NYU’s $500,000 “Gift” to Washington Square Park Concealed, Delayed for Years by Parks Department to Push Through Conservancy

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Updated 4:44 p.m.: Mystery exists around the evolution of $1 Million New York University pledged to the Washington Square Park redesign project before construction began in 2007. It was believed that money came forth in one lump sum; there was no reason to believe otherwise. What transpired brings up questions as to why the existence of the “left over” $1/2 Million was not mentioned and was not secured by the New York City Parks Department during the seven year park redesign. It was only recently attained. What makes it dodgier is that, during this time, the city agency used scare tactics to push for a private conservancy to raise money for Washington Square Park claiming the park would fall into disrepair otherwise, never acknowledging the future funds.

In June 2013, Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro didn’t want anyone to know about the $500,000 from NYU still to come to Washington Square Park — as far as anyone knew, the money had been received. Omitting this fact would help while he tried to push through a Washington Square Park conservancy: it enabled him to attempt to paint a picture of doom & gloom in statements to the public, outlining a very sad scenario he feared would unfold for the park without this private organization in place.

$500,000 “Gift to the Park” = 1/2 of the $1 Million University Had Pledged Years Prior; Washington Square Conservancy Met with NYU Higher-Ups before Anyone Knew Their Organization Existed

Emails uncovered by WSP Blog in November 2013 between the Parks Department and Washington Square Park Conservancy founders revealed a back-and-forth about a $500,000 “Gift to the Park” from New York University. At a Community Board meeting in Spring 2014, this blog asked about the $500,000 and the “Gift to the Park.” Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson, who works for the both the city and WSP conservancy, said that this amount was “left over” from the original pledged $1 Million. This was news. It had never been presented this way previously, at least to my knowledge. It was then (reluctantly) confirmed by Manhattan Parks Chief of Staff Steve Simon that the agency did not have the money yet and they had no idea when they would. But, they stated that this remaining money would be utilized for park “maintenance.”

(A note: Washington Square Park Conservancy Treasurer Gwen Evans denied at the Community Board meeting called to address questions related to the conservancy — amidst community outrage over what the email documentation exposed — that the private group had any substantive meetings with New York University. She was very cautious and dodged as much as possible in her response, unsure exactly what I knew. Yet, emails showed that more than one meeting occurred with Lynne Browne and Alicia Hurley, NYU higher-ups. Hurley was the main face of the much-despised NYU 2031 Plan.)

A Timeline:

So, a timeline: Washington Square Park’s redesign construction began late December 2007. Phase III (considered the final phase, only the sidewalks remain) was completed in April 2014. According to the Parks Department, the $500,000 was just transferred from the University to the park in late November 2015. It seems probable that this money was held up because the Parks Department did not want to have to confirm its existence; it would have been much harder to argue for the need for a conservancy, one they had worked so hard to keep from the public, and created behind closed doors, if it was known that half a million dollars existed, ready to be dedicated to the maintenance of the park they were arguing would be so hard to maintain.

it would have been much harder to argue for a conservancy, one they had worked so hard to keep from the public, and created behind closed doors, if it was known that half a million dollars existed, ready to be dedicated to the maintenance of the park they were arguing would be so hard to maintain.

Private Money, Public Problems

The Washington Square Park community did not want a conservancy; park-users had batted down the idea for twelve straight years whenever it was brought up. The park had been run by the city Parks Department for over 18 years, and managed quite fine, thank you very much. No one wanted Washington Square to become like Madison Square Park or Bryant Park, uber-programmed, commercialized, and no longer unique. The Bloomberg Administration Parks Department, led at time by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, found willing co-horts who would work with him to quietly enact a plan and get around the opposition: four wealthy neighborhood women who were apparently not troubled by keeping this from the public and their neighbors.

When they finally went public in 2013, in order to get Community Board 2 “approval” — allegedly for their “formation,” when, in fact, they were fully “formed” — there was one public hearing, resulting in a boatload of statements from both the conservancy founders and Manhattan Parks Commissioner Castro rife with evasions, omissions, and misrepresentations. (See Washington Square Park Conservancy Timeline) Many questions lingered and there was no mechanism to explore further. The Community Board members who wanted this body approved were in a rush. Many on CB2 had concerns about approving this group, but not enough, and, ultimately, the Board, led at the time by Chair David Gruber, played along.

Due to the release of the FOIL documents, and related media coverage, they all got tripped up on their plans. The conservancy founders had to backtrack, play nice. The Washington Square Park Conservancy does not run or manage the park – what goes on behind-the-scenes is hard to say. (See : hot dog vendors.) The private group has had to stick to a limited role at the park, despite their public statements (such as: we only used the word “conservancy” because “every other name was taken,” we’re just a “little friends group”), email documentation shows their plan was to become along the lines of the existing corporate conservancies (see: Central Park, Madison Square, Prospect Park Alliance).

How would it have evolved differently if the public knew there was half a million dollars, just sitting around, ready to be transferred to the park’s coffers?

The NYU hidden-and-then-stalled $500,000 is one more egregious example of a process orchestrated by the city Parks Department, riddled with conflict and omission, in which private influences were given priority over the public.

And the irony is that NYU, which has not won a lot of public favor lately and has always had a mixed relationship to the Washington Square community, comes out looking the best.

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This week, the Parks Department is coming before Community Board 2 to discuss the “plan” for the NYU “funds.” What do you think the money will be put towards? What should the funds be put towards? Why then is there need for a private organization fundraising for the park? How will they try to spin this so that the Wash Sq conservancy does not have to scale back its seemingly incessant fundraising, and its attempts to cement itself into the picture?

Please attend:

Wednesday, February 3rd 6:30 PM
Little Red School House, 272 Sixth Avenue at Bleecker Street, Auditorium
Trains: A, B, C, D, E, F, M trains to W. 4th Street – Washington Square


  1. Presentation by and Working Session with Parks without Borders.
  2. Update on Washington Square Park activities.
  3. Discussion of donation to Washington Square Park by NYU; plan for use of the funds.

Photo: NYU Alumni via Twitter

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