Hot dogs will return to park, but questions simmer

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |   To the joy of frankfurter fans everywhere, the Parks Department recently reversed itself and decided wieners will, in fact, return to Washington Square Park.

Nevertheless, many are still digesting so-called “Hot Dog-gate” and all its ramifications — even as the Washington Square Park Conservancy’s founders are set to return this week to Community Board 2 to give an update on their doings.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Parks had decided to bring the dirty-water dogs back to the landmark Greenwich Village park.

However, just a month prior, thanks to blogger Cathryn Swan, the lid had been blown off the “hot dog purge,” in which Parks announced it would let the contracts of the park’s two sausage slingers expire by the end of 2013, with no plans of renewing them. Meanwhile, a new, more upscale vendor — Melt $4 ice cream sandwiches — would be brought in, Parks said.

Veronica Bulgari, the new conservancy’s president, was quoted at the time saying that neighbors had complained to the conservancy that the hot dog carts were “unsightly.”

In addition, in a taste of possible anti-hot dog attitude, blogger Swan unearthed an e-mail from March 13, 2013, between the conservancy members and Sarah Neilson, the new group’s executive director — who also doubles as the park’s salaried administrator — in which they asked her to “follow up on progress of moving the hot dog guy away from the Arch view corridor.”

Through a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request, Swan, who maintains the Washington Square Park Blog, obtained a slew of revealing e-mails between conservancy members, Neilson and Parks officials. She also tracked down the conservancy’s 501c3 filing for nonprofit status, which sheds light on what the group — at least, initially — was claiming its primary goals would be.

Got frank feedback
Returning to the hot dog reversal, Phil Abramson, a Parks spokesperson, said the response to the carts’ removal had prompted the decision.

“We evaluated the feedback that was received, and alerted Community Board 2 of our intent to put out a new request for bids later this winter,” he told The Villager. “Our hope is to have two hot dog vendors in place by late spring.”

Just the month before, Abramson had told the newspaper that the then-planned hot dog eviction was “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.”

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Obtained by blogger Cathryn Swan, an e-mail from Sarah Neilson, executive director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, cites tips from Tobi Bergman, a former C.B. 2 Parks Committee chairperson, for helping the conservancy win approval from C.B. 2 last June. (The bracket marks and underlining are by Swan.)

Doesn’t relish micromanaging
David Gruber, chairperson of Community Board 2, said Parks’ 180-degree sausage swivel was kosher by him, but he’s staying neutral on the whole affair. It’s not a C.B. 2 issue as far as he’s concerned.

“I’m fine with it,” he said. “It’s completely handled by the Parks Department. If the Parks Department wants to have hot dogs in the park, it’s O.K. with me.”

Asked if he felt the frankfurter about-face stemmed from the media coverage alleging that the conservancy had influenced the initial decision, Gruber said no.

“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “I don’t think there was an order to eliminate all hot dog vendors in the park.”

C.B. 2 shouldn’t “micromanage” the park anyway, he said, but should “focus on bigger issues.”

Pols bite into the issue
However, the area’s local elected officials aren’t taking such a laissez-faire attitude toward what went on with the links. In fact, the frankfurter flip-flop seems to have left a bad taste in the mouths of six of them, who wrote a joint letter to Veronica White, the Parks commissioner, expressing their concern.

“The Washington Square Park Conservancy was created with the express commitment that the conservancy would not have direct influence over the policies and decisions of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation,” they said. “We write now to remind the Parks Department of that commitment. … While we understand and support the idea of more food options for park users, we also believe it is important to preserve and maintain the iconic fare, at affordable price points, that people have come to love and expect in Washington Square Park. Therefore, we ask that any future requests for proposals [R.F.P.’s] for vendors recognize how important these staples are for New Yorkers and visitors alike. We would also urge that these reviews be done by the Parks Department without influence from the conservancy.”

The letter was signed by Congressmember Jerrold Nadler (who this reporter has at least once observed eating hot dogs in the park after a press conference), Borough President Gale Brewer, state Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Corey Johnson.

So there was a budget!
Beyond the hot dog hoopla, Swan also uncovered revealing information by obtaining the conservancy’s application for 501c3 nonprofit status. For example, an “Attachment A” to the application outlines the conservancy’s projected revenue and expenses in roughly annual installments through June 30, 2016, at which point the projected total “gifts, grants and contributions received” is listed as $771, 250. 

