Washington Square Park Status 2016: Dying Tree Plan, Missing Vendors, Arch Ready for Lift Off! – C.B. 2 Meeting Report-back – Part I

Community Board 2 Parks Committee met last week, February 3rd, for its monthly meeting, addressing Washington Square Park for the first time since last summer. Part I of this report-back focuses on the status of Washington Square Park, an overview of outstanding issues, as of early 2016.

Part II will focus on the money, including NYU’s concealed $500,000, and, now, added into the mix, there is Tisch Family money too!

The presentation was done by Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson, who works for the Parks Department. Interestingly, neither Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro nor his Chief of Staff Steve Simon were there to talk about the [history of] NYU/Tisch money, as would typically be the case. Also, notably absent was Community Board 2 Chair Tobi Bergman, who is always present at the Parks Committee meetings when Washington Square Park is on the agenda.

empty tree pits washington square park
One of four empty tree pits


Shortly after the Fountain Plaza opened in 2009, the trees that circle it began dying – and have continued to die. The Parks Department has not taken any true initiative to correct this or taken it seriously, for reasons which seem largely political. Sadly, these fledgling trees replaced healthy 40-year old trees that were axed for the folly of moving the fountain 22 feet east to “align” with the Arch.

Last spring, at a C.B. 2 Parks Committee meeting, Sarah Neilson stated that the city agency was forming a “working group” to figure out the ongoing problem related to these dying trees – this is after 11 or 12 trees had already died.

Neilson returned last week to state that the Parks Department Forestry Department now has a strategy to help the trees live: the plans include to switch up the species of tree planted in the locations with empty pits.

In some locations, over the last six and a half years, the trees have been planted as many as four times – planted, died, and replanted in the same locations again and again.

The proposed solution is to change from the current Zelkova species to Chinese Elm which they say will be “visually  compatible” with the remaining Zelkovas around the Fountain (that have not yet died).

Neilson said, “Four pits [around the Fountain] do not have trees. We are going to plant in the spring: planting season. The Forestry group is focusing on what’s going wrong.They are going to try another species. …The Chinese Elm is a little hardier, a really good street tree. We’re going to do moisture testing. Trees can’t talk to us so we will try to get as much information from them.

She continued, “We’re doing to test the soil.  Cross your fingers, We’re going to try our hardest.”

It should be noted, in September 2011, the Parks Department told NBC News they were going to do all these things – then.

Parks Committee public member Sharon Woolums asked, “Is there any way to make the pits bigger?” Neilson dismissed this, stating, “It would be a big ordeal. We’re going to try this [these things] – that is something that might be the next step.”

WSP Blog asked if these trees would also be planted in structural soil [as the previous ones were]. Sarah Neilson responded, “It’s regular soil, there’s structural soil to the side.” (To the side? I am not sure this makes sense.)

As for Neilson’s comment, “Trees can’t talk to us.” I think they give us signs all the time. Whether they are listened to is another story.

When the first round of fountain trees were being replaced in 2009, I encountered a landscape architect at the park who was very familiar with the Parks Department and had studied with the professor at Cornell University who invented structural soil, which filled the tree pits in these locations. The conversation was pretty telling and prescient: exactly what he stated would happen did — a repetition of planting, dying and replanting of these trees with no agency intervention.

He cited Parks Department politics: no one wanting to correct Parks Department re-designer George Vellonakis and his inappropriate design, which, according to him, did not ensure proper drainage for the trees to survive with the structural soil.

In fact, at a C.B. 2 meeting in 2009, when asked directly, Vellonakis said there was “no drainage problem” and the trees died as a result of the [park] construction  – which would not explain the (many) dead trees that were to come over the next six years.

For a recap, visit this 2009 post.

Related: NBC News, Dead Trees at Washington Square Park Blamed on Parks Department, September 21, 2011

New crepe cart Fountain Plaza Washington Square Park
New crepe cart Fountain Plaza


Why does it seem like there were no issues with the “hot dog” food cart vendors on the Fountain Plaza, until Washington Square Park conservancy, behind-the-scenes, got involved in 2013? They weighed in, secretly, when no one even knew they of their existence, on having the hot dog vendors relocated (from north and south on the Fountain Plaza to east and west) – and it was done! Documents obtained by WSP Blog via FOIL – Freedom of Information Letter – contained emails with discussions between Neilson and private conservancy socialite founding members about moving the vendors “away from the Arch view corridor” and replacing the existing vendors with “other type” vendors.

(This group was not supposed to have this sort of influence – which they later denied having – having tried to sell itself on its “We’re just a little friends [of park] group” rhetoric. Before their existence was known, prior to the June 2013 meeting, aka public hearing, set up for the public to weigh in and the Community Board to vote on “approval” of this private entity; they used their behind-closed-doors influence to weigh in on vendors at the park. See WSP Conservancy Timeline.)

Neilson led off saying, “Everyone wants to know about hot dogs.” The “hot dog” food cart vendors have notably been missing from the Fountain Plaza where two carts had been a steady presence for years (there used to be four, I believe, some years back).

