10 Years Ago This Month, Washington Square Park Private Conservancy “Approved” By C.B.
Updated 6/28, 10:08 a.m. — Community Board 2’s Parks Committee held a meeting June 7th on Washington Square Park: a “status update.” It had been over a year. In the past, sometimes years have gone by without one. The lead speaker at the meeting was Will Morrison, Washington Square Park Administrator. Morrison was hired as Deputy Park Administrator for the NYC Parks Department starting around December 2020 after previous Park Administrator George Vellonakis mysteriously departed. It’s unclear when Morrison was promoted to Park Administrator (up from Deputy) but the announcement at this meeting was that he has now also been “appointed” to a (controversial) “dual role,” acting also as Executive Director of the private Washington Square Park Conservancy.
For 2 1/2 years, Will Morrison has worked solely for the city’s Parks Department. When Morrison was hired in the Parks Dept’s “deputy” admin role at WSP in late 2020, they didn’t make him Executive Director at the conservancy. That was actually for the best. The two positions should be separate and together present a conflict of interest. To be clear, Washington Square Park Conservancy does not run or manage Washington Square Park – it remains under the purview of the NYC Parks Department. During his tenure, George Vellonakis was both Park Admin for the Parks Department and Exec. Director of Conservancy following Sarah Neilson’s departure. After Vellonakis left, Sheryl Woodruff at the private conservancy (her title was upped at the time to Deputy Director) mostly took on his responsibilities. So the public and private jobs do not need to be connected, nor should they be. But now Woodruff’s departed Washington Square Conservancy just as Will Morrison has been given this additional job. Interesting.
Morrison was speaking here in his role as Park Admin working for NYC Parks but he added in a lot about Washington Square private conservancy and other local organizations that are part of the park’s ecosystem and history.
I will credit some of the Community Board’s Parks Committee members for asking relevant, thoughtful questions at this June 7th meeting. It felt like they remembered their 2013 resolution when private conservancy was first “approved” (famously – and unusually – there was very much “a split vote” when it came before the Full Board).
For sure, the committee could have improved how things were handled then but at least NOW a few of them kept the community’s concerns in mind. The whole way this conservancy was pushed through initially and the lack of transparency from its four wealthy socialite founders remains a problem and there remains a lack of transparency. Morrison can say that the Parks Department is doing everything, making all the major decisions, but we know money can gain sway. Last year’s Gothamist article, Mission Creep: Emails Show How Wealthy Donors Exerted Influence Over Washington Square Park, illustrated this.
Park Administrator Will Morrison first gave a brief overview/park updates
Will Morrison seemed very jazzed by the “ton of programming coming back to the park. We have come back full force.” He mentioned The Washington Square Music Festival had just opened the evening prior, and other programming for kids, salsa social on Wednesdays, TreeWonder group which has been doing a drawing series on Sundays. “We’ve got our major events coming back – Films on the Green, the Hare Krishna Festival,” he added. “So the park is springing with activity and it’s really a wonderful time. We’re looking forward to a jam packed season in the park.”
The Parks Department continues to work with the NYPD to close the park at midnight. Morrison stated, “We are working on the same cadence that we’ve had with them over the past few years at this point. I’m happy to report that we still collaborate nightly to close the park to great effect.”
There is a new specialty food cart coming. The crepe cart is gone; there is currently the lone “hot dog” vendor on the Fountain Plaza. Morrison stated that there will be a “new potato cart that should be coming to the park soon.”
The Parks Department planted 13 street trees around the park this season. “We’re so happy to have them.”
Morrison mentioned “transitioning into the ‘Dual Role'”, stating, “So I’ve been in this position for about two and a half years, I was very grateful to be appointed to this role [as Executive Director Washington Square Park Conservancy] and return to the position that has been previously occupied by George [Vellonakis] and Sarah [Neilson] before him. I want to clarify that this role is additive. I will still do the same [things in my role as Admin for the Parks Department]: permit approvals, managing Parks staff, engaging with the many partner organizations like NYU, Village Alliance, Washington Square Association.”
