The Washington Square Park Conservancy, Community Board 2’s Committee Vote, Lack of “Open and Transparent Process” — C.B. 2 Full Board to Meet And Vote Thursday, June 20th

Updated June 19th, 10:17 p.m.

At the meeting earlier this month of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee, the Washington Square Park Conservancy “founding members” came, spoke, offered some limited information, answered some questions, Parks Department Manhattan Borough Commissioner Bill Castro voiced his support for them and this Conservancy ‘model,’ and community members and park users offered a wide range of questions, concerns, and comments.

After the meeting, the Parks Committee went into executive session and surprisingly rushed to vote on approving this Conservancy (neglecting to give credence to the one committee member voicing concerns over a lack of information). The committee has now put together a resolution on the Conservancy at Washington Square Park “with stipulations” for the entire Community Board board to conceivably vote upon this coming Thursday, June 20th.

This is the outcome of a truly flawed process and a rush to approve an organization that has offered limited information and statements that necessitate further review with comprehensive public input and oversight.

Some background

I spoke to former Council Member Alan Gerson a few months back. He acted as liaison between the community and the Parks Department during the copious number of meetings related to Washington Square Park’s redesign, “negotiating, mediating, advocating” between the two entities. Gerson represented the district from 2002-2009. He and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn put together the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement.”

The Gerson-Quinn Agreement (or letter) was the basis for the formation of the Washington Square Park Task Force (which, unfortunately, was abandoned during Phase II construction). The letter to (former) Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe outlined a series of items covering almost all aspects of the park’s redesign and focused on items the community wanted adhered to.

It didn’t go as far as stopping the moving of the fountain but it made some modest strides. Gerson and Speaker Quinn both said the Parks Commissioner agreed to adhere to these items (tho’ Commissioner Benepe never signed the letter and would publicly state that there was “no agreement”).

The Gerson-Quinn “agreement” touches on the idea of a Conservancy but barely. As Alan Gerson said to me, the focus of the letter was the “make up of the park rehabilitation – the fence, the mounds, the dog runs…” The Conservancy was not given true consideration in it.

Yet, the former Council Member said, on the topic of a Conservancy, it was absolutely clear to the Parks Department — “no question about it” — that, if at any point, a Conservancy was to be proposed, it would be “an open and transparent process with full community oversight and input.”

Has the introduction of the Washington Square Park Conservancy to the community been an “open and transparent process?”

Consider these questions :

  • Is the creation of a private Conservancy in closed meetings between private individuals and the Parks Department with no input from or notification to the community — in fact, this entity was purposefully kept out of public view — “an open and transparent process?”
  • The Conservancy members said they didn’t want to come before the community until “their 501(c)(3) (non-profit status) was in place” —  yet New York State incorporation paperwork (corrected, not IRS) was filed in October of 2012, they put together a board, bylaws, and hired an employee early this year, only in early June coming before the community, is that “an open and transparent process?
  • The founding members of the Washington Square Park Conservancy filed their NYS (corrected) incorporation in October of 2012 and then seven months later came before the community without mission statement or bylaws, is this “an open and transparent process?”
  • The Parks Committee of C.B. 2 moved to vote “yes” — approving as a committee this entity despite the fact that no bylaws, mission statement, certificate of incorporation (COI) or materials outlining organizational structure have been viewed before the vote by either the committee or the general public — is this an “open and transparent process?”

Riverside Park pointed to by Parks Department as example of how this Conservancy will work — A closer look at the Riverside Park Conservancy

On the June 5th meeting agenda of the Parks Committee, the topic item was referred to as “the formation of a Washington Square Park Conservancy.” This despite the fact that Sarah Neilson has been parading her “dual title” of WSP Administrator and “executive director” of the Washington Square Park Conservancy around since March of this year.

At the meeting, both Sarah Neilson and Conservancy board member Veronica Bulgari pointed to Riverside Park and Fort Tryon Park as examples of places that “both have dual roles” in which a Parks Department employee is also head of the affiliated Conservancy.

(Riverside Park is 222.41 acres. Fort Tryon Park is 67.21 acres. Washington Square Park is 9.75 acres, by the way.)

The Riverside Park Conservancy on its web site says that its mission is to “maintain, operate, improve and provide programming in Riverside Park.” The Riverside Park Conservancy is a full-on Conservancy which manages and programs that park.

Role of this Conservancy and Alternate Ideas

The women who have founded the Washington Square Park Conservancy say they are just focusing on “planting flowers” and “arranging trash pick ups” (this was again stated at a private party they held on 10th Street recently for neighbors to get acquainted with them at which caviar and champagne were served).

Elizabeth Ely said: “We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. The city runs the park.”

Then, why are they pointing to Riverside Park as a model? (Again, it is a full-on Conservancy which they are claiming not to be – and they say they are not attempting to be.) Notably, they pointed to more obscure parks so no one could think they would be like Central Park or Randall’s Island.

Friends of Madison Square Park morphed into the Madison Square Park Conservancy in just two years (as I outlined in The Villager this week).

And why would a conservancy need to be formed for just the functions of planting flowers and arranging trash pickups?

Why can’t this Parks Department employee do what the administrator of Washington Square Park has always done and let these Conservancy board members raise money — if that is what is indeed needed — without having ties to the park beyond that?

If such a model for Washington Square Park is needed, an “open and transparent process” would be for the community to review all documents and to decide what that model should look like – not have it imposed on them and voted upon by the Community Board’s Parks Committee with undo haste.

Ask Community Board 2’s full Board to press ‘pause’ and give this important decision at Washington Square Park proper oversight and review.


Please come to Community Board 2’s meeting Thursday, June 20th 6 p.m. 557 Broadway between Prince and Spring, auditorium. Public comment begins at 6 p.m. sharp.

(There is more — check back tomorrow.)

Visit this page for all of this blog’s coverage of private conservancy at Washington Square Park.

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