Jane and the death and life of a great American park


BY CATHRYN SWAN | The community around Washington Square Park is currently debating whether a private conservancy is a legitimate way to “improve” the park or just a “scheme” for New York University and other private interests to increase their real estate values and take further control of this essential public space.

In her influential 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Village resident and noted activist Jane Jacobs wrote of Washington Square Park: “The city officials regularly concoct improvement schemes by which this center within the park would be sown to grass and flowers and surrounded by a fence. The invariable phrase to describe this is ‘restoring the land to park use.’ That is a different form of park use, legitimate in places. But for neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stage settings for people.”

To this day, people come to Washington Square Park because of its history, reputation and a certain charisma that the park retains despite its recent redesign. The park is currently in the midst of Phase III, the final phase of its five-plus years of reconstruction. This included the Bloomberg administration’s obsession with moving the historic fountain 22 feet east to “align” it with the Washington Square Arch at Fifth Ave. — which actually took the fountain out of alignment after 137 years in its previous location at the center of the park.

I started the Washington Square Park Blog five years ago around the time the park’s reconstruction began. For four or five years prior, the community participated in numerous meetings with the Parks Department and elected officials, addressing the city’s overhaul of the park. Park advocates filed several lawsuits attempting to prevent the cutting down of trees, the reduction of public space and limitations on performances and protests. The city incorporated some slight modifications to the plan as a result of public input, but, for the most part, the redesign of the park went on as the Bloomberg administration decreed.

In researching the history of the redesign, I quickly learned that the Village community and parkgoers largely did not want a private conservancy, which would change, they felt, the rebellious character of the park.

So when word spread over the last few months of the formation — behind closed doors — of a Washington Square Park Conservancy, those who had attended those past meetings, as well as newer people on the scene, felt alarmed and outraged. (In fact, The Villager published many letters of indignation.)

Last week, Community Board 2’s Parks Committee held a meeting addressing the formation of a Washington Square Park Conservancy. The four women who founded the conservancy outlined some of their plans. They stated that they have “no formal agreement” with the city’s Parks Department. And yet, the new Washington Square Park administrator, Sarah Neilson, is a Parks Department employee who serves in a dual role as the conservancy’s “executive director.”

At the meeting, the conservancy group provided no mission statement and no bylaws for their new organization. When these board members were asked for their projected budget over the first year, as well as the next five years, they had no answer. They said that Sarah Neilson is not being paid a salary by their organization.

In fact, conservancy directors are paid well at the larger parks, double-dipping salaries from the city’s Parks Department as well as the conservancy. According to fiscal year 2012 tax filings, the salary for Douglas Blonsky, head of the Central Park Conservancy, was $456,319. Bryant Park Corporation Executive Director Daniel Biederman made $240,701 in 2011. Madison Square Park Conservancy President Debbie Landau brought home $245,669 in 2011. Aimee Boden, at the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, received $62,745 in 2011 from the foundation, and $122,807 from the city as park administrator, totaling $185,552.

One of the founders of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, Gwen Evans, said at the meeting that they were “encouraged to proceed all along the way” in setting up the conservancy. Really? They clearly did not speak to the many community members who opposed the conservancy, and who — though especially distrusting of the Parks Department — nevertheless saw a private conservancy, as well, as a step in the wrong direction.

Which brings us to a larger question — why can’t our city’s Parks Department run our parks? Well, they could. While it’s true that the percentage of New York City’s overall budget allocated to the Parks Department has shrunk over the years, there is no good reason why a public agency is incapable of properly running our city’s public parks. The shortchanging of public funding for parks is part of a plan to allow parks to deteriorate in order to rationalize the private confiscation of “the commons.” Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, cited the success of one private conservancy in having “brought Central Park back from disaster” in the 1970s as a rationale for installing a private body at Washington Square Park.

Does Washington Square Park have to follow the same formula of private control as every other park? Unfortunately, once a conservancy is installed, there is no going back. And if Madison Square Park is any example, these organizations just take root and spread their dominance.

At Madison Square Park, an innocent “friends” group formed with restaurateur Danny Meyer at the helm. Two years later, it morphed into a full-on conservancy running the park, with Meyer’s private business, Shake Shack, granted exclusive rights to set up shop in the park.

Community Board 5 has complained over the years about the commercialization of parks in its district — Madison Square Park, Union Square Park, Bryant Park — all run today by private entities.

And yet the Washington Square Park Conservancy founders stated again and again that they are just there to raise funds. Elizabeth Ely said, “We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. The city runs the park.” That’s great! But what about two years or five years from now when new board members take the place of these well-intentioned individuals?

Community Board 2 member Keen Berger stated, “Don’t we already have organizations like this? Something is very suspicious about how this is happening.”

I have my issues with the Parks Department — it is hard not to. But I would not take the management of the park away from public control, however flawed, and hand it over to a private entity. While the conservancy says it will not run the park, we all know that money talks.

I asked Brad Hoylman, former C.B. 2 chairperson and now state senator, for his views on private conservancies.

