Hot Dog! Private Conservancy Secrets: Food Cart Vendors Vanishing, $5 “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches” On Way, Mario Batali & More at Washington Sq Park

This is a revised version of a post that first appeared yesterday. Updated 11/25 12:06 p.m.

March 2013, vendor at left — not that intrusive, is he?

Decision To Relocate and Replace Long-Time Vendors at Washington Square Park With “New and Different” Vendors Was Made by Washington Square Park Conservancy Board Members in March 2013 — Three Months Prior to Public Meetings Addressing “Approval” of Conservancy (Community Board “Approval” was based on the stipulation that they wouldn’t be making these type decisions) 

Washington Square Park Conservancy founders were already exerting their influence and control on Washington Square Park in March 2013, in direct contrast to later public statements they made: that their role at the Park would be minimal. This was three months before Manhattan Community Board 2‘s “approval” of the body and at a point when their existence was largely unknown. By June, word (and alarm) had spread and the four Conservancy founders — Betsey Ely, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari, and Justine Leguizamo — came to state their case before the public. Discussing their plans, they seemed to struggle to offer anything too concrete as far as what they would be doing. They were just figuring it out, they said, but, mainly, their focus would be “planting flowers, recruiting volunteers, raising funds.” They would not have decision-making power at the Park.

With so much focus on the planting of flowers, Conservancy founders perhaps just forgot to mention that they already were making decisions by March of 2013, months before they came before C.B.2, and it wasn’t where daffodils should be placed in the Park.

Meeting notes obtained by Washington Square Park Blog of a March 13, 2013 meeting of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, outline, that, at that time, they instructed Sarah Neilson, their “Executive Director” and a city Parks employee, to “follow up on – moving the hot dog guy away from the Arch view corridor.” And — “Also [follow up on] the possibility of new & different food vendors [at the Park].”

Secrecy, $5 “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches,” and Mario Batali

Beyond the additional piling on of more secrecy, the decision points to the fact that the affluent members of the Washington Square Park Conservancy have a certain idea of what they want the Park, which they live just steps from, to be and to look like. This decision removes long-time vendors who have just a food cart, not fancy or anything, those vendors sell bottled water, pretzels, hot dogs and ice cream for the public. I’m not advocating junk food but the quality of the food is not the reason for this decision. It’s an aesthetic (?) decision and it’s who they think utilize the park (perhaps only their Fifth Avenue neighbors?). Conservancy Board members didn’t want the vendors near the Arch or the Fountain, and to fulfill their desire for something “new and different,” a company called Melt that sells $5 “ice cream cookie sandwiches” will be in the Park as of Spring 2014 along with Mario Batali’s Gelotto cart. (Mario Batali has had that cart for a few years now in the Park –  Batali has also recently been named to the Conservancy Board. Convenient.)

After obtaining documents outlining the Conservancy’s true plans, Washington Square Park Blog has reported (see Part I and Part II) how Parks Department officials went into stealth mode to get Community Board 2 “approval” and sway public sentiment in their favor – their attitude: say (or don’t say) whatever it takes — by any means necessary. And now, not that surprisingly, they aren’t honoring what was “agreed” upon. (Of course, with so many omissions – is that really an “agreement?”)

The extent to which these two entities conspired to keep information from the public is astounding: the undisclosed NYU $500,000 “Gift to the Park,” future License Agreement, something which would give them unprecedented control over WSP (and which Community Board 2’s conditional “approval” expressly stipulated against), their Budget (When asked publicly, they said they didn’t have one while WSP Blog has learned the organization submitted a 5 year budget to New York State December 2012 and has a copy of itinformation on that in next post in series), and grander plans for the Park than admitted publicly (more on that coming too).

There were major community concerns about a private entity infiltrating and gaining control over Washington Square Park; instead of addressing those concerns, working with the public, creating a true  “open and transparent process,” City officials and Conservancy founders cast a wide net of misinformation. And they intentionally left out any ‘hot-button’ topics, issues of which Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro was well aware after years negotiating with the community on Village parks. (NYU? Let’s leave that out, ladies.)

Conservancy Board members said there would be “no conflict of interest,” whatsoever — Castro backing them up on this, of course — with their “Executive Director,” Sarah Neilson, also being a city Parks Department employee and the publicly paid administrator for Washington Square Park.

Hot Dog Cart Moved East and West of Fountain April 2013:

Long-Time Park Vendors Eliminated Via Private Conservancy Command | Treating WSP as Pristine Viewing Garden Vs. Active, Public Space

Presently there are two food cart vendors on the Fountain Plaza, the Parks Department calls them “hot dog carts,” although they also sell bottled water, ice cream, pretzels. I don’t recall if they were there pre-2008 when construction began at the Park, but it’s very likely. They’ve been there now for years since Phase I’s Opening in April 2009 — with one located north of the Fountain, not far from the Arch, and the other south of the Fountain.

