Conservancy to give update to C.B. 2 in wake of exposed e-mails

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

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.”

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8 Responses to Conservancy to give update to C.B. 2 in wake of exposed e-mails

  1. This is outrageous "smoke and mirrors" totally disregarding the fraudulent behavior of just about everyone on the "Rich People's" Side!! If you think the People of New York City are going to let you, specifically Mario Batali and now John Leguizano and his wife get away with this you are sadly mistaken. Quit obfuscating and address the Evidence of Documentation that has been presented to you.
    Patti Astor

  2. Thank you, Villager, for your continued coverage of this issue — however, I'm very concerned at the position the Community Board seems to be taking on the matter overall and the fact that C.B. 2's "leaders" are not giving this anywhere near the level of scrutiny it warrants. Susanna Aaron states: “My sense of the Washington Square Park Conservancy is that their purposes are well-intentioned." Where does this "sense" come from since this has been Ms. Aaron's position since she oversaw the rushed vote of C.B. 2's Parks Committee to approve this private body in early June? She also says, "Some accusations I've seen seem quite far-fetched — they really imply a conspiracy." Well, although the word 'conspiracy' has a negative connotation at this point in time, the definition is: "a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful." And this *was* a secret plan hatched behind closed doors over two years which the emails I obtained clearly demonstrate. And I would argue it possibly borders on unlawful but certainly harmful because anytime the public is lied to there is harm.

    There is no need to 'connect the dots' as C.B. 2 Chair David Gruber says he is not ready to do because the dots are already connected — the emails from the FOIL (freedom of information letter) lay it out very clear: there were vast misrepresentations, omissions and falsehoods presented by the Washington Sq Park Conservancy founders in statements before the Community Board and the public.

    NYU and the $500,000 "Gift to the Park?" Multiple meetings with New York University higher ups? The future license agreement and change in bylaws? Plans (way beyond "a book club") never revealed to the public for film festivals, theatrical productions and new park furniture? The quite large four year budget which the conservancy founders said they did not have? Their "executive director's" future stipend?

    None of this mentioned at the one meeting Susanna Aaron chaired that addressed the conservancy's "plans."

    Why is the Parks Committee not meeting in January as the other C.B. 2 committees are? Why is this being held off until February? Is that to avoid additional "murky areas" the Conservancy founders would like to (again) avoid? More time to prepare? Please. It's time the community is given precedence over the four affluent Conservancy founders and the Parks Department (Bill Castro in particular) needs to be held accountable as well for its role in the deception to the public.

    I would like to give an "update" on what I discovered before Community Board 2. There is way too much latitude being given here by the Community Board for such an important park as Washington Square. To think that the Conservancy just can give an "update" on their activities is beyond and needs to be rethought immediately. That is not appropriate – we are way past that option.

    Sincerely,

    Cathryn Swan
    Washington Square Park Blog http://washingtonsquareparkblog.com

  3. There are concerns about this Conservancy which do no go away simply because some key players choose to focus public attention on the periphery of issues like hot dog stands, while diminishing as “conspiracy thinking” the real money and power and ethics issues. Hot dog stands are just an indicator of the direction where examination needs to go.

    1. This conservancy was sold on, and approved on a thesis that they would plant flowers, raise funds for maintenance and security, and perhaps provide some simple programming (as noted in the ‘whereas’ clauses of the CB conditional approval resolution, the “given you said this to us, we resolve” clauses). Even the key parks players affirmed this scope on the record in the Villager. The conservancy creators and supporters cannot sidestep this.

    In contrast, none of the conservancy organizational documents constrain the conservancy to these roles. In fact, their documents, and their interaction with Parks in formation of the conservancy demonstrate that with forethought and careful crafting they are creating a large scale opeation which is targeted to be everything a Madison Square Conservancy (“we are a cultural institution”) or the CPC is, including commercial licensing which this group utterly, specifically told the public they would never do. And the crafters of the CB conditional-approval resolution artfully omitted any actual concrete requirements which would impose limits on the conservancy in any way.

