Committee gives green light for a Wash. Sq. conservancy

Photos by Tequila Minsky Drummers in Washington Square Park banged out funky beats on spackling buckets.

Photos by Tequila Minsky
Drummers in Washington Square Park banged out funky beats on spackling buckets.

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | A large room at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on W. 13th St. was packed on the evening of June 5 by people who wanted to weigh in with Community Board 2’s Parks Committee on a newly formed, nonprofit organization called the Washington Square Park Conservancy.

The conservancy was the brainchild of four Greenwich Village women who said they were “passionate” about Washington Square Park and wanted to help make it safer and more beautiful.

When they banded together to form the Washington Square Park Conservancy to help fund the park, they might not have anticipated that their good intentions would provoke suspicion and opposition. But many of the people in the room had questions about what this conservancy would do, what it might become in the future and how it would interact with the Parks Department and the community.

Some were adamantly opposed.

“I am very much against the conservancy,” said Mary Johnson, a longtime Village resident. “It scares me.” She was not alone.

“I see this as a bait-and-switch,” said Keen Berger, a C.B. 2 member and the Village’s Democratic district leader.

“We are a group of neighborhood people who care about Washington Square Park and we are here to help,” said Gwen Evans, one of the conservancy’s founders. “We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. I know that there may be some people in the room who think that, but that is not our agenda.

“The city runs the park and the city provides a substantial portion of the funds required to maintain the park,” Evans said. “But it’s not enough, and rather than let Washington Square Park deteriorate, we decided to get involved.”

In addition to Evans, the conservancy was founded by Betsey Ely, Veronica Bulgari and Justine Leguizamo, wife of actor John Leguizamo.

“Our goals are simple,” said Ely. “We want to fund a late-evening garbage collection to solve the [problem of the] rat cafeteria. We want to fund PEP [Park Enforcement Patrol] officers in the park. And we want to organize a volunteer group to work on the flower beds, to plant new seeds and to water them.”

Ely said that the group already had the money to pay for a recreation director to assist with the children’s playground in the park during July and August.

William Castro, Manhattan borough commissioner for the Parks Department, told the meeting that these funds would be most welcome.

“One of the things you witness as a Parks person — and I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone on the Parks Committee and probably not as a surprise to most of you here — is that the budget of the city waxes and wanes,” he said.

Doris Diether was enjoying the drumming and other goings-on in the park on Wednesday.

Doris Diether was enjoying the drumming and other goings-on in the park on Wednesday.

In flush times, he said, it would be possible to hire staff, but then the city would pull back and declare a hiring freeze.

“It would be a real shame to see this park fall prey to the normal things that happen through city budgets where, over time, things start to deteriorate and where you can’t give it the kind of extra care that it really deserves,” said Castro. “And I really want to commend the women who have formed this Washington Square Park Conservancy for spending a lot of time and effort to try to work out a way of raising funds to assist the park.”

Currently, Washington Square Park has one gardener to tend its nearly 10 acres. It has two staff people who are mostly there during daylight hours. The park’s supervisor and assistant supervisor are responsible not only for Washington Square Park but for all the parks within Parks District 2, which has the same boundaries as Community Board 2.

Nevertheless, despite clear needs for the park, some people at the meeting were not convinced that the Washington Square Park Conservancy would be the best way to meet them.

In addition, they were worried about the dual role for Sarah Neilson, the park’s new administrator. She would also be the executive director of the conservancy.

“I don’t doubt the good motives of the people who have organized this group, but I do question the methods that they have used,” said Carol Greitzer, who formerly represented the Village on City Council. “They went about this secretly for many, many months. Nobody knew anything about it. There was no transparency. The notion that you can have a Parks employee as executive director of what is supposed to be a community group is just ludicrous.”

Castro said that there were precedents for having a park administrator also serve as the executive of a conservancy. He said this had happened successfully in Riverside and Fort Tryon parks, among others.

Neilson commented that, “The arrangement benefits the park and the public because it keeps the conservancy goal closely aligned with the Parks goal.”

