Blogger skewers conservancy over hot dog purge and more

There was one hot dog vendor in Washington Square Park this Wednesday. He said he didn’t speak English, and declined to be in the photo. The Parks Department plans to move the hot dog carts out of the park by the end of this month.  Photo by Pasha Farmanara

There was one hot dog vendor in Washington Square Park this Wednesday. He said he didn’t speak English, and declined to be in the photo. The Parks Department plans to move the hot dog carts out of the park by the end of this month. Photo by Pasha Farmanara

Updated Fri., Dec. 6, 6 p.m.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Could this be the Washington Square Park equivalent of a major WikiLeaks information spill?

A muckraking local blogger has obtained e-mail correspondence between the Washington Square Park Conservancy and the Parks Department that, she charges, shows the new organization is already starting to call the shots on what goes on in the landmark Greenwich Village park.

No, not Julian Assange, but Cathryn Swan, who operates the Washington Square Park Blog, obtained the e-mails through a Freedom of Information Law request. She first tipped off The Villager about her findings on Nov. 21 at the Community Board 2 full board meeting.

Among the things she says she discovered in the messages are that the conservancy pushed to reposition the park’s vendors, and to upscale them, too; also, that back in March, a conservancy board member wrote to Parks saying that the group was eager to sign a license agreement to operate the park — something the conservancy and Parks officials subsequently publicly pledged that the conservancy expressly would not do.

In June, after what many felt was an overly rushed process lacking sufficient vetting, C.B. 2 voted 31 to 13 to recommend approval of the conservancy.

One of the key provisions of the community board’s resolution stated: “[Manhattan Borough] Commissioner William Castro of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation confirmed that W.S.P.C. [the conservancy] will have no formal agreement with Parks — neither License Agreement, Memorandum of Understanding, nor Contract — now or in the future, and that Parks will maintain its authority and operational jurisdiction over W.S.P. [the park].”

However, Swan said that two months earlier, Gwen Evans, a founding member of the conservancy and its treasurer, sent an e-mail to Sarah Neilson, the conservancy’s executive director, stating, “We look forward to agreeing [to] a license agreement with the City. Please send us a proposed draft. We will make sure that the [conservancy’s] bylaws are changed before the license agreement is executed, so that should not be a concern.”

Neilson subsequently replied that the conservancy’s bylaws would have to be amended and then sent to the Parks Department’s attorney for approval.

As for the vendors, they were recently repositioned from the north and south sides of the fountain plaza to its east and west sides, so as not to “block views” of the arch and fountain. In addition, Swan noted, the hot dog and creamsicle vendors will be replaced by a cart for Melt, a fancy ice cream bar she said costs $5.

Swan also charged that conservancy was planning to accept $500,000 from New York University — or at least intending to have a major say on what is done with the half a mil.

“I am sure N.Y.U. will want to know what we are going to do with their monies,” Betsey Ely, the conservancy’s chairperson, wrote to Neilson on April 4. “We need a planning session for our group so that we can say why we need the money — what it will go to,” she wrote earlier in the same e-mail.

Furthermore, the blogger added, the new group wants to spearhead a film festival and theater series for the park.

Swan also reported that the group has four new board members, including restaurateur Mario Batali.

But conservancy members and the Parks Department were quick to refute the blogger’s assertions.

Phil Abramson, a Parks spokesperson, told The Villager in an e-mail on Nov. 26, “What we have been saying all along is true: The Parks Department operates and makes all decisions related to the operation of Washington Square Park, not the conservancy.”

Last Sunday, the New York Post reported that the two hot dog vendors will be booted from the park by the end of this month. The Post quoted Veronica Bulgari, the conservancy’s president, saying some neighbors had felt the frankfurter carts were “unsightly.” The tabloid noted that Batali’s gelato cart, though, will continue to operate in the park.

However, the Parks spokesperson maintained that the conservancy is not the primary party behind the hot dog purge.

“Since the first phase of the park’s renovations opened in 2009, and we placed food carts in the fountain area,” he said, “we have received calls and inquiries from the community regarding the carts interfering with views of the fountain and arch. At that time, we reduced the number of carts, and we have repositioned them from time to time, years before the formation of the conservancy. The Parks Department routinely repositions food carts in our parks.”

Abramson added that the New York Dosa cart will continue to operate in the park’s southwest corner, and that Batali’s Carozza Gelato cart will also remain in the park.