Community Board Members’ Questions
Susanna Aaron, co-chair of the Community Board 2 Parks committee, and Shirley Secunda, Parks Committee member, both asked substantive questions.
Rich Caccappolo, Parks Committee chair, mentioned “10 years ago this month, the Washington Square Park Conservancy idea was brought to us.”
Susanna Aaron, committee co-chair, asks Will Morrison: “At the time, there was a lot of concern from some corners that the dual role would mean, not that the conservancy would be subservient to the administration, but rather the other way around, [that] the conservancy would play a larger role and be able to dictate around the programming and uses of the park. We built a lot of things into the resolution about the conservancy [to prevent that, including] coming to the [Community] Board frequently and documenting all of its documentation and financing on its web site. Those safe guards are in place.”
Rich Caccappolo: “We hoped to have two meetings [on Washington Square Park with private conservancy updates] a year. [That that hasn’t happened] is my fault.”
Susanna: “How many private entities are there that contribute to the park in terms of whatever … it’s not just the Conservancy, right?”
Will Morrison: “We have the [Washington Square] Association [Christmas Tree Lighting, Music Festival], the Dog Run Association, and we have many other organizations that contribute through programming.” Mentions NYU as “major partner,” the Village Alliance and Greenwich House.
Susanna: “So all of these offerings come filtered through the Park Administration, right?”
Susanna: “Are there any days when the Park is closed to the public to help these organizations raise funds? Do any of these organizations play any role in closing off the park to the public?”
Will: “No. It’s solely the Parks Department’s purview … We don’t have private events in the park.”
Susanna: “You mentioned the Washington Square Park Conservancy pays for plantings. Who decides what gets planted?”
Will: “The Parks Department gardener. It really is one of the best conservancy models in my opinion across the many conservancy models that exist in the city and the dual rules that exist across the city where the conservancy grant funds city employees so it’s a Parks Department gardener that makes those decisions in conjunction with myself and members of the team.”
Editor note: Morrison is saying that the Parks Department is making all these decisions but I’m not entirely sure this is true.
Will: “The role adds a layer of long range planning and management of a dedicated team and organization that’s sole purpose and mission is to make the park clean, safe and beautiful and they do that through volunteer efforts, programming, and funding of parks staff … One example is the seasonal night crew that they fund that allows us to keep the rest rooms open later into the evening then would otherwise be possible. For those that know me, that door at the Park House is always open. Nothing about that is changing.”
Frederica Sigel mentions that in order for person to hold “dual role” / “additional job” that they need to get a waiver from the Conflicts of Interest Board. Will responds that, yes, a waiver is needed from the agency commissioner for dual role, for every dual role.
Shirley Secunda: “I have a few questions that I think will just make the whole relationship a little clearer between Parks and the conservancy. I wonder if you could define the Washington Square Park Conservancy as opposed to the other organizations briefly mentioned.”
Will: “We [Parks Department] have a long standing relationship with the Washington Square Association; they bring programming of various kinds and advocacy to the park. [Events include:] the Holiday Tree lighting, the Chess Simul, Washington Square Music Festival. The Dog Run Association fund raises for the dog run. We are spending those funds on needed repairs … and [they organize] volunteers.”
“Clean, Safe and Beautiful”: conservancy “focus group” mantra
Will: “The [Washington Square Park] Conservancy has three main buckets of how they interact at Washington Square Park essentially buttressing what the city’s resources are able to dictate in that park to help make Washington Square Park clean, safe and beautiful. [Includes:] Maintenance, gardener, seasonal night crew, two bathroom attendants, playground associate. (2) They also support all of that with volunteer efforts, a gangbusters volunteer program that they/we run.”