The expenses are itemized for such things as “Compensation of officers, directors and trustees” ($10,000 to $15,000 per year), plus “Horticulture, Programming, Furniture for the Park” ($18,000 per year), “General Park Operations Expenses” ($50,000 per year) and “General Office Expenses” (about $35,000 annually).

The application is dated May 21, 2013. Yet, according to Swan and others, the conservancy’s steering committee, during two Community Board 2 meetings in June — the Parks Committee and the full-board meeting — maintained they didn’t have a budget they could share publicly.

Also in this attachment is a subparagraph headlined “Strategic Planning and Programming.”

“In particular, WSPC [the conservancy] is working to establish a program to bring theater and performing arts events to the Park,” a part of this section reads. “WSPC hopes to use the Park’s historic setting as a venue for film festivals, theatrical productions, art exhibits, and other programs for the cultural benefit of Park patrons.”

The Villager reached out to Betsey Ely, the conservancy’s chairperson, for an explanation about this programming and a definition of “Park patrons” — namely, whether this is meant to refer to general park users or the conservancy’s benefactors. Ely said the conservancy is now referring media questions to their executive director, Neilson.

“ ‘Park patrons’ was meant to describe all park users, regardless of their relationship with the conservancy,” Neilson responded. “WSPC is committed to its mission of supporting the park and keeping it clean, safe and beautiful for all users. At this time,” she added, “the conservancy has no plans to engage in such programming in the park.”

Focus on furniture?
Under another section of the attachment, “Operations, Horticulture and Maintenance,” it states that the conservancy “has already begun exploring options for installing benches, tables and other outdoor furniture in the Park and increasing the presence of security personnel to enhance public enjoyment of the park.”

Asked if C.B. 2 or anyone else would get a chance to review any of this new furniture, Neilson responded that this issue is also moot — at least for now.

“WSPC is not currently pursuing the possibility of creating additional seating,” she said. “If the Parks Department in the future would like to increase seating in the park, WSPC would work closely with the Parks Department and follow all channels for review and approval for such a project, and any other project that helps the park remain clean, safe and beautiful for all users.”

As for the additional security, Neilson said the conservancy would provide funds for Parks to hire additional Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers.

Neilson added that the conservancy’s board of directors also includes a representative from Community Board 2 (Maria Passannante-Derr) and one from Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Office, “who will be aware of current and future plans.”

In an interview with The Villager this past October, the conservancy’s founding members said they were mainly interested  in keeping up the recently renovated park in a “supplemental” way, specifically through plantings, garbage pickups and funding a summer playground associate.

‘No hot dog linkage’
As for the hot dog flare-up, Neilson said there is no linkage the conservancy has to  Parks’ initial decision to boot the links from the park. In other words, it wasn’t done at the conservancy’s bidding.

“The Department of Parks and Recreation manages all aspects of concession activities in Washington Square Park, including vendor selection, location, revenue collection and renewals,” Neilson stated. “WSPC has never advocated against renewal of the hot dog vendors.”

The attachment to the nonprofit application also states that the conservancy may in the future pay its executive director a stipend “not expected to exceed approximately $25,000.”

No do-over, but an ‘update’
So, in light of everything that has come to light — from the lingering hard feelings over the hot dogs, to the conservancy’s claims not to have had a budget — should C.B. 2 revisit the whole issue of the conservancy and, essentially, do a “do-over” on whether to recommend approval of it? No, Gruber said, the board will not do that. 

However, following a meeting with Gruber and the leaders of the board’s Parks Committee, at which some of these issues were discussed, the conservancy members agreed to return to C.B. 2 to “give an update” on the conservancy’s doings. The meeting is set for Wed., Feb 5, starting at 6:30, Judson Church (assembly hall), 239 Thompson St., south of Washington Square.

Blasts ‘affluent group’

Swan, for her part, continues to maintain that the conservancy orchestrated the hot dog purge.

“The city Parks Department’s decision, in response to public pressure, to enable the hot dog food cart vendors to return to Washington Square Park is good news, but it should never have gotten to the point where a private and affluent conservancy group was able to influence decisions at the park,” she said. “The Washington Square Park Conservancy began operating and making decisions months before it was approved by Community Board 2, a conditional ‘approval’ that stated this private group would not be influencing any decisions at Washington Square Park; an approval that was also based on a manipulated process in which information was intentionally withheld from the public and the board.