“In the spring, the park will welcome Melt, in its eastern end, specializing in ice cream cookie sandwiches,” he added. “The cost of the cookies will be $4 — not $5 — and they are nicely sized. This is part of a broader initiative that has been in place since 2008 at parks throughout New York City, to move beyond the standard hot dog carts, and bring a more diverse selection of food choices to New Yorkers.”

Abramson said that N.Y.U., in fact, has not contributed half a million dollars to the conservancy. It is known that the university has set aside this amount of money, though, with the intention of contributing it to the park.

“N.Y.U. has not made any additional contributions to the park at this time,” he said. “However, if N.Y.U. does decide to make a new donation for Washington Square Park, it would be directed to the Parks Department, through a fund for the park set up by the City Parks Foundation.”

As for Evans’s e-mail regarding a licensing agreement between the conservancy and Parks, the spokesperson said, “We are not working on any license agreement with the conservancy. The Parks Department will continue managing Washington Square Park.”

Regarding a film series, he said, the park has already been hosting a French film festival the past several summers.

“If the conservancy is interested in hosting a potential film series in the park,” he added, “we think this would be a good idea that we would be interested in reviewing. It is in line with the conservancy’s aim to provide programming at the park.”

Yet another concern of park watchdogs is that the conservancy’s bylaws be made public. Abramson said the new group has told Parks that its bylaws are being made available to C.B. 2, and to anyone who requests to see them.

In addition, during a phone interview with The Villager on Nov. 26, Bulgari and Ely offered to provide a copy of its bylaws to The Villager. This Monday, Bulgari hand-delivered a hard copy to The Villager’s office. In the spirit of transparency, The Villager has scanned the document and is making it widely viewable on its Web site, (Read the conservancy’s bylaws here.)

Ely and Bulgari blasted the notion that the conservancy has been pulling the strings regarding the park’s food offerings.

“We have no control over the park’s hot dog vendors,” Ely said. “I think I was quoted [on Swan’s blog] saying, ‘Have you moved the vendors?’ or something. A lot of people tell us things. A lot of people take pictures through the arch. Somebody probably said to me, ‘Why don’t you move the vendors?’ ”

Bulgari said Swan quoted Ely’s e-mail “out of context.”

They noted that George Vellonakis, who led the park’s redesign, has also always been very concerned about opening up “sight lines” in the park.

As for the flap around Melt, Bulgari said, “I’ve never even heard of Melts [sic].”

“The first time I read about it was on the blog,” added Ely.

As for the $500,000 from N.Y.U., Ely concurred with Parks, saying, “It’s going to the City Parks Foundation…”

“…earmarked for the park,” added Bulgari.

“And we have no control over the money,” Ely stressed. She speculated that the cash could be used for “extra cleanup services” in the park.

As for the four new board members, they said, they include Batali, John Van Name, Doug Evans (no relation to Gwen) and Emily Folpe. Van Name is a lawyer and N.Y.U. Law School alumnus, though doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Evans is the former chairperson of the Grace Church School board of directors and the current chairperson of the Washington Square Association. Folpe is a historian and the author of “It Happened in Washington Square Park.” Batali lives in the area and, of course, runs local restaurants Babbo and Otto. In addition, Maria Passannante-Derr has been appointed as C.B. 2’s representative on the conservancy board.

What about Gwen Evans’s saying that the conservancy was ready to sign a license to take over operations of the park?

“It was a joke,” Ely responded.

“We have no agreement with the Parks Department,” Bulgari stated.

“And we’re not planning to,” Ely added.

So Evans was just, well, goofing around maybe?

“Who knows?” Ely answered. “Gwen’s not here [right now]. It was taken out of context. … All of these different conservancies have different arrangements,” she said, referring to conservancies in Madison Square and Riverside parks, among others.

“We have nothing in writing with the Parks Department,” Bulgari explained. “There’s no formalized agreement. It’s a gentleman’s agreement.”

As for why they don’t have their bylaws posted on their Web site, Bulgari responded, “None of the other conservancies have their bylaws on their Web site.”

Ely then noted that they would give a copy of the bylaws to The Villager and also to C.B. 2. In its resolution, C.B. 2 had requested that the bylaws be posted on the conservancy’s Web site.

Regarding Swan, they said, her recent exposé just seems to be a continuation of what she’s been doing ever since she started her blog a number of years ago as a critique of the park’s renovation project.

“This is a democracy. Let her do what she wants,” Ely said. “I can’t control what she wants to do with her time. I just wish she would work with us.”

“She’s never really going to say anything positive about [the conservancy],” Bulgari said.

