Conservancy wants to help the park, not run it, they say


Enjoying another glorious day in Washington Square Park, from left: Sarah Neilson, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari, Betsey Ely and Justine Leguizamo. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  They have their Twitter account up and they’re tweeting. Their Web site went live two weeks ago. This past summer, they hired a playground associate to improve kids’ playtime.

But they need more volunteers, and they’re also pushing for a late-night trash pickup.

“I’d love to buy a power washer for the benches — and a Zamboni for the pavings,” Betsey Ely interjected, as her colleagues broke up in laughter. “The park workers would love that.”

While a Zamboni is a familiar sight smoothing down the ice at Rangers hockey games — who knows? — maybe someday one of the massive machines really will be polishing the park’s pavement to a pristine sheen.

Photo by Tequila Minsky Betsey Ely checked out shrubs as her fellow conservancy members joined her in the park. Dense growth keeps outs weeds, Ely noted.

Betsey Ely checked out shrubs as her fellow conservancy members joined her in the park. Dense growth keeps outs weeds, Ely noted.   Photo by Tequila Minsky

The steering committee members of the fledgling Washington Square Conservancy gathered at Cafe Nadery on W. Eighth St. last week to give The Villager an update on what they’ve been up to for the past four months. Along with Ely, the group’s chairperson, they included Veronica Bulgari, a member of the famed luxury-goods family; Gwen Evans; and Justine Leguizamo, wife of actor John Leguizamo.

The conservancy was approved by Community Board 2 at the board’s June meeting. Before the vote, there was copious testimony from the public both for and against the plan, after which C.B. 2 members themselves then engaged in a vigorous debate on the issue. A last-ditch effort by Keen Berger to pass a substitute resolution delaying the board’s vote until the fall, so they could learn more about the conservancy proposal, failed for lack of support. Rich Caccappolo, chairperson of C.B. 2’s Parks Committee, had already stated that he strongly opposed his committee having any more hearings on the issue.

However, both Assemblymember Deborah Glick and state Senator Brad Hoylman had raised concerns about the conservancy, saying they wanted to hear more concrete details about it before C.B. 2’s vote. But after the vote, David Gruber, the board’s chairperson, said Glick’s questions were answered at the June full-board meeting. Glick subsequently told The Villager that, no, they weren’t.

At any rate, the conservancy is now established and up and running. Opponents’ main fear about the group is that it will ultimately start dictating park policy. But the four steering committee members made it clear that’s not something they want to do. With them last week was Sarah Neilson, Washington Square Park’s new administrator, who also is the conservancy’s executive director. While critics object to the “blurred line” between Neilson’s dual roles, the steering committee members said they’ll basically rely on Neilson’s expertise to help them in their efforts to keep the park looking good: Neilson, as they put it, will “ID where the effort of the conservancy can best go.”

Added Neilson, “I get one salary and it’s from the Parks Department.”

A Zamboni, at least for Ely, may be a project for the future.

“That is not a short-term goal,” noted Evans, the group’s treasurer.

“We’re dreaming big!” Ely said, laughing.

“We’re not talking about gold-plating the park,” Evans said, “just keep it looking nice and supplement” the city’s funding.

For right now, one of their primary pushes is to boost the number of people helping out in the park.

“We’d like to have a large pool of volunteers,” Evans said.

As Ely described it, the volunteers will pitch in with things like “planting bulbs, weeding the beds — mostly horticulture.”

Fridays, the hands-on Ely can be found in the park doing weeding.

“In two hours, I weed an area about the size of this restaurant,” she noted.

Added Neilson, “We would be interested in volunteer photography — to document the beds, and also an event photographer.”

History is another area the conservancy wants to explore, and is something they would put up on their Web site to make publicly accessible.

“There used to be a banjo group in the park in the ’50s,” Ely noted.

They also post general information on the site, such as a notice for the upcoming Dachshund Friendship Gathering on Sat., Oct. 5, from noon to 2 p.m. (Singing starts at 1 p.m.)

Also already on their Web page is a Q&A with their recent summer playground associate. It cost the conservancy $7,500 to employ the man, a college student, for two months, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Next summer, they hope to have a younger playground associate for four months.