Her salary would be paid by the Parks Department. Although the question was asked by several people, it was not clear whether she would also receive a salary as executive director of the conservancy.

Responding to the accusation of a lack of transparency, Evans said, “We are a newly formed organization. We did not want to appear — and it was not appropriate for us to appear — at a public meeting until we had our organizational documents and our 501(c) 3 in place, which has just happened. We are registering our organizational documents with the…attorney general.”

She also said that the conservancy founders had met with certain members of Community Board 2 last summer “and we have been encouraged to proceed all along the way.”

Another issue that worried many people was what role N.Y.U. would or could play in determining what happens in the park.

“For the most part, I think a conservancy is a good idea,” said Ralph Gleason, “but not for Washington Square Park. The elephant in the room is N.Y.U.”

He said that N.Y.U. tends to regard the park as “their quadrangle. They have inordinate influence,” he charged. “They might allow something to begin here, but eventually they would take it over.”

“N.Y.U. does not in any way run Washington Square Park,” Castro replied. “There’s no undue influence. There never has been. It’s just a nonissue.”

After the public discussion, the community board’s Parks Committee met in executive session and voted 11 to 1 to endorse the conservancy, but with caveats. A resolution will be presented to C.B. 2’s full board meeting on Thurs., June 20, that will include restrictions.

“We are very sensitive to the issues that were raised in the public commentary, but we felt that many of them could be addressed,” said C.B. 2’s Susanna Aaron, who chaired the meeting. “Between endorsing outright and not endorsing, there are many gradations of stipulations and requests.”

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2 Responses to Committee gives green light for a Wash. Sq. conservancy

  1. It's admirable to want to improve a park – though fundraising on behalf of a park doesn’t require a special title and “conservancy” now implies less about conserving nature and more about class distinction. For those of us who come from a community gardening perspective the strategy is different. We build neighborhood self-help greenspaces that can rely less on money and top-down methods, more on sweat equity.

    But if private money is donated to a park, the Parks Department should distribute it where it is needed in the City park system. Elected representatives, CB’s, Parks workforce and local neighborhoods already provide checks and balances for negotiating where and how funding is spent.

    The current lack of a just and enforceable tax code (and the subsequent impoverishment of government) is not an excuse for further inroads towards reliance on privatization, or the anointing of new layer of bureaucracy, nor should it crassly entitle a giver to decide which public parks are funded.

    That mentality sanctions and imbeds a corrosive inequality in our public resources. Some parks go begging for bare necessities while others enjoy bloated budgets and salaries and are all too often under the sway of their wealthy contributors.

  2. Dear Mr. Castro,

    Conservancies themselves receive a license from the parks department for a consession, just like Shake Shack in Madison Square Park does. Shouldn’t the selection of conservancies undergo an RFP process, the way the selection of vendors for parks does?

    The conservancy receives the consession of ‘you get to offer licenses to for-profits to use the park in profitmaking activities, and in exchange you get to keep part of the revenues for your nonprofit activities’. In effect, the public resource of the park is being licensed out to commercial entities, just with a buffer between this action and the city itself.

    There seems to be neither an RFP (Request for Proposal) nor a sole-source contract qualification process for the conservancies themselves. If the parks can let (as it did last fall) an RFP for Shake Shack’s spot in Madison Square park, explicitly seeking any vendor who could offer to do better, why can’t parks go about selecting a conservancy contractor as well by an open process seeking the most beneficial proposal? And why hasn’t this happened up to now for other parks?

    This matter of allowing a spontaneously formed private group to lobby behind the scenes with caviar parties to obtain a lucrative (high salaried) and influential (control of a park) sole-source contracts is highly irregular. It is well known that parks conservancies which start with a small group end up being transformed a few years later into the full-blown contract-letting, self-selecting-Board engines that should have been RFP’d in the first place.

    Community Board 2: please entertain the idea that you should abstain from voting any approval of a conservancy until the process for selecting conservancies is cleaned up.

    References:
    Parks dept business opportunities: http://www.nycgovparks.org/opportunities/business
    Parks dept RFPs: http://www.nycgovparks.org/opportunities/concessi… )

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