There have been problems keeping the vendors over the last two years with long periods of absences on the Fountain Plaza. These were, at times, filled in by temporary vendors, but this was sporadic, also.

Neilson provided an update on all the park vendors:

“The Dosa guy (NY Dosas) is in place until 2017. The crepe cart came in the fall – that’s a five year contract but it took so long to get the contract resolved so it will be a four year. The hot dog [cart] just got signed up and we’re expecting them to start in February. Ice cream sandwiches resume in warmer weather on the east side – on north side or in the middle. GelOtto – they actually don’t want to be there anymore so they ended their contract from their side.” (GelOtto was Mario Batali’s cart.)

I find this new bright orange-colored crepe booth way more obtrusive on the Fountain Plaza than the “hot dog” vendors ever were.

The Parks Department reduction from two “hot dog” food carts to one was allegedly because they wanted to install “healthy options” at the park – but the crepe vendor has no healthy food. It’s curious.

Washington Square Arch
Ready for lift-off?

LIGHTING ON THE ARCH: “It looks like it’s about to lift off”

This was not a topic with an update, however, Jonathan Geballe, a Parks Committee member, began asking, “The lighting on the Washington Square Arch is sort of…” Neilson interrupted: “Isn’t that a triumph? It was a multi-agency thing. [she paused] Oh…. were you saying something good?”

Everyone laughed, and I actually initially thought he was saying something complimentary – he wasn’t. He continued, “It’s sort of startling. It looks like it’s about to lift off.” (Now, when I look at the lit Arch, this is all I can think of.) Neilson continued with her praise: “I think it’s dazzling. I think it’s terrific.” She also alluded to the structure looking like a white, shiny tooth.

Ralph Musolino, who oversees aspects of parks in C.B.2, chimed in about the positives: “Hopefully we won’t have to change the bulbs for six more years.” Neilson added that over time the lights will dim “a little bit.”

You may recall that the lighting on the Arch was switched to LED lighting in 2015. [More detailed info about the switch here.]

PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol)

For the winter, there are three PEP officers who work from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Neilson said, “They are in very close contact with NYPD when there’s a situation. It ramps back up in springtime with two shifts. … We’re trying to get a step-up sergeant to help with performance on the team.”

Note: Remember when the parks PEP officers went missing for the longest time in 2013, and it was very curious, and surmised that this was [another thing] done in the push for a private conservancy? As in, Look, see? There are not even PEP officers at the park!

The lengths the Bloomberg Parks Department – with Bill Castro as the chief orchestrator (and he is still there) – would go to to push a private entity at a park that did not want one. It’s astounding. The hidden money (from NYU and the Tisch Family – more on this coming) is another example.


Neilson said, ‘The PEP officers are checking constantly [in the park]. People are allowed to sit in the park in daytime as long as its not camping. PEP officers work with the NYPD. Homeless services comes through often. …Situation seems to be stabilized.”

This was after the New York Post went a bit crazy in their criticism of Mayor De Blasio and there were some homeless people living in various parks in NYC. I think a little more empathy is in order in this regard.


Activist and reporter Mitchel Cohen asked if the park used any pesticides or herbicides. Neilson responded, “No, we only trap rats. We haven’t used rodenticides since January 2014. Because we have hawks, we don’t use any rodenticides.”


Community member and advocate Lynn Pax asked about Wi-Fi installation in the park, “Are there any areas of the park that are free from it?”

Neilson said, “It was initially discussed as being installed on poles at the perimeter but now there are new initiatives about getting Wi-Fi city wide so it may have changed.” She said she would have to find out, stating there were poles “one at the north side and two at the south side of the park.” But: “No poles near the Arch. We didn’t want the visual clutter.”

Wi-Fi at the park was originally brought up in February 2015. Pax and I both advocated for sections of the park to be without Wi-Fi which the representatives appeared receptive to – but apparently the city now wants Wi-Fi everywhere.

Parks Committee member Coral Dawson looked up the information on the city website and informed the room that “the whole park has it.” [The provider is Time Warner and the password is : guestwifi.]

Mitchel Cohen said, “There are a lot of concerns about it and being inundated wherever you go.” WSP Blog mentioned findings indicating environmental and health concerns, impacts for wildlife and people. Lynn Pax added, “And especially for children.”

Chair Rich Caccappolo said that any findings on this track are “rantings” and there is “no scientific [rationale]” behind it.

Cohen replied, “Check with Germany.”

Wi-Fi ‘electrosmog’ a risk to health, say scientists World Bulletin, November 12, 2014

Is Wi-Fi Making Your Child ILL?, MSN.com/The Telegraph, October 12, 2015

Sidewalks under construction washington square park
Sidewalks under Construction


Neilson updated that the project is “under way [with a] small segment [on the west side] open. The trees will come in at the end. … It is roughly on schedule, it got off to a slow start.” Scheduled to be a one year project, the sidewalk reconstruction began September 21, 2015. She reported, “[The work is] currently along the west side, then will flip up to the north side coordinating with [to avoid interfering with the] water main work.”

Part II: On the private money $$ coming next!

hot dog vendors 2013 washington square park
hot dog vendors as they were 2013 washington square park

Photos: Cathryn

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