As for their overall budget, their goal is to fundraise $100,000 for this first fiscal year, largely from friends and volunteers.

“There is no minimum and no maximum,” Bulgari, the group’s president, said of the amounts they’ll accept.

Speaking of figures, they also did a number count of people passing through the park during the summer. On a Saturday in July right before the heat wave, 30,000 people went through the park.

All four members live within the several blocks north of the park, yet none of them actually overlook it. With the exception of Ely, they’re generally not interested in talking about themselves, rather about the park and how they plan to help it.

“We’re members of the community with a shared passion for the park,” Leguizamo said.

Three of them have lived near the square from seven to 12 years, while Ely has lived there more than 40 years. Originally from Canada, she married a folk singer and came to New York.

“It was the ’60s, it was fun, I wanted to get out of Canada,” she said. “I moved here in ’68 and raised both kids in the park. They played on the mounds.”

The quirky mounds — Downtown’s only hills to speak of — will be reborn in the final phase of the park’s renovation.

“One mound is elevated. Another goes down, with rope play,” Ely said, trying to explain what their new incarnations will look like. But no one can absolutely say for sure.

“We didn’t design them. We don’t really know,” Evans admitted. “We’re neutral on the mounds.”

More to the point, they maintained, they’re also neutral on the operation of the park.

“We’re not here to run the park,” Evans stressed. “We have no license agreement with the city.”

Asked later on what they think, for example, of the park’s buskers, Evans responded, “We think it’s great. We think it’s what makes Washington Square unique.”

The Parks Department has been making moves to restrict busking in the parks as a commercial activity.

Washington Square generally is looking good, but it can look even better, they feel.

“The community loves the park and I think that’s why they make such an effort to keep it clean,” Leguizamo, the group’s secretary, pointed out.

“It’s not that garbage isn’t an issue,” Evans noted. “We’ve been looking to get an extra late-night pickup after 7 p.m. It’s a priority for us.”

As for their name, “conservancy” seemed to be the only option available. “Alliance” was already taken by the Village Alliance business improvement district, while “Friends of” was taken by the Friends of Washington Square, a fundraising branch of the Washington Square Association.

Ely noted that even Tompkins Square Park has a conservancy — the East Village Parks Conservancy.

“Eventually,” said Bulgari, “we decided not to get hung up on the word.”

Asked about the feelings by some that the conservancy was basically rushed through C.B. 2 quite quickly, Bulgari responded, “I think we’re over this issue, I really do.”

“We didn’t feel it was rushed,” Ely said. “We met with everybody who wanted to meet. We met with the Parks Committee, we met with Gruber.”

Bulgari stressed that all their efforts are simply in addition to what the Parks Department is providing.

“Anything we’re putting forward is extra,” she said. “It’s supplemental.”

Said Evans, “With the beautiful renovation they did, the park was already starting to look a little rundown. So we are willing to supplement — plantings, garbage pickups and playground associate.”

As Neilson explained it, this “model” of a nonprofit fundraising group is being used in parks around New York City, such as Riverside Park and Fort Tryon Park.

If people have concerns about the conservancy, Leguizamo said, they can come to the steering committee members and they’ll relay them to Neilson. Neilson is currently based at Manhattan Parks headquarters in Columbus Circle.

Washington Square’s park building is slated for completion in October or November. It will contain the men’s and women’s restrooms, the park supervisor’s office, the pump room for the fountain and a locker room for the park staff. The foundations of the park’s former three buildings have not been expanded, so as not to disturb the underground archaeological remains; formerly, Washington Square was a potter’s field and 20,000 bodies remain interred beneath it.

The new park building will span, like a bridge, over the three foundation sites; it will have geothermal energy and solar panels.

Along with the completion of the new park building, the third and final phase of the park’s redesign will also see the opening of a large new lawn just north of it, where the large dog run was formerly. The dog run, which recently reopened, has been relocated south of the park building. This new lawn will get a lot of sun and sport lush grass, since it’s free of trees, the conservancy members noted.

For her part, Neilson said she feels lucky to have the job of overseeing Washington Square.

“As a new administrator, it is such an amazing park,” she stated. “Every time I walk through it, I am amazed and happy to be there. It is gorgeous and everyone is having a good time. It is such an honor.”