“The third leg is really programming. It’s activating the park and providing quality programming. They/we join with the other community partners. We are not the sole programming arm, we are an additive to.”
[Ed. note: Most of these programming events – Washington Square Music Festival, Films on the Green French Films, salsa, yoga, tai chi, etc. etc. existed before the Washington Square Park Conservancy ever got involved in the park. They were all run, managed and promoted solely by the city’s Parks Department staff. Also, this private group said they would never be involved in programming, and yet they are.]
[Also Ed. note: Washington Square Park doesn’t need “activating.”]
Shirley: Why is it so important to have this particular collaboration?
Will: Putting my parkie hat on, as someone who came from a city-wide position where I saw different conservancies and parks across the city, a neighborhood that has a dedicated park conservancy is one where a community can really address issues in a community space directly [Ed. note: There is no mechanism in this realm for the community to address issues, it’s wealthy neighbors who can try to determine what issues are most important to them.] and try to improve conditions by directing resources specifically to that one location … The mission of the Washington Square Park Conservancy is to make Washington Square Park clean, safe and beautiful. What member of a community wouldn’t want a nonprofit that wakes up every day that tries to make that park a better place through community and through fundraising?
Ed. note: I am sure that Will Morrison knows the early history and how members of the community had serious concerns about a private conservancy at Washington Square Park. Those concerns were not allayed by the four wealthy neighborhood socialites who came before the public at one meeting with misinformation and omissions.
Sharon Woolums: “As far as safety is concerned, I, as a senior citizen, fear for my life for the skateboarders. I’m wondering why it gets worse and not better.”
Will: “When it comes to enforcement, Parks Department enforcement … works with NYPD to try to enforce those conditions. I can’t tell you that a skateboarder is going to comply with a Parks enforcement officer. Part of skating culture is to skate away from folks trying to enforce the rules. Officers every day are trying to enforce compliance. In many instances, they do so… There was [recent] coverage in the Times … we [the city] should have skate parks for them. … Washington Square Park is part of skate culture … like protests, [something] we’ll always contend with. … By the way, one of the best ways … to deter a use like skateboarding is to program certain spaces they like to skateboard [like] Garibaldi Plaza with protests [events, etc.].”
What would be best for the park?
Morrison’s talk about “activating” the park just hits the wrong way. Washington Square Park “activates” itself and it always has.
Ideally, the city’s Parks Department should be paying for maintenance, PEP/Parks Enforcement [NYU used to pay for that – it was not mentioned if they still do], gardeners, etc. And the city did all this before the park redesign with some help from NYU or the Village Alliance, Washington Square Association. Money raised was given to the NYC Parks Department and then the city agency decided what to do with that money. That would be the best ‘conservancy model’ which would be hands off, corral volunteers, sure. Of course, adequate funding of the Parks Department budget is important which NYC Mayor Eric Adams reversed his campaign position on, sadly. Nonetheless, Morrison – who did a good presentation at this meeting – is saying the Parks Department is making all the decisions however previous FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) documents Washington Square Park Blog uncovered and the documents Gothamist revealed last year say otherwise.
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This is Part I. There may be more (there was more for sure).
Deep Dive Into the History:
Oh, and if you really want to do a deep dive of the past, here is a post I wrote ten years ago that really encapsulates a lot of the history:
Timeline and Analysis of the Path That Led to Community Board 2’s Approval of the Washington Square Park Conservancy June 27, 2013 [My favorite comment below.]
The mantra of the four founding members of the Conservancy as well as [Sarah] Neilson was repeated over and over at the two meetings: We just want to “Keep Washington Square Park clean, safe and beautiful.”
Somebody said to me, “That sounds like a statement that tested well in focus groups.” I mean, it’s really hard to take issue with that, isn’t it? And yet, there’s something so sanitized about that view. Washington Square Park is not a garden to their Fifth Avenue backyards.
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Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:
New Deputy Park Administrator Named at Washington Square Park December 4, 2020