Vellonakis Set to Officially Retire in the Fall
George Vellonakis, the landscape designer placed in charge of the Bloomberg Administration’s controversial redesign of Washington Square Park, later hired in 2017 to be the park’s publicly paid Administrator, has left the building. Early this year, Washington Square Park Blog received a tip on Vellonakis’s departure; upon querying the city’s Parks Department press office, the agency declined to respond.
It’s now been revealed that Vellonakis has been “on leave” since January and plans “retirement” in the fall.
On a Community Board 2 video conference meeting this month related to Washington Square Park Conservancy, Sheryl Woodruff from the private group, of which Vellonakis was also “Executive Director,” confirmed that he was leaving. When asked by Parks Committee chair Rich Caccappolo on the “timing” of his departure, Woodruff said that she was “not sure of the date,” [to] “talk to Parks [Department] to see why that is,” but she believed that it had something to do with his “benefits package.” It’s unfortunate that the Parks Department left this information to be revealed via a private conservancy “update” vs. having a representative attend the Zoom meeting to notify the community what was happening with a member of the city agency’s staff.
At his few appearances at Community Board meetings over the last 2 1/2 years, Vellonakis was passionate about preserving his design, often expressing elaborate, fancy ideas which would require more and more money to implement, and conceivably more and more reliance on private conservancy fundraising. Hearing some of this, it sometimes seemed amazing the park has been able to succeed for decades largely paid for by the New York City Parks Department budget and remain run and managed by the New York City Parks Department. (I’m kidding, the park has managed just fine and this has protected this important public space in many good ways from private behind-the-scenes back room deals and wealthy neighbors determining what happens without any say from the public.)
Vellonakis blurred lines in his “dual role” as the publicly paid Park Administrator and Executive Director of private conservancy
George Vellonakis leaving does come as a surprise. One problem was, that, after he took on the job in May 2017, lines often became blurred between his two roles as public park Administrator and “Executive Director” of private conservancy.
Vellonakis was friendly with and a neighbor to the four wealthy neighborhood women who founded the private conservancy behind closed doors, ushered in under “murky” omissions and evasions in information provided to the public via the one Board 2 meeting addressing the group’s “formation.” The “little friends’ group” was voted in based on this misinformation amidst a contentious full Board split vote. [See: WSP Private Conservancy Timeline.] Vellonakis was placed in this position with “dual roles” after Sarah Neilson left in the fall of 2016 after 3 1/2 years. It’s no coincidence Vellonakis took this on, his role was clearly negotiated also behind closed doors. Such is the problem with private influence on public parks.
[“Park officials met privately with the nonprofit’s founders because they feared a public backlash could halt talks, one insider said.” See NY Post: Wash. Park goes Square]
Washington Square Park Blog uncovered and published documents that showed just how much misinformation was presented to the public by the conservancy ladies in their statements. When Community Board 2 was presented with this information, they just doubled down and refused to do over the “process.”
Over the past five years, the private conservancy has attempted to hold sway over more turf at the park and George Vellonakis made the lines blur even further. The private conservancy does not run or manage this Greenwich Village park but the group’s “communications” make it difficult for the general public to recognize the difference, intentionally.
Washington Square Park remains managed and run by the New York City Parks Department.
Opportunity now to remove the “dual role” and give back clear jurisdiction to NYC Parks Department
While Vellonakis is gone, District Manager Jamal Patterson has been covering the position. Patterson was the representative for the Parks Department at the 2019 meeting addressing the “reinterment” of burial remains back into the park (which feels like five years ago now).
Woodruff said that the Parks Department is looking to hire a “Deputy Park Administrator.” Susannah Aaron from the Parks Committee asked “deputy to whom?,” and Woodruff responded, “Deputy to no one.” Aaron asked if the Parks Department will hire for both roles and Woodruff said, “We don’t know that as yet.” She added, “It’s not clear what we’re going to do. We are structured to have a dual role. The position the Parks Department [is filling] is not written that way.”
It’s always been a conflict of interest for these two jobs to be merged. It’s not necessary and to remove the “dual role” will make a clear distinction to these roles and diminish the chance of any back room deals and influence.
More to come on this. See posts below for more details, particularly this one from 2016:
Washington Square Park Seeks New Park Administrator | Time to Separate Public Park Positions from Private Conservancies
From this blog’s May 2017 post on Vellonakis’s hiring:
Six months, 22 applicants, four interviewees, one outcome: After an (arguably) extensive “search,” George Vellonakis, the landscape designer responsible for the 2007-2014+ redesign of Washington Square Park, has been chosen as the park’s new administrator in charge of day-to-day operations and more.
Presenting his “symmetrical” vision for the iconic park in the early-to-mid-2000s, Vellonakis, who has never run or managed a park, was often at odds with the public. He begins in the position today, Monday, May 15th replacing Sarah Neilson who vacated the position in November 2016.
“I’m disheartened by this appointment of a designer who has shown disdain for meaningful park planning participation involving the public,” stated lawyer Joel Kupferman upon learning of the decision. Kupferman litigated one of the lawsuits on behalf of Greenwich Village residents which attempted to halt the redesign. The suit cited harmful environmental impacts if the plan moved forward, including the threat of death to park trees, something which has certainly come to pass, among other failings with the design.
The Parks Department press office confirmed late last week that Vellonakis had been chosen: “Yes – George Vellonakis has been appointed Washington Square Park Administrator. He will also serve as Executive Director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy. George was interviewed and selected by a panel, made up of: Manhattan Borough Commissioner Bill Castro, (former) Manhattan Chief of Operations Namshik Yoon, and Manhattan Chief of Recreation Kim McNeal. He will begin on Monday.”
When the job was posted in 2012 before the hiring of Neilson, who held the position for three-and-a-half years, it was advertised “citywide” – inside and outside of the Parks Department. This time, the job was offered only “internally” to existing full-time Parks Department employees. This certainly narrowed the pool, particularly, if, according to the agency, only four of 22 applicants were even interviewed.
This blog’s relationship with Vellonakis was sometimes cordial and sometimes contentious, but I think, in his own way, George Vellonakis wanted what he considered ‘best’ for the park. The problem being that that often did not incorporate representation from a cross section of park users and was related to wealthy neighbors who he lived amongst.
***Check back for more details on this recent Community Board meeting and details around the private conservancy’s “activities” in the next week.***
Top photo: Cathryn
Bottom photo: still from YouTube interview/documentary, “Square: Straightening Out Washington Square Park”