“I’m not supportive of conservancies in general for parks,” he said, “because I think that the design, operations and management of public parks should remain transparent and accountable to the local communities they serve. The conservancy model has a tendency to undermine these goals.”

After most of the general public had left the meeting, Board 2’s Parks Committee voted to endorse this conservancy for Washington Square Park. Only one public member of the committee, Sharon Woolums, cast a “no” vote.

The full board of C.B. 2 will vote on this resolution at its next meeting Thurs., June 20, at 6 p.m., at the Scholastic Building, 557 Broadway (between Spring and Prince Sts.), auditorium.

What would Jane Jacobs do? If she could be there, she’d oppose that resolution on behalf of the community’s fight to keep Washington Square Park under public control and retain its wonderful rebellious spirit.

Swan is founder and editor, Washington Square Park Blog

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16 Responses to Jane and the death and life of a great American park

  1. I agree, NO CONSERVANCY!!

  2. The salaries of conservancy directors frequently cited by authors like this are always used grossly out of context. The figures are a pittance compared to the millions they help raise in order fund, improve, program, and maintain parks and public spaces under their aegis. Would NYC, for example, ever pump $8 million a year into a place like Bryant Park? No way. Read your history: The city reconstructed Bryant Park more than once and each time left us with a substandard and dangerous tract in Midtown. I do agree that in an ideal world, our taxes would fully pay for the construction and maintenance of parks. But that's not going to happen because we don't live in an ideal world. Privatization is not a dirty word, and it can take on a variety of forms, and include government and citizen oversight and accountability. And plus, corporations can and should be good citizens too.

    • I have no problem with a group of people raising funds for the park they love. The concern, as Cathryn Swan makes vividly clear, is twofold: 1) Will the City cut back funding in proportion to any influx of private funds, rather than having those private funds add on to the public's contribution? and, 2) Will the conservancy, whether intentionally or not, begin taking control over decisions with regard to the Park? The latter ALWAYS happens, and Washington Square Park is too precious and "edgy" to allow NYU, the conservancy, or any other private entity to gain say over it.

      Mitchel Cohen
      Brooklyn Greens/Green Party

      • as to #1, this is the exact same as when allowing the lottery was going to bolster funds for schools, but instead it just became an excuse for govt. to cut back on what they were spending previously. If you think that private funds will be in addition to current funds, I have this cool bridge I'd like to sell you. Fools!

    • Gretchen,

      When conservancy directors' salaries are higher than the Commissioner of the entire New York City Parks system, then something is out of alignment (more than the fountain and the Arch!). Bryant Park's management is entirely problematic and the most troubling perhaps of all of the corporatized parks. I know the history. If that # is correct that you cite, it is not because that amount is necessarily needed to run Bryant Park but because Daniel Biederman's, et al. idea of what a city park should be is entirely different than what the reality is. However, if that # is correct, and private money is needed (tho' I'm not convinced), then let private money be raised for the park but do not cede control at the same time.

      The city should run our public parks and is entirely capable and able to do. We are not in 1970 anymore or 1980 or even 1990. We know what our parks need and the city can provide it. In fact, Washington Square Park has managed quite fine run by the city. The Bloomberg Administration has entirely subverted the system — to make it appear as if that is not possible and private entities are required every which way. The truth is that Washington Sq Park does not need a private entity managing or running it or "maintaining" it.

      IF the park indeed needs funds for the city's $30+ million imposed redesign, then the Parks Department should provide an amount and let these numerous organizations and community members raise it, not play a game and try to install a private entity while saying they are not doing so.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Cathryn (article author)

  3. This is what happens when the rich move in. Money talks and the poor lose any place at the table. This park is about to be another victim of the reversal of "white flight".

  4. Brava to this writer. The Conservancy running Brooklyn Bridge Park got their contract because they supported Bloomberg's plan to put highrise condo buildings inside that park. They do not represent the majority of residents who fought for that park and got the funds to pay for its construction – and who know that highrise towers are not the answer to funding our parks. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy has been a terrible steward of that park – encouraging private parties and keeping the dollars generated to pay their bloated salaries! If we all got behind the campaign to legislate a specific amount of funding – just 1% of the city's tax dollars – to our parks we would not be in this terrible position. Conservancies by their very nature privatize our parks and they are beholden to the wealthy who support them (and who get to run flea markets, smorgasboards, and corporate events for nominal fees, closing our parks to the public in the process). Jane would be appalled by this turn of events.

    • Guest, thank you. And thanks for talking a bit about Brooklyn Bridge Park. I've heard a lot about the problems there with the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy but did not know some of the history. That is just terrible.

      I agree that Conservancies "by their very nature privatize our parks and they are beholden to the wealthy who support them."

      This is not what we need for Washington Square Park.


      Cathryn (article author)

  5. If you don't force government to do its job, it will not. If you give it an excuse not to, it will take it. Conservancies are a similiar disaster as BIDs, POPs, and public-private partnerships — the public always gets the short end. That's just the way the rules are written, and because of who writes them.

