the Official Compilation of the Rules of the City of New York, http://www.nyc.gov/html/mocs/ppb/downloads/pdf/PPB_Final_Updated_5_12_14%20(3).pdf , section 1.03(a), “Ethics”, speaks to a variety of standards which city employees are expected to meet with regard to fair contracting, obtaining best value for the city, using confidential information obtained solely for the benefit of the city, and the like.

    A case might be made that a private Conservancy board and its commercially-interested contacts, conducting its business in private and reporting “as it sees fit” to the public, is an inappropriate venue for participation of a key City Official in a non-city capacity. Taking off the city officials’ hat to run the Conservancy may also create the opportunity to take off the city officials’ visibility and accountability to the government and the public to meet the ethics standards imposed on city employees.

    A completely appropriate “sunshine” measure to counteract this situation both for the interests of the public in general and the standards of the city is to discard the artificial “private” venue concept of a Conservancy standing apart from full inspectability in realtime by the public. Replace this with the full minutes of all WSPC board mintues being published, and opening of all WSPC Board meetings to the public.

    The new Administrator needs to explain, if he opposes this concept, just why it is that making WSPC operations fully public would be a bad thing.

    Let park designers, park renters, restaurant developers, NYU, the whole lot of them use the Conservancy as their sounding board for pitching ideas and negotiating plans with the City and CB2 if they wish. But conduct the business itself completely in public as it is occurring, not just revealing this or that sometime after the fact. Make this Conservancy fully transparent.

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