It’s a landmark whose renown is worldwide, Bulgari affirmed, noting, “It’s an international park as well as a neighborhood park.”

Although Washington Square used to be taken out of public use at least one day a year for New York University’s commencement, the school now uses Citi Field stadium in Queens, and doesn’t plan to return the graduation to the Village park.

“They’re too big,” Evans said.

“They wanted to have a venue where they could bring more than just two people” per graduating student, Neilson noted.

As for the new park conservancy, if it finds itself with a surplus of funds, they’ll be happy to take input from the community on how to use it. This first year, however, they expect they’ll just be busy getting things set up.

“We’re a work in progress,” Bulgari said.

They then walked over to the park for a photo shoot. Ely couldn’t help but check on the state of some of the plantings.

Touching a shrub with pink blossoms not far from the arch, she said contentedly, “The spiraea is blooming again.”


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8 Responses to Conservancy wants to help the park, not run it, they say

  1. Why would anyone oppose this Conservancy? It's free money for the City. As much as I like Ms. Glickman, I part company with her on this issue.

  2. Patrick Shields

    What mechanism is in place to stop the conservancy from being co-opted by major donors, like NYU? Why are there no by-laws developed for or posted by the group? No one is arguing that they are well intentioned and committed neighbors, but an organization such as his without a clear mission statement and rules or order becomes ripe for takeover over time. Every not for profit I know keeps a publicly available donor list. Every board I have served on has clear and available minutes, and must abide by stringent fundraising and expenditure requirements. Will the WSPC have this type of transparency? Donor dollars bring pressure, especially if anonymous. Lets not kid each other here, and simply hope for the best. Things change over time, board/conservancy makeup changes over time, and verbal commitments for something on this scale, and with the history of this park, are simply not enough. The bar must be raised.

  3. Agree that the Conservancy still needs to earn trust and written guidelines that answer these questions, posted on a website, would be helpful. The group does not yet seem to be very diverse and while intentions may well be good, many similar conservancies end up imposing their culture and –dare I say it?– bourgeois interests.

    It does not sound like CB 2 did their due diligence…. am not saying to shut it down but important to address questions. Patrick Shields is right, as any of us who have served on boards knows!

  4. The name “Conservancy” places an organization into a specific framework by which the city typically cooperates in a special exclusive manner with one and only one nonprofit per park, in most cases for the sake of big fundraising, concession licensing, contracted park management, etc. It is the engine though which private interests obtain influence over and benefits from parks, supposedly in exchange for the public gaining financial support.

    This conservancy has maintained for some time that choosing the name Conservancy was done because there was no other option, and that they had no intention of being a Conservancy. Now the group says “we decided to stop worrying about it”, implying it still is of no consequence.

    And yet…

    a) a search of IRS-approved nonprofits shows few nonprofits named Washington Square Park anything.

    b) at a City Council hearing on Conservancies this month, Parks specifically stated that a “long time in the works” Conservancy has now been created for Washington Square Park.

    c) the WSP conservancy group attended the hearing, apparently by invitation, and spoke in the role of Conservancy and identified themselves as “the voice of the park”. They did not beg off and say they are not a Conservancy, only a Conservancy “of limited scope”.

  5. There was a two week (!) public review process about this group, consisting of

    a) a CB2 parks committee meeting where the group responded to public questions by saying they had no information about their plans or operations except that they want to keep the park clean safe and beautiful and perhaps provide programming.

    b) a vote at the next CB meeting, during which the group also was similarly vague about their plans and claimed there were no planning or organizational documents which could be inspected.

    This “we have no info” approach, stated on the public record as their official position, may be contrasted with:

    i) having spent at least a year in private discussions with Parks and others about what the group would do

    ii) having specifically said at the above mentioned City Council Conservancies meeting, that after lengthy study of a variety of Conservancies, the group had settled on a limited model with specific objectives (that is, one may assume, a publishable study)

    iii) having filed for IRS nonprofit status in the fall of 2012, an application which requires statement of purposes and organizational plans, which information the group could have disclosed to the public at any time. The group said “we wanted to wait until the IRS approval came through before disclosing any of this documentation”, as if public discussion would affect the IRS fact checking or approving the application.