Swan said her findings show Parks and the conservancy haven’t been forthcoming. The conservancy has spoken a lot about planting flowers in the park, but their aims run deeper than that, she charges.

“Information uncovered reveals how the city’s Parks Department, with the founders of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, misrepresented and concealed information that was known to them at the time of two public meetings,” Swan said, “including their intentions, financial information, and larger agenda for Washington Square Park. They had bylaws and budgets and all this documentation that they said they did not have and / or did not provide. Community Board 2 lapsed in its role of oversight; it should have pressed further on getting this information before the rush to vote.

“The community board needs to revisit this, rescind its approval of the conservancy, and start over,” Swan asserted. “Washington Square Park is too important a public space to let private, corporate and real estate interests have even a chance of taking it over and gaining control.”

In other park-related news, Neilson, who, in addition to being the conservancy’s executive director, is also employed by the Parks Department as the park’s administrator, recently asked C.B. 2 to consider holding a forum on whether the park’s entrances should be closed with chains at curfew, rather than the moveable barriers used now.

“Chains cannot be moved or removed, as barricades can,” Neilson noted, “and hence offer the advantage of a clear message that the park is closed, enabling law enforcement to issue summonses to trespassers.”

Finally, completion of the third and final phase of the park’s renovation project is expected to be only a few weeks away.

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24 Responses to Blogger skewers conservancy over hot dog purge and more

  1. Thank you, Villager, for giving exposure to this very important issue and the documents I uncovered and have been posting in a series at Washington Square Park Blog. (And there is more!) Wikileaks equivalent at WSP? This may be.

    I will be sure to post the actual documents in the next few days to my blog so people can see for themselves that, among other things, an email between the Washington Sq Park Conservancy and the Parks Dept. referring to a license agreement was not "a joke." And that an arrangement with NYU for a "Gift to the Park" of $500,000 is referenced more than a few times in emails which reveal that Parks Dept. was choosing to funnel that money into the private conservancy's budget (tho' they may say otherwise now – and, yes, of course, it should go directly into the city's budget for the park). Both entities were – and are – well aware of these funds.

    So much information was kept from the community. Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro tried to paint a picture of doom and gloom for Washington Square Park so that the private entity would get approved. And the Community Board rushed the process and that is unfortunate.

    It is important — that this private group did not show bylaws, financials and larger plans — because, when asked at the one public meeting addressing their organization, they said they *did not have* a budget, and yet bylaws filed with New York State in 2012 show a five year budget. When asked about their plans, they mentioned planting flowers and some maintenance at the park, and maybe a book club! Nothing about "a program to bring theater and performing arts events to the Park" including film festivals and theatrical productions. The information in this piece that says I said conservancy founders are planning a french film festival is incorrect. Yes, there is a french film series at WSP – they have nothing to do with that and that is not what I was referencing. The larger issue is the intentional and deliberate deception of the public.

    There is a pattern here of multiple ways information was obscured in order to push through a conservancy at Washington Square Park. It is hard to have trust in an organization that would present itself with so many omissions of information, misrepresentations and a secret agenda.

    Cathryn Swan
    Washington Square Park Blog

  2. So this is how rich people pull the strings huh? These people have robbed New York City of democracy, there is no transparency, everything is negotiated by millionaires and billionaires behind closed doors. Are we really supposed to believe that Gwen Evans sent an email expressing and urgent desire to sign a contract as a joke? I don't think a five year old would believe that.

  3. Keep the hotdog vendors. Dump the conservancy!

  4. Judith Chazen Walsh

    And will we need to wear tuxedos to visit the Arch and subscribe to Burke's Peerage to use the Park?

    Secret agenda? Where have we heard that before and before and before….?

    Unite brothers and sisters and dogs and squirrels. It is our Park

  5. “At Washington Square Park, Sarah [Nielsen] will hold a dual role as the executive director of a nonprofit organization that is currently being formed. A group of citizens who live and work in the community is seeking to raise funds for the park and engage neighbors to help the Parks Department care for the park’s lawns, plants and playgrounds, and to create programming. We look forward to working with the new group to encourage community involvement and volunteering.”

    William Castro, author, the Villager Talking Point article “Conservancy Will Keep Washington Sq. Looking Good”, April 25, 2013. Manhattan Borough Commissioner for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation since 2002.

    1. the Conservancy *held a Board meeting in March* and instructed the Park Administrator Ms. Nielsen to act on the vendors at that time.

    2. according to the just revealed by-laws, one of the guaranteed Board positions is for the Manhattan Borough Commissioner for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

    3. deliberating the handling of vendors is not in the scope “care for the park’s lawns, plants and playgrounds, and to create programming”.

