Although the Washington Square Park Christmas tree is probably a bit too large to be put through a portable mulcher, New Yorkers can take their smaller versions to select city parks on Sat., Jan. 11, and Sun., Jan. 12, for mulching, which helps ease the pickup load on the city’s Department of Sanitation. Photo by Tequila Minsky
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Recent revelations of e-mail correspondence between the Washington Square Park Conservancy and the Parks Department on a range of hot-button issues — including, notably, hot dogs — have brought concerns about the new private fundraising group to a boil.
Seeking to lower the heat, after news of the so-called Washington Square “WikiLeaks” e-mails were made public, David Gruber, chairperson of Community Board 2, had a conversation with Sarah Neilson, the conservancy’s executive director — who is also the park’s administrator — who assured him that everything was kosher regarding Parks’ decision to kick two hot dog vendors out of the park.
Gruber said Neilson told him that the reason the hot dog carts were being booted was partly because their five-year contracts had simply expired.
“She explained the situation to me and I’m satisfied with it,” Gruber told The Villager a few weeks ago. “She told me there were complaints about the hot dog vendors before the conservancy.”
Gruber added that the Dosa Man’s contract was up, as well, and he had to go through a competitive bidding process just to get a renewal to keep serving his Indian-style potato pancakes on the park’s southern edge.
As for Melt, the upscale ice cream sandwich that is now slated to get a vending spot in the park, Gruber said his understanding is that Melt has a concession on the High Line and “has been a good vendor.”
That vendor-centric conversation was followed up by a more-extensive sit-down between Gruber and the respective chairperson and vice chairperson of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, Rich Caccappolo and Susanna Aaron, with the members of the conservancy’s steering committee.
Before the meeting, without getting into specifics, Gruber told The Villager, “They have to answer to us on the record on a few things that we’re not happy about.”
The upshot is that the conservancy members will come to the C.B. 2 Parks Committee meeting on Wed., Feb. 5, to address the concerns. According to Aaron, at the meeting, the conservancy will give an “update” on its activities. For its part, the Parks Committee won’t issue a resolution for the full board of C.B. 2 to vote on, but will instead give a “progress report.”
At this recent sit-down, held at the C.B. 2 office, Gruber asked the conservancy members about whether they would conform to a stipulation in C.B. 2’s advisory resolution from last June in which the board approved the conservancy — namely, that the conservancy include in its bylaws that it will “appear periodically (or at the request of either W.S.P.C. or C.B. 2) before the community board to apprise the community of its plans and activities… .”
However, Gruber two weeks ago told The Villager that he now understands that this stipulation is, in fact, really more of a “policy” matter than something that would be inserted in the nonprofit group’s bylaws.
Betsey Ely, the conservancy’s chairperson, told The Villager in an e-mail, “Yes, W.S.P.C. will appear from time to time before C.B. 2 and has already discussed returning in the near term.”
Asked if the conservancy would appear before the board “periodically,” as the board suggested, such as, say, every couple of months, Ely said, “We have no set schedule and will appear as needed — if the conservancy has something to communicate, or [if] requested by C.B. 2.”
In addition, the conservancy recently agreed to post its bylaws on its Web site. (The Villager posted the conservancy’s bylaws on its own Web site, thevillager.com, early last month.) That the conservancy should post its bylaws online was another stipulation of C.B. 2’s June resolution giving its O.K. to the fledgling fundraising vehicle.
Various e-mail correspondence between the conservancy and Parks was obtained by Cathryn Swan — who maintains the Washington Square Park Blog — through a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request.
Gruber, however, said he’s not ready “to connect the dots” the way Swan does, in terms of what may be inferred from some of the online exchanges.
Speaking at the Dec. 19 C.B. 2 full board meeting, Gruber said he told the conservancy members at the sit-down that he does not want them taking people’s complaints — about supposedly “unsightly” hot dog vendors, for example — and forwarding them to the Parks Department.
Veronica Bulgari, the conservancy’s president, has been quoted saying the conservancy was told by some locals that the hot dog vendors were an “unsightly” presence near the park’s iconic, much-photographed arch. The conservancy’s Ely specifically cited George Vellonakis, who designed the park’s recent renovation, as someone who did not relish the frankfurter carts’ appearance. But Bulgari has said the conservancy simply suggested shifting the dirty-water dogs to another part of the square.
“It was not in their agreement that they would be a conduit for complaints — which they readily agreed to,” Gruber pointed out. “It wasn’t part of what C.B. 2 O.K.’d.”
Speaking after the Dec. 19 full board meeting, Gruber reiterated regarding the conservancy, “It’s not their job to be the vehicle for public complaints. It should be C.B. 2 or Parks [that fields such complaints].”
There remains the still-simmering question of whether wieners are, in fact, “banned” from Washington Square Park.
Phil Abramson, a Parks spokesperson, said that’s not the case at all.
“There is certainly no ban,” he told The Villager. “We’re currently looking at everything and haven’t yet decided how many more vendors there may be in addition to the three specialty carts.”
The three specialty carts include the Dosa Man, Melt and Mario Batali’s gelato cart. Batali was recently appointed to the conservancy’s board.
“We will be assessing the public’s desires for what foods they would like to see in Washington Square as we determine what mobile foods — including hot dogs — may be offered, and where in the park they will be located, moving forward,” Abramson explained.
“The contracts for [the park’s two] hot dog carts expire on Dec. 31, 2013,” Abramson said. “When pushcart contracts expire, we don’t automatically renew — we instead issue a request for bids where any vendor can submit a bid to sell on a spot, and the highest bid gets it. The specialty food carts (like Dosa Man) are selected through a separate R.F.P. (request for proposals), where we seek out other specialty food items.”
Asked when and how the community would be involved in helping select new food vendors for the park, Abramson said, “If we do decide to issue a new request for bids next year that includes Washington Square Park locations, then we’ll notify and seek feedback from the community board.”
In a lengthy e-mail, Aaron, the C.B. 2 Parks Committee vice chairperson, offered her take on the conservancy flap.
“My sense of the Washington Square Park Conservancy is that their purposes are well-intentioned,” Aaron said. “The tricky part is how to demonstrate that to a community that is, in some cases, fearful that the conservancy could have too much control over the park — and, in some cases, cynically sure that that’s what they plan to do.
“The conservancy didn’t initially post their bylaws, and that was problematic because C.B. 2 had specifically requested that as a basis for supporting their type of organization,” Aaron noted. “Their initial hesitation made sense for all the reasons they cited to us — they had had a hard time finding bylaws of other organizations on the Web, and so deemed it not to be common practice — but that made no sense at all in the context of the wariness the community has expressed about them.
“David [Gruber] arranged a meeting with them and we all talked at length about how to bridge their need for best practices of internal governance with the community’s needs to keep tabs on them, especially in this early stage of their organization.
“It is my understanding that ‘Hotdog-gate’ had nothing to do with them,” Aaron added. “That vendors contract, it is my understanding, long pre-dated the formation of the conservancy and was always set to expire at the end of 2013.
“What they told us is that many members of the community turn to them and ask them to intervene on some park issue — noise is a common complaint, I understand — and they redirect people to the Parks Department and the community board.
“In short,” Aaron said, “I think they have been responsive. They are a new organization, still figuring stuff out, it would seem. But [at the recent sit-down meeting] they gave us confidence — at this stage — that the intentions they have expressed publicly are sincere.”
On the other hand, Aaron noted, “Some accusations I’ve read seem quite far-fetched — they really imply a conspiracy.”