“All decisions going forward at this city park need to be transparent and accountable to the public, not private entities or individuals,” Swan stressed. “The relocation and booting of the hot dog vendors has brought to light one of the key problems with this conservancy: that the private group’s privileged insider status, where it shares a publicly paid employee [Neilson], gives them access to making and influencing decisions at Washington Square Park, and, in most cases, the public will never know.

“The hidden documents brought to light via my blog and at The Villager give the community board a starting-off point in which to now rescind its approval of this private body and take a strong stand to keep our city parks transparent and accountable to the public.”

Hot dogs for the people!
Sharon Woolums, a public member of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, said the issues of the hot dogs and whether the conservancy runs film or theater festivals in the park are very important in her view.

“The hot dogs represent class warfare to me,” she said, “in that hot dogs are food for the common man. … And the beauty of that park is that it has not been programmed — ever.”

Coached the conservancy
Speaking of Woolums, Swan dug up a revealing May 10, 2013, e-mail from Neilson to the conservancy members that indicated the independent-minded C.B. 2 public member could cause problems for them as “a potential naysayer” and needed to be worked on. In fact, Neilson, in the e-mail, cites the recommendation of Tobi Bergman, a former C.B. 2 Parks Committee chairperson, to try to soften up Woolums. Neilson also relays to the conservancy members Bergman’s advice on how the public should testify in favor of the conservancy — basically, simply and to the point.

In response, Bergman told The Villager, “I don’t think I’ve seen any e-mails about any suggestions I may have made, and I don’t specifically remember it, but it is certainly possible I encouraged the Washington Square Park group to reach out to people on the committee who had expressed opposition.”

Bergman confirmed he is a supporter of conservancies, in general.

“Based on experiences I had as a Parks Department employee in Central Park years ago, I have for many years openly supported creation of an effective fundraising organization for Washington Square Park, whatever it would be called,” he said.

“It’s a good thing that the Washington Square Park Conservancy be discouraged from efforts to unduly influence the use of the park, but we should also be careful not to stir the pot in ways that undermine their ability to raise needed funding for the park.”

Muckraker turns to Villager
Swan uncovered more of what she charges is evidence of a pro-conservancy bias among the C.B. 2 leadership. This time she didn’t have to file a FOIL, she just searched The Villager’s archives. A Dec. 22, 2004, article, “Washington Sq. renovation could take almost three years,” reports about a meeting of the Washington Square Coalition — a then-15-year-old group, originally organized by N.Y.U. — at which the idea of a conservancy was broached. Gruber was a member of the coalition and attended that meeting, but is not quoted advocating for a conservancy. 

Dismissing Swan’s accusations, Gruber told The Villager he was mainly interested in Washington Square back then because of his concern about the reconstruction project displacing people from that park, who would wind up in Father Demo Square, near where he lives, and other small parks along Sixth Ave., putting an added burden on these parks.

One leading C.B. 2 member —  not Gruber or Bergman — urged The Villager not to write this article, feeling that the conservancy had already been under too much scrutiny.

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11 Responses to Hot dogs will return to park, but questions simmer

  1. I've listened to Tobi Bergman speak many times at assorted, local meetings and events. I could never figure out why the communtiy thought he was on their side. Well, as these emails prove, he is definitely not. Thats just awful. And apparently, he's now doing the typical, political "I don't recall" thing. Shameful.

    And speaking of shame, here's just another issue where council member Chin is on the wrong side of her voters, but no surprise, I guess. We only have ourselves to blame for letting so many of our fellow locals vote for her. It's gonna be a loooong couple of years with her.

  2. As instructive as the hot dog battle may be, it is the underlying issue that remains the important one: Why are those desiring to raise money for the park allowed to make decisions privately — whatever they may be — pertaining to the utilization and so-called "beautification" of Washington Square Park?

    Those decisions should and must remain subject to public input and scrutiny.

    But right now, they're not. This conservancy has been built on a pile of lies and disinformation on the part of both conservancy members and public officials like the Parks Department's Bill Castro, who coached the novice members of the Conservancy on how to avoid answering questions from Community Board 2 members on everything from their intentions to NYU Inc.'s involvement.