    Its a lawyerly and derailing argument to say that contstraints are “more a matter of policy” and don’t belong in bylaws. Constraints belong everywhere they are relevant, until the impact is achieved. Consider the 501(c)3 strategic and operational role statements, as opposed to what the conservancy still claims is their scope (now even on their website). The huge discrepancy still exists. The conservancy and its supporters are *still* in effect arguing that absolutely nothing should amend their far reaching self-defined organizational scope in any way whatsoever. Well, maybe adopt some policies. But their emails show they feel free to make public statements of policy while simultaneously privately planning to revert the policy.

    2. Documentation apparently shows that the particular group of individuals who founded this conservancy, as well as their immediate colleagues within the Parks department, repeatedly misled the public by omission from public reviews of information about these game-changer discrepancies between their already in-motion plans, and what they claimed they were intending to do. (Sarah Nielson herself called pushing this all through the CB the “black diamond [dangerous, unprotected ski path] run” in one of her emails to other conservancy officers).

    One does not need to call it “conspriacy” to see that there irreconcilable and relevant differences between what this group and Parks claimed on the public record, and what they were simultaneously doing in private.

    And failing to offer the documents (and all the other information known in advance) up during review? This is excused by a claim of being “confused” about whether bylaws are posted on websites (so all docs and emails and etc. are by implication also covered by this “accidental error”). What spin.

    The real issue is not whether there should be proper “progress reporting”, or even whether hot dog vendors are restored. These are relevant, but are side matters. The real issue is whether the conduct related to the conservancy, and the organzational scope being allowed because of that conduct, is tolerable to the public and to their representatives.

    Let the conservancy give their answers in yet another carefully coached, already key-player discussed behind the scenes process, spun in public presentation to use up peoples time on the secondary issues rather than the founders’ track record with the public trust, and deflecting attention from the vast proportion of the conservancy scope and money influence not actually approved in open public review (the real objective of everything, have no mistake). Oh, and shielded by cancelling the Parks committee meeting too.

    When they ultimately sum up everything they have done as “growing pains”, ask yourself:

    1. Is there no alternative out of all the universe to being spoken to in this way?

    2. Had enough yet?

  4. Don’t know much about the Conservancy, but as a parent of a whole passel of kids , i appreciate the (cheap) hot dogs. And the kids sure do, which is more to the point.

  5. Let's cut the useless talk here. The Conservancy was another land grab, similar to those of Bloomberg over the libraries, and the upcoming sale of air rights over the Hudson River. The plutarchs have decided they can ignore the rest of us and yes, apparently, they can, a la Gruber.

  6. Amen to the cheap hot dogs for kids. while not healthy, they need to feel that they can actually afford something, even a cheap drink.
    RE HEALTHY- SAVE THE DOSA MAN
    Healthy, hearty & low cost. My kids have learned & taught their friends this healthy alternative type meal & beverages.

    PLUS DOSA MAN is a Neighborhood (& national) institution..and quite friendly, personable & accomdating.

    • @NYDosas has been on the south side of the park for over 10 years; not only is Thiru the dosa man friendly, personable, and accommodating, he's one of the few #vegan food vendors in the city. It would be a big mistake for the city not to renew his license, since people visit him from all over the city and even out of state. He's wildly popular, and one of the few vegan options in that neighborhood.

      Which reminds me: why can't hot dog vendors offer vegan dogs, as they do in Toronto? There's no excuse; more and more people are going vegan all the time, and it makes New York look pretty backward to not have this option. Plus, they're far less unhealthy than their nitrite-cured meat counterparts, and I would bet a lot of kids couldn't tell the difference if they were offered.

  7. I agree about the land grab. The list of false statements this conservancy has made over the last year is as long as a Thanksgiving Day Parade, and all unnecessary unless the goal is to obtain legal authorization not winnable in open review. One could go in with a hammer and chisel and engrave certain constraints in the foundational documents of this conservancy that might truly stop them from taking control of the park, and force them to only be what they proposed in public. But why salvage them? They knew they were trying to pull a fast one on the public, and if their strategically built mountain of horsehockey backfires, they should have to walk away. There are other good minds and able organizers in the Village, ones without such a desire to hand over the park to monied interests. The Village will survive the *loss* from a deflected run at its public real estate.

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