    One has to wonder how the Commissioner can be ‘looking forward’ to working with a group ‘currently in formation’ on a scope of maintenance and programming, yet at the same time be at least a month past a board meeting (already operational) he had to be informed of, it not present, making a decision which not in the scope he represents here.

  6. Patrick Shields

    Tonight, December 5, from earlier in the evening, just after 6 PM, there is filming in Washington Square Park. Production assistants and NYPD are preventing anyone from entering the park from multiple entrances, including the entire west and northwest, and 5th Avenue sections, and further entrances were being tightened up as 8 PM approached. A private entertainment company has control of the park this evening, and is enforcing their permit with a great deal of aggressive authority.

    This is where the Hudson River Park is headed, because economic leverage was just 100% turned over to real estate developers by law. Note that film and TV was also allowed in the HRP by this law, which will end up being on a constant basis, with constant demand. This community has made a grave error in allowing the Trust Act to be altered in the manner it was, and this will only get worse for the WashSq park if the WashSq Park Conservancy is allowed to grow in power. Stop it in its tracks, people. No matter how well intentioned, this park will end up answering to the whims of its "protectors", and not the community which surrounds it. Slippery slope is never less of a cliche than when public lands are involved.

  7. Hoo-ray for Cathryn Swan!!!

  8. It is no news that real estate interests, commercial interests and NYU!!! have taken over downtown and the rest of the city. But since this WSP "conservancy" and HRP "Trust" affects our precious park space, we better put a stop to
    this PRONTO!!!

  9. Absolutely, keep the hot dog vendors!

  10. Phil Abramson’s comments reflect the brazen disingenuity that the City’s Parks Department used to snooker Community Board 2 to gain approval for the private Conservancy at Washington Square Park. Abramson is a public employee with the Parks Dept., and in that capacity says: “The Parks Department operates and makes all decisions related to the operation of Washington Square Park, not the conservancy.” He then goes on to say that “N.Y.U., in fact, has not contributed half a million dollars to the conservancy.”

    Ummm, how exactly is Abramson — a spokesperson for the “at least on paper” publicly run Parks Department — authorized to speak on behalf of the private Conservancy as well, let alone NYU Inc.’s intentions?

    The conflict of interest involving Sarah Neilson, “who is both the [private] conservancy’s executive director and the [publicly funded] park’s administrator,” is itself a disease worth examining. Now with Phil Abramson speaking as a public employee on behalf of the Conservancy, it seems that the misuse of the public trust is contagious as well.

  11. This smells just awful. Even if the cerservancy was right, and it doesn't look like it, they have handled this terrible. It does not bode well for the future. And I just feel bad for CB2 — they've been conned, bigtime. It all shows a very unfortunate lack of understanding for the legacy of this park – it's not like any other – that's why it is so coveted.

    There a people in the neighborhood who have already fought such battles before – the spirit of Rev' Howard Moody lives! The conservancy will not look good to go down this road again. Please, go back to the drawing board with this, CB2. Sad, sad, sad.

  12. Did you swipe from the cookie jar, or have your brother bring over the chair to help you get to the jar? “See, there aren’t any cookies in my mouth right now, I didn’t. No fair!”. One expects next, “Besides, it was his idea!”

  13. Keep Privatization of Public Spaces away from Washington Square Park

    • "Stop Privatization of Public Spaces" is a better goal. If you accept privatization of public spaces, but just not a WSP, you've already lost the battle.

  14. Veronica Bulgari, one of the conservancy’s founding board members…….we talking Bulgari jewelry/hotels Bulgari?

  15. What great comments!!

    Here is new link to some of the documents I referred to in the article, information kept from public:

    Cathryn, Washington Square Park Blog

  16. Looks like the “black diamond” run of the Conservancy met up with a tree.

    See the transcripts.

  17. Anyone who wants to understand the root cause of why this group must not be granted a role of conservatorship over a public trust should do the following:

    1. Read the following quote from the above interview:

    As for why they don’t have their bylaws posted on their Web site, Bulgari responded, “None of the other conservancies have their bylaws on their Web site.”

    2. Google “bylaws central park conservancy”

    3. Ask what a reasonable answer would have been to the above question, by a group acting in good faith and openness and taking their trusteeship as a serious commitment to their community.

