Report-back Community Board 2 Vote On Washington Sq Park Conservancy (Part I)

Updated 5:12 p.m.

The June 20th Community Board 2 meeting at which the full board — in an unusual split vote — moved to approve a conservancy at Washington Square Park was first covered at this blog June 21st.

“Timeline and Analysis of the Path that led to Community Board 2’s Approval of the Washington Square Park Conservancy” posted June 27.

This post, a bit overdue, is basically a more in-depth overview of the nitty gritty of what transpired at that June 20th meeting and reporting of what the discussion points were during public comment and from board members.

And the more time that has gone by, the more it is confirmed to me how inadequate the “review” process has been. I was pushing for a public hearing but even I didn’t realize just how important that would be. No one (?) would have guessed how insufficiently the board would treat the matter.

The Community Board gave no indication that after a sole committee meeting, they were going to vote on the Conservancy, and, in fact, after that June 5th Parks Committee meeting, so many new questions arose. There was no announcement that a vote would take place at any point. (They expected the community to just grasp – via intuition perhaps – what their process was?)

In fact, I was told signs that typically would have gone up around the park itself announcing the meeting weren’t posted due to the fact that the person on the board who typically did so had taken ill.

The board acted somewhat arrogantly towards the community, and, while the Parks Department started the non-transparency train rolling, the board continued this.

Report-back – Community Board 2 Full Board Meeting — June 20, 2013

Public Comment (comments are for the most part excerpted):

If you’ve attended a full board meeting, you know that during the allotted public comment portion of the meeting, for two minutes each, people speak discussing any matter of concern to them within the C.B.’s district. Only comments related to the Washington Sq Park Conservancy are addressed here. (I didn’t include every comment.)

A gentleman whose name I didn’t catch argues this organization (the conservancy) “will be more transparent as 501(c)(3). They are required to say who [what?] they spend money on. We should all be in favor of transparency like a private non-profit like conservancy.”

Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation(GVSHP) head Andrew Berman got up to speak. I was perhaps a little hard on him in my report-back of his comments before the Parks Committee meeting. (Although it remains that two of the “founding members” of the Washington Sq Park Conservancy are on GVSHP’s board and this worries me. The GVSHP does some really good work, despite never taking a position on the entire dramatic redesign of Washington Sq Park including the moving of the fountain, but Washington Square Park is not the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation … and it shouldn’t be addressed as such in any way.)

Berman, while supporting this body, at least has been arguing for transparency and proper vetting. He said, “We know that there are complex issues in terms of transparency.” And went on to say it should be properly vetted. He continued, “Giving people opportunity to give back to our public spaces … [and] volunteerism is a good thing.”

Douglas Evans said, “I am in favor of the conservancy. I know paper [people] and its mission – Some of whom I’ve known for years. I am a specialist of charitable organizations. I know will follow in terms of transparency … can find [financial info] in many different places. They know the park and what its needs are. I would support them.”

Another woman said, “I think the park is great the way it is. There’s a trend that says government doesn’t work [I say] let’s make government work. [And] Instead of expanding before we can afford it, let’s act cautiously.”

Georgia Seamans said, “I am against final vote on Washington Square Park Conservancy. [We all know about state of] Central Park in the 1970s. That is not Washington Square Park in 2013. The park is not in decline. It is safe. [According to park mission] Washington Square Park is a neighborhood park with a diversity of uses and users. [Private influence] can limit diversity of uses and users over time. The process by which [this took place] is extremely disappointing. Demanding right to have a substantive debate. A meeting with lively discussion by committee is not sufficient.”

Parks Committee Public Member Sharon Woolums (the only person of the 12 member committee who voted to cast a ‘no’ vote), “I was not ready to cast vote for Washington Square Park Conservancy. I did not feel we had enough information. I am disappointed that the community was left out of the discussion until now. It is hard to believe NYU had no influence. The group [says they] couldn’t come up with any other name. Naming this a conservancy [is] everything they aspire to become.”

Margie Perlmutter of the Washington Place Block Association, “[Something] nefarious about how this whole thing was handled. They already have tax exempt status in hand everyone in this room knows how long it takes to get this. They are going to make the park into their own private viewing garden. They do not represent the spirit and broader constituency of the park.”

Mary Johnson said, “I have lived near Washington Square Park for over 40 years. The board is being asked to give the park away – the community knew nothing about this. They had secret meetings over a year ago. We’ve lost so many historical [places]. … Don’t give away the park. The four women presented at parks committee [stating] all they want to do is help the park. There are dozens and dozens of questions that have not been answered. Please don’t vote until you have the answers.”

Betsey Ely, one of the Washington Sq Park Conservancy founding members, ” I spoke on June 5th. Many [were] in favor of our ‘friends’ group. We are working with the City of New York and other neighborhood groups [to make sure wsp] continues as a diverse and historical green space. … To keep [park] safe, clean and beautiful is all we want to do. … bring volunteers in – We want to be an advocate. Hire a playground associate, modest supplements…  We have no interest in running the park.

Another WSP Conservancy board member, Veronica Bulgari, said, “The committee voted 11-1 in favor of our group. We first spoke with the Parks Department 1 ½ years ago. We spoke with many administrators [at other parks]. Last August, we met with Village Alliance and Washington Square Association. We met with [NY State Senator and Former C.B. 2 Chair] Brad Hoylman and [NY State Assembly Member] Deborah Glick. We were forthcoming and direct about our ideas. [We plan to have a] strong volunteer program. We will be raising funds to supplement the park.”

Next up, another Washington Sq Park Conservancy founding member Gwen Evans, “We presented at the June 5th meeting. We had  many supporters there. The committee voted 11-1 in favor. [We will be an] Independent non-profit. We filed paperwork [to be] 501c3. …  [Word] Conservancy wasn’t 1st choice – every other name was taken. Conservancy is just a word – If we called ourselves ‘friends,’ we wouldn’t be any different.” She said that the board will have a member of the Community Board as well as The Washington Square Association. “We will make sure community will be represented.”

Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber then stated that Conservancy members met with him and he thought they met with Rich Caccappolo (Parks Committee Chair – tho’ Caccappolo said this was before he was chair). (As if the two of them would not have verified this by now…?) As to some other details, he said, “It was so long ago I don’t remember.”

Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson spoke next. Neilson was clearly concerned that this vote pass in favor of the Conservancy. (And we know it was clearly a concern to Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro due to his presence at both Community Board meetings. But, as far as Neilson, she already has her job as park administrator. Why is the Conservancy “Executive Director” aspect so important to her? Is it prestige? Future salary … despite the organization saying she won’t be paid? She will likely do a good job as park administrator despite it being unclear if she has ever managed a park. The secrecy and the fact that both roles should be separated remain the main pieces I take issue with, oh, and that this organization should not be programming or have direct ‘strings’ to the park.)

Neilson said, “[At June 5th Parks Committee meeting], we had many supporters. [The committee] voted 11-1 in favor.” She then pointed to and read the part of the committee’s resolution (which was to be voted on) that said, “Washington Square Park administrator, a city employee, salary paid entirely by parks now and in the future in all instances at all times will represent parks.”

She said the Parks Department will retain control over events, concessions and permits and that the Conservancy role is to engage volunteers and to “keep the park safe, clean and beautiful.”

Community member Jim Fouratt said, “All good people who want to beautify the park. … The mayor has privatized public space. [It should be that people] – write a check and designate what it’s for. [And that’s that.] I think there’s another way. … we all want to make the park beautiful.”

Part II – the Community Board discussion – can be found here.


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