  6. Thank you, everyone, for your comments on the article. For some further background, please check out my Washington Square Park Blog and specifically these two pieces (thus far) with more information relating to the C.B. 2 Parks Committee meeting, and its aftermath, and the Community Board needing to be much more vigilant. http://washingtonsquareparkblog.com/2013/06/13/re… (Part I here, links to Part II)

    Thank you.
    Cathryn (article author)

  7. Lora Tenenbaum

    Having attended the Parks Committee meeting, I am flabbergasted that the founding members of the Conservancy are so clueless. As Cathryn writes above, they did not know the budget, which meant they had no idea how much they would have to fundraise or what for. They had no draft by-laws and no draft mission statement. They had no clear idea how to grow their Board, although there was a vague idea that "anyone who was enthusiastic." These four ladies are clearly unprepared to run a non-profit. But not to worry, they and the Parks Department told us. Their solution to hire a Parks Department employee who will wear two hats: Administrator of the Park and Executive Director of the Conservancy. I think Cathryn missed it that they answered "not yet" when asked for the third time (after several prevarications) if Sarah Nielson would be paid a salary by the Conservancy. This likely means that eventually she will. You might want to look up the composition of the boards of existing park conservancies here in NY to get idea of what the board will most likely look like. You will see one or two community leaders, one or two local businesses, a smattering of non-profit leaders and numerous officers of financial, real estate and development corporations. Elected officials serve ex-officio and community board members are not included. At this point, these four founding members want to "just fundraise" but looking at the history of the other conservancies, this is just the beginning and, in the end, the rest of us will lose what little say we have over what happens in this diamond of a park. I am totally disappointed that CB2's Parks Committee is willing to give Washington Square Park away to a Conservancy.

    • Hi Lora,

      I'm a little worried that, tho' the four "founding members" of the Conservancy appeared "unprepared," that might have been a tactic to make them seem somewhat benign and unthreatening. But yes the dual role of Sarah Neilson is troubling — this is the way all of the full-on conservancies are set up — and I did miss them saying "not yet" as far as her salary, implying she will be paid in the future (which I gathered would have to happen). I agree with you about the boards of conservancies and their composition and that "this is just the beginning" and it is likely, if this goes forward, that "the rest of us will lose what little say we have over what happens in this diamond of a park." I am disappointed in the C.B.2 Parks Committee also.

      I hope you can come to the Community Board meeting on Thursday.

      Thanks for your comment!


  8. All of the arguments outlined by the author above are the same reasons so many West Side residents are opposing the Hudson River Park "Neighborhorhood Improvement District" or NID. Whether its a conservancy or a BID, its another attempt to privatize what should be a public good. At least they're not trying to place a separate tax on you like Hudson River Park is trying to do to a random group of residents from 59th to Murray. Let's work together to tell our local community boards and elected officials that we want to keep our parks public, and to properly allocate tax dollars to our parks! Visit http://www.nohrpnid.blogspot.com to help us fight the NID and to vote "NO!"

    • Hi Amy,

      Well said. So true. I like the succinctness of this statement: "another attempt to privatize what should be a public good."

      Yes, let's work together … this is just happening increasingly more and more until the community boards and elected officials finally get the message. Our public parks and public spaces deserve better. They also deserve a more transparent process which did not happen here in relation to Washington Square.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Cathryn (article author)

  9. How would the city react if a group of citizens came in to the school board and said:

    We have lots of rich acquaintances and we could pay for the school operations and maintenance and growth and staffing, provided you give us a contract that licenses us to:

    - replace career-trained administrative staff with individuals who we choose from our Board

    - hire/fire operations staff (teachers)

    - decide what activities can occur in the school (the curriculum)

    - decide what improvements the school needs, design and budget those changes, and be subject to public approval/oversight only in a brief up/down vote at the very end of the process, with only sketchy information and no minutes of planning required to be provided

    - be the negotiators between the city and commercial vendors, giving certain vendors who donate to the school earlier notice of and opportunity to negotiate favored recommendation for potential contracts


    The current conservancy model seems to embody most if not all of these components.

    A better conservancy model would ‘dethorn’ these sorts of issues, but not by ‘stipulations’. Rather, it would restate the core activities and mission scope of the Conservancy. It might look like this:

    The Conservancy

    - bids on sole-sourced and public RFP’d proposals from the Parks Department to perform specific, narrow tasks for park maintenance and noncommercial event operation

    - explicitly notes that the questions of Park activities, policies, and management are the place of the Parks Department and the Community Board, and that the conservancy will take no position on these matters

    - has a Board elected from a dues paying membership

    - raises unrestricted funds placed into the city’s budget for all parks, and raises restricted funds for the park, by
    – soliciting donations
    – seeking and passing through transparently to the Parks Department and the Community Board, companies who are willing to sponsor activities in exchange for considerations, or who wish to obtain a business concession in exchange for a percent revenue share
    – explicitly excluding the conservancy from negotiating with or managing any vendor contracts, acknowledging that this is the role of the Parks Department

    There may be flaws in this analysis, but the point is that the concept of a conservancy does not have to be locked into the current model. What has been learned from other conservancies may be able to inform a next generation conservancy now.

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