    4. Take note that this is a constant behavior of this collection of individuals.

  18. This is all very troubling. Despite the claim by Parks administrator (whose salary is paid by the taxpayers of NYC) the Central Park Conservancy By-Laws (March 2012) indeed can be found online:

    Those of us living downtown have been pushing for online posting of bylaws for Parks Conservancies and other public-private partnerships (such as Business Improvement Districts) but we've had little success in achieving that. It seems that City Hall does not want to make it easy for the public to see those documents.

    Also: When the WSP Conservancy group first appeared before CB2 last spring, I specifically asked them during the public forum Q&A what their budget was; the answer given was that they had no budget in place. It appears that their answer did not fit with the facts. The Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner was present at that meeting and let their claim of "no budget" remain in the public record.

    Many more answers surrounding the creation of the WSP Conservancy are needed.

    Thank you to Lincoln Anderson and Cathryn Swan for bringing this to light.

  19. The privatization (aka giveaway) of public resources–parks, schools, libraries, hospitals–is a dangerous and undemocratic trend. No doubt the Conservancy made an attractive proposal to CB2, but no good can come from dealing with a dishonorable and deceptive group. Hopefully, CB2 will have the courage to re-open and investigate the Conservancy and their true motives.

    Many thanks to Lincoln Anderson and Cathryn Swan for their excellent reporting on the Conservancy's ethically challenging behavior.

  20. If this so-called "conservancy" has its way, we can fully expect the very worst kind of elitist privatization takeover, and the kind of haughty high-handed attitudes that go along with it, to ruin a treasured public space that belongs to all New Yorkers, not just the privileged few. Catherine Swan did a great job exposing their duplicity, I bet Julian Assange and Edward Snowden would be impressed. The question now is what will everyone else do about this?

    A film festival? We already have TriBeCa and the NY Film festival and dozens more. What's next, a locked gate like Gramercy Park, where you need to be a millionaire or a nanny to get in? How about a Bloomberg Pavilion where the fountain stands, with valet parking and wedding events for Russian billionaires? How about a helipad for NYU's administrators, or a four star restaurant to replace the playground?

    These may sound like exaggerations, but do you want to take the chance that I'm kidding? Would you have believed just 12 years ago we would have 2-4 bedroom apartments selling for anywhere from $10-$100 million? The foreign money pouring into the city combined with the collapsed value of the dollar have conspired to make us as cheap to foreigners as Mexico is to us.

    This is the dream Bloomberg has built for himself and his cronies, and it's a nightmare for everyone else. Now the elites and the developers want to finish the job and take over the parks, which were originally built and intended to be open and for the general public. But their ideas are already falling flat.

    I have been in WSP over a hundred times this year, and I almost never see anyone buying from that little Mario Batali gelato cart that looks like a prop in a movie, yet people are always buying from the hotdog stands.

    But don't be fooled, the fancy new food carts are just the first step. Just look at how they have turned Bryant Park into Disney On Ice with the restaurant and bar and sponsored pavilion all the holiday gift shops and wall to wall tourists and the merry go round. Now tell me you'd like to see the same thing happen to Washington Square Park?

    These conservatory people need to get over themselves. This is New York. We still eat things like hot dogs and hot pretzels and Good Humor bars even if they do not. we don't need someone to conserve what we already have, it's been working fine for a hundred years without a babysitter to take care of it.

    Ever since they shut down the park for what seemed like forever just to prettify it, and move the fountain a few yards over just to adjust the sight-lines (which made no sense at all) it is becoming more obvious now that the whole point was to prove that you can shut down and rebuild a major NYC public park in preparation for the real rebuilding plan. And the real plan seems to have something to do with NYU demolishing the central village, and the real estate developers cashing in on their next big land grab.

    It's time for incoming Mayor de Blasio to step in and stop it before its too late, or we really will become a Tale of Two Cities.

  21. Non-denial Denials, a PR Tactic

    1. Question: Please explain this thing you apparently were planning

    Answer: that is not happening now, and has not happened as of this moment, and will not happen in the future

    2. Question: Please explain why you concealed and misrepresented information during review

    Answer: you should stop being negative, and come support our efforts

    3. Question: yes but there is this specific thing you said that clearly indicates an intent…

    Answer: – it was a joke
    – you are taking it out of context
    – we are being scapegoated

    4. Question: if you negotiate private donations with NYU, if you take control of vendors in the park, if you solicit a license agreement and plan to modify your rules to execute it, if you plan events which are for “patrons” rather than the public, aren’t you actually controlling the park, rather than organizing volunteers and raising money for maintenance?

    Answer: the Parks department makes all decisions

  22. Great Summary! Right On!

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