    Months after having the IRS approval, the group still hasn’t released their application for public scrutiny. Nor have they released any detailed plan of their operations, or records of their discussions with Parks or others, or documents about their organizational study, even though they claimed to the City Council itself that they have this latter item and even though this had to have existed even during the CB meetings, and one might imagine might even have been distributed privately.

    Clearly, there were substantial, pertinent documents which could have been released during the CB ‘review’ process, and the conservancy testified no such information existed.

  6. One can step back and observe that this conservancy did not oppose the 2 week CB process by which they obtained their “approval” through aggressively shutting out any chance for any public comment or evaluation, or even allowing time for doubtful council members to gather their thoughts and vote one month later. Instead, the group claims that no one ever told them that there was any other point of view except the one they gathered during their secret planning, a view all in favor of them.

    The group states even as recently as the above interview, “we met with everyone who expressed an interest”. Well, yes, that’s a truthful statement, if one first posits that the only people worthy of expressing interest are those who you hand pick to hear your secret plan.

  7. In contrast to this conservancies’ actions, one could easily imagine a conservancy-aspiring committee as a group of individuals who would have disclosed from the start, to the public, details the Parks department arguments in favor of a Conservancy.

    One could imagine such a group allowing and seeking input from challengers rather than just insiders, conducting an organizational design study in the open, and having the intellectual and political ability to create a true consensus of the community and the interested parties about a Conservancy by creating a proposal so compelling as to be lauded on all sides. One could imagine.

    Instead, the work product of this group is basically a secretly created, softly defined (still no bylaws or formal statement of what the group will and will not do) placeholder for any activities which the city or rich or institutional donors may care to ask for in the future “because it is a Conservancy, and therefore must be open to any possibility that has been done in any other Conservancy” – like concession licensing that allows permanent restaurant consessions on scarce park land. Promises from the group notwithstanding, CB2 stipulations for approval not withstanding, there is no document published by the group which binds the group from taking a lease. There’s no document published by the group which defines them in any way other than their mission statement clean safe and beautiful.

    That’s months after the supposed *end* of the public review process.

    A notable outcome of the work product: no constraint on contentious Board possibilities such as whether the group will offer guaranteed slots for NYU, and no method for the public to seek seats on the Board, other than (in the absence of any specifics, one must assume the typical approach) being nominated by the group who is already on the Board, or their committee of Trustees who are notables or big donors. Or as the group’s website puts it, “Board members will be added in the fall of 2013″.

    Yet another: no constraints on donations, that is, rules about accepting earmarked donations, or policies about whether or not Trustees who are typically the pool for Board membership are granted the role based on ability to raise funds (look at the Central Park Conservancy to see how this goes).

  8. One can argue that a Conservancy is not really needed. But the city seems bound and determined to force the conservancy model upon the parks. And face it, there must be real hidden political agendas the community may seriously object to which were granted a foothold by pushing the giant structure of Conservancy through the Arch while saying isn’t this a beautiful little harmless mouse.

    At the very least, the people in a limited conservency of robust competence would get the definition of the group locked down in bylaws, public documents, and defintions of scope made to the IRS, so the group can work within a truly limited mandate without being under threat of being co-opted by or selling the park off to the big money which will inevitably flow through the group. So it can operate without threat of being used by any big political power groups to end-around public policy or review.

    Limits, limits, limits. TRULY only organize volunteers, plant flowers, clean things, recommend programming like any other group recommends programming to the Parks department, and provide unrestricted funds to Parks for Parks to decide how to spend. Period, no revisiting, no scope creep. Make the conservancy not useful for the power players, only useful for the community of park visitors.

    No “voice of the park” or “speak to the administrator of the park through us” — admit all nonprofits are also equal parties, as are members of the public, in speaking directly to parks.

    Impose bylaws, policy, and public document bindings on the conservancy that
    a) explicitly prevent involvement in earmarked donations
    b) explicitly exclude the group from involvement or the appearance of involvement with city or parks policies, such as spontaneous entertainers, the homeless use of the park, the city’s policies on unionization, etc
    c) engrave into the bylaws: no licensing or contracting with the city
    d) make a significant part of the Board elected from a low-fee membership base

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