Conservancy concerns

This Thursday evening June 20, Community Board 2 may — or may not — vote on whether or not to recommend approval of a new conservancy for Washington Square Park.

We have no issues with a private, nonprofit group raising funds for the park. Indeed, there are already groups that do so, such as the Friends of Washington Square Park, which is the Washington Square Association’s fundraising arm.

However, this new conservancy seems somehow different — and this raises questions and concerns.

The main issue is whether a conservancy — if not initially, but eventually — would assume control of policy and activities in the park.

In general, as sincerely well-meaning as this new group may be, there has been a lack of transparency about this effort.

We have tried to set up a meeting with the four women who are the conservancy’s founders, but so far, due to scheduling issues, have not done so. We look forward to meeting with them soon.

However, it’s unclear why Sarah Neilson, Washington Square Park’s new administrator, would also be the director of this new Washington Square Park Conservancy. This seems to blur the boundaries uncomfortably, in our view.

In addition, if all that this group wants to do (at least, for now) is raise funds for a horticulturalist for the newly renovated park’s plantings, and ensure the park is kept clean, then we don’t see why they can’t just move forward as an independent, nonprofit entity, with no Parks Department connection.

Also, the presence of not one — but three — Parks officials at this month’s C.B. 2 Parks Committee meeting where the issue was discussed, indicates Parks is strongly invested in this. Joining Neilson were Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, and Steve Simon, Parks chief of staff. Castro stated Parks would maintain its authority and operational jurisdiction over the park, and that the conservancy would never have a contract, license or memorandum of understanding with Parks.

It’s troubling, though, that no one has seen the conservancy’s bylaws yet, or knows who will sit on its board other than the four founders.

We also must say we have some concerns about how C.B. 2’s review of this initiative has proceeded. A resolution from the board’s Parks Committee was not readily forthcoming after its meeting two weeks ago. Indeed, we were only able to obtain a “draft” resolution late on Wednesday afternoon. We’re told that all C.B. 2 members will have a chance to review this resolution  — “but not 100%” of it — before the full board meeting.

The draft resolution includes caveats C.B. 2 wants the conservancy to include in its bylaws. Based on the assumption — key word — that the conservancy would accept these caveats, then, the resolution states, C.B. 2 “appreciates and endorses the effort of this group…to create an organization to build community stewardship of the park, raising additional funds for maintenance, plantings, horticultural activity, increased PEP [Park Enforcement Patrol officers] presence, and organizing volunteers and the like… .”

The draft reso states: “W.S.P.C. will not have a role in policy, planning or event creation, and all policies concerning the park will continue to be set by Parks with input from C.B. 2,” also that funds raised by the conservancy won’t be mixed in with and used for the park’s general budget.

But shouldn’t Board 2 wait until this group produces its bylaws, showing that these points have been incorporated?

Washington Square isn’t just any park. As the C.B. 2 draft resolution states, Washington Square “serves as our community’s ‘flagship’ park” and is a “world-renowned landmark.”

Over all, this process has been much too rushed. The board, in our respectful view, should table this vote until at least next month’s meeting — if not until September after the August break.

There is absolutely no rush to approve this Thursday night. But there is definitely a need for more review. Table it.

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5 Responses to Conservancy concerns

  1. If all these 4 founders want to do is raise money for the park, then why aren't they just joining Friends of Washington Square Park/WSA and building a stronger coalition instead of having duplicative, separate groups? Something doesn’t pass the smell test here.

  2. Robert Lederman

    This is another Bloomberg real estate scam.
    Read, "Goodbye Washington Square Park" here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/148879781/Goodbye-Washi

  3. The most important limitation here wrt/ the conservancy ‘stipulations’ probably should be that the Conservancy undertakes narrowly specified maintenance and nonprofit event activities.

    A broadly stated license (as conservancies usually get) devolves authority over policies and plans to the conservancy. When broadly licensed to ‘manage park activities’, the conservancy has the freedom to specify policies and activities over a wide range of concerns, in order to meet the overall goal.

    By contrast, if the conservancy licenses only narrowly stated tasks, like collection of trash, maintaining specified flowerbeds, running the “Spring festival (some nonprofit activity)” etc, these licenses structurally preclude the conservancy from attempting to specify policy on buskers.

    And it may be that it is the certificate of incorporation and the IRS filings, where mission and activities are specified, where limitations might be most effectively applied. Violation of these statements would result in revocation of nonprofit status.

  4. Thank you, Villager! This is so well summarized and stated. The Community Board should revisit this (as they voted last night in favor of this Conservancy – as is – and rejected a substitute resolution to review things further) and give consideration to your well-founded concerns.

    Cathryn

  5. I would like to thank you for your thoughtful consideration of the proposed Conservancy – since approved by Community Board 2.

    I am concerned about the lack of maximum community participation. There was 1 sub-committee meeting and 1 full committee meeting at which the proposed conservancy and resolution were discussed. Also, the outreach conducted by the then proposed conservancy was targeted to a very limited spectrum of the neighborhood/community. Why did NYC Parks meet with the then proposed conservancy but not hold community meetings?

    It is my understanding that there are a couple of "friends of" groups for Washington Square Park. Why are these existing groups in adequate to the purpose of planting flowers and raising money for the park (the claimed mission of the conservancy)?

    Also, why didn't NYC Parks respond to the letters from our elected officials – Debra Glick and Brad Hoylman – about their reservations and concerns about a conservancy for Washington Square Park? Why weren't these letters considered by Community Board 2?

    Another concern is the legacy of conservancies in NYC. I am in favor of residents advocating and caring for their parks but the ways in which many of the conservancies in NYC operate, in particular the conservancies for parks in Manhattan, is problematic.

    Will the private entities that pay rent and donate to the conservancy dictate access and use of the park? Will open public space and trees be lost to make way for concessions and gala events?

    It seems to be quite "fashionable" to start a conservancy. Washington Square Park is a public resource not a fashion plate. The privatizing of park maintenance and operations should not be the default mode. Let's first advocate for a sustainable level of capital and maintenance budget for NYC Parks as well as a fair and equal budget for all city parks.

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