    In fact, Parks Dept. officials have taken it upon themselves to answer questions directed to the members of the Conservancy, and are clearly trying to sweep the corporatization of Washington Square Park under the synthetic turf that covers so many other parks in our City.

    Mitchel Cohen
    Brooklyn Greens/Green Party

  3. "Veronica Bulgari, the new conservancy’s president, was quoted at the time saying that neighbors had complained to the conservancy that the hot dog carts were “unsightly.”"

    Perhaps 1%er Bulgari should do some research.

    There are myriad photographs readily available online, some going back to at least 1950, of frankfurter men and their carts within feet of the arch.

    I defy her to reveal who these neighbors are. I know who one is. George Vellonakis, Parks Dept. landscape architect, who has told people he finds them offensive to his prissy view of the world.

    We know you read The Villager, George, and are reading this. Would you care to deny that you said that?
    Remember, your silence speaks volumes.

  4. Patrick Shields

    Why are we still talking about hot dogs when the question of
    PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol) , and what, why and who they are,
    and who pays for them, is a primary issue?
    Who they would be?
    Who hires them?
    What they are paid?
    What authority and/or jurisdiction do they have?
    What happens when they get aggressive with freedom loving park-goers?

    Perhaps fundraising as a supplemental income for the park is OK, but…
    the question is authority.

    Is this community willing to turn this park over to a policing authority other than the NYPD ?
    The High Line seems to have proven, in and out of the courts, that it will be more costly liability wise
    to have a bouncer mentality in charge of in park security.

    Has Washington Square Park not proven itself over the decades to be worthy of independence from
    aggressive security ?

    This is the question we must answer. If a coalition of pro-park individuals is willing to raise
    supplemental monies for this historic and FREE park, why must they do so in a manner which
    places constraints on park freedoms? Why must they encroach in any manner on the history
    of Washington Square Park?

    Raising money is fine. Raising money with a constricting influence, simply, is not.

    What does this Conservancy stand for? Are you looking for a Park Avenue Armory South, or are
    you willing to help raise money for the community you live in with no strings?

    Like Villagers always have.

    Patrick Shields
    Window Cleaner
    Greenwich Village

  5. It's obvious the Conservancy plans to continue on their way to ruin one of the most iconic "New York" spaces. Let's plan to tell them that's not how we do it here.
    Patti Astor

  6. Monica McLaughlin

    The wealthy continue their acquisition and control of every thing in the world . . .

  7. As much as supporters of a Conservancy would like to diminish the fact, CB2 has a serious matter to assess.

    The NY State Public Officers Law Section 74 – Code of Ethics (http://www.jcope.ny.gov/about/ethc/PUBLIC%20OFFICERS%20LAW%2074.pdf) Section 3(d) states:

    “No officer or employee of a state agency, member of the legislature or legislative employee should use or attempt to use his or her official position to secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions for himself or herself or others, including but not limited to, the misappropriation to himself, herself or to others of the property, services or other resources of the state for private business or other compensated non‐governmental purposes.”

    If

    - it is reasonable to say that the Conservancy has obtained unwarranted privileges (approval from the Community Board to proceed with a scope (permitted by their documents and internal Parks scope definitions (such as that to the COIB)) which is much broader than that represented to the CB

    - and if Parks officials can reasonably be said to have supported the acquisition of those privileges for the Conservancy by knowingly, publicly misrepresenting or preventing examination of the scope of authority the Conservancy would have after the approval

    - and if this privilege can reasonably be expected to lead to granting the Conservancy (or its potential future licensees) the ability to use the property of the state for business purposes

    then the above rule might apply.

    If the above rule applies, then the CB may be bound to refer the matter to appropriate government agencies for review. The CB is bound to the regulations of the City Council where not specifically overridden by CB rules.

    So, in the end, how does Parks Department conduct in presenting the Conservancy scope to the CB objectively measure up to 74.3(d)? Have private interests gained unwarranted access to public resources because the statements made by Parks, statements relied on by the CB in granting conservancy approval? Were substantial factually inaccurate statements made in an intentional pattern designed to increase the chances of conservancy approval?

    And would it have gotten to this point if the conduct of the Parks officials and the Conservancy before the CB and public had been simple, straightforward, and honest?

    Is it appropriate for Mr. Gruber to dismiss everything that has happened and decide what the CB can and cannot do about it, based on his personal judgment and his title?

  8. There is also an ongoing matter of ineffectual answers to questions about the role of this Conservancy in future governance of the park.

    By way of example, in the letter of Parks Commissioner Castro to candidate deBlasio about the Conservancy late last year (http://washingtonsquareparkblog.com/2014/01/15/was-manhattan-parks-commish-bill-castro-truthful-to-bill-de-blasio-in-his-response-washington-square-park/), two potentially relevant quotes appear:

    1. “The creation of this organization has probably undergone more scrutiny than almost any other partnership group that we work with.”

    2. “the Washington Square Park Conservancy will grow to become an excellent example of a public-private partnership”

    So if this conservancy is the most scrutinized private organization relationship in the Department’s history, why has every single internal review study, meeting powerpoint, etc. from that entire process been kept private? Why was not a single internal document released to the public during the CB “approval” process of the conservancy, or for that matter, up to the present date? Why did Parks represent the conservancy as “in formation” and still being designed during the review process, if the conservancy had received such scrutiny in advance?

    One possible answer may be related to the second statement above. If it was the Parks Department intention to “grow” the Conservancy into a full blown NYC conservancy style public-private partnership, and this intention was visible in the planning documents, then this would beg the presentation of the conservancy as a limited group, and the constant answers to questions with “right now it is not” answers:

    Q) “what is the intention now and in the future, and what was the intention during the planning, for the scope of this Conservancies’ activities?”

    A)

    a) ignore the past and future parts of the questions

    b) state that “at the present time, the Conservancy is not exercising these roles”, that the conservancy “is limited” (verbal statement only), and heavily *imply* that this is an equivalent statement to actual agreements, governance rules, memoranda of understanding with the CB, etc that would *actually* limit the conservancy to just what they said their role would be at the time they requested CB approval

    c) never, ever volunteer visibility into any of the now claimed to be historically deep analysis of the conservancy. An analysis which by the way ended up specifying that the conservancy should be described in their IRS nonprofit application as being “a strategic and operational partner of Parks”, and described to the NYS Conflicts of Interest board as being the overseer of initiatives which arise from the donor money they collect — contradictory to or omitted from what was said in public.

    If Parks wanted to get past ineffectual answers, it would make public all their internally circulated planning documents about the conservancy. Show that the intention was to make a ‘limited’ organization, and show what Parks imagined for the future of the Conservancy.

  9. This conservancy is designated to oversee the implementation of “donor funded initiatives”, a role of absolute power not revealed last year during review. The conservancy Executive Director, also a Parks official, is explicitly tasked with developing those donor relations, while wearing the conservancy director hat. This gives donors complete behind closed doors insider access to the relevant government officials for lobbying, and to the effective project manager for any goal the donor requests and the closed door group likes. Of course, after all meaningful discussion is finished, the plan might be revealed for public ‘comment’.

    This conservancy said they would do whatever is needed to their governing documents to take on a licensing arrangement with Parks (which allows the conservancy to choose private vendors for concessions in the park).

    This conservancy defined their goals as including extensively programming the park, regardless of whether the community of park users actually wants to grant them any such thing. The conservancy had this goal explicitly cited in their legal documents and concealed the fact from public review.

    This conservancy endlessly begs the control question in answers it makes to the public, by claiming that Parks ‘makes the decisions’, and that there is community participation because a CB member is on the conservancy board and ‘knows’ what the conservancy is doing. Neither of which measures is effective in inserting public involvement in any initiatives at inception or during planning, or during any project “oversight” activities of the conservancy.

    This conservancy claimed they were “in formation” and could not describe their documents or structure in any detail, a month after they had held their first board meeting and after all their documents had already been filed with the necessary agencies, and after what Parks calls the most extensive review they ever have had for a private partnership group.

    No one during the public review gave this group the permission to be these things, or a hall pass to endlessly misrepresent what they are doing and evade questions about the future scope defined for them by Parks.

    Mr. Gruber says “there will be no do-over”, and he is right. There wasn’t a “done the first time” that was legal, so there can’t be a do-over. This conservancy’s real plans were never approved.

  10. Harvey J. Osgood

    Mr. Gruber also expressed his attitude ( at the June 2013) toward further consideration/ later review of the conservancy as follows: What difference does it make what we say or do in this matter; we are only an "advisory board" so the city administration can/will do whatever it chooses, as is its right. Needless to say, the implication is that the community is fortunate