But enter the Washington Square Park Conservancy. The private Board members wanted the “hot dog guy” moved and… it was done! Just one month later after their March 2013 meeting. By April, so quickly, the two vendors were moved away from “the Arch view corridor,” and into locations east and west of the Fountain. Now, that might not be a terrible decision — although I think the other locations worked better (they were less intrusive, you actually noticed them less in the landscape in my opinion). And notice how no one from the Parks Department had any problem with that location near the Fountain and the Arch for years until the Conservancy ladies entered the picture.

And … if that was not enough: they also wanted those vendors gone completely!

This raises a critical question: how are these decisions being made and who gave them that decision making power? 

The Parks Department press office offered a reason for the impending departure of the hot dog carts and confirmed the arrival of new vendors, stating:

“The two hot dog carts currently in the park have contracts which expire on December 31 and the locations will not be re-bid, as we do not wish to disrupt the scenic views of the fountain. The New York Dosa cart will continue to operate in the park’s south west corner. The Carozza Gelato cart will also continue operating in the park, and in the spring, the park will welcome Melt in its eastern end – specializing in ice cream cookie sandwiches.”

The Conservancy’s meeting notes, obtained by Washington Square Park Blog, say it all, and confirm that it was the Conservancy’s decision to make these changes at the Park.

Fake Entity Floated by Parks Officials and “Approved” by Board?

And the fact is that this is what private entities like Madison Square Park Conservancy, Bryant Park Corporation, Central Park Conservancy, Friends of the Highline – which have control over these public spaces via license agreements with the City — DO. Private bodies with license agreements control the concessions and vendors in the parks. The Washington Square Park Conservancy, from its beginnings, was acting as as a true conservancy, like these others (something they swore they weren’t and never would be), with all the problems that come with private access to public space. And they began doing so prior to gaining community “approval,” approval they only received because they never revealed their intended larger plans and purview. Tricky, eh?

This is exactly what the community did not want for Washington Square Park – which is why the Conservancy founders and the Parks Department hid their true agenda. An agenda that included a future license agreement which, again, Manhattan Parks Commissioner Castro specifically stated would not happen (the C.B. 2 resolutions was “conditional” – no license agreement was one “condition”). The Community Board, as I’ve outlined, did not conduct “due diligence,” and that’s a problem, but they also were very much manipulated.

For at least twelve years, the idea of a conservancy at Washington Square Park had been received negatively. Bill Castro knew this well. And privatizer-in-chief Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure was coming to an end (at last) so Castro had to push this through now. He and his staff plotted every last detail, coached and colluded with Conservancy Board members, and they got what they wanted, but at what cost (to them)? (When you deceive the public this way, there is always a cost.) They received “approval” of a fake entity that they floated to the public.

Bait and switch?

As one Board member stated before the vote, “This conservancy has raised a lot of questions. And two metaphors come to mind – bait and switch and trojan horseSometimes [there are] attractive baits but they have hooks in them. Can’t see the hook until it’s too late and you’re a fried fish.” 

From the start two years ago, when meetings began in private between the Conservancy founders and Parks Department officials, community members shut out of the loop, these women were set up to be a privileged insider group. They have access now, and with the link with Park Administrator Sarah Neilson directly to the Park, they can make decisions – like this situation with the food cart vendors – and the public will never know.

Parks Department officials lied to the public virtually every step of the way (there really is no other way to say this). Now, unbeknownst to the public, the City has given this private body an unprecedented level of control and decision-making power at Washington Square Park, something community and park users expressly stipulated against. “Don’t give away the Park,” one community member implored. The time is now to reverse this privatizing course.

(But, at least, $5 ice cream cookie sandwiches are on the way.)

* * *

This is Part III in a series.

PART I: CONservancy? Intent to Privatize Washington Square Park Confirmed With Newly Uncovered Documents | NYU “Gift to the Park” Never Revealed to the Public & More

PART II: Bloomberg’s Parks Department to NYC: Privatize! | City Conspires to Legitimize Private Conservancy at Washington Sq Park Before New Mayor Steps In, Withholds Critical Info from Public

Previously at WSP Blog:

Analysis of Timeline that Led to Community Board 2 “Approval” of Washington Square Park Conservancy

Mike Myers and Mario Batali Film “Private Internet Project” Atop the Arch June 14, 2011

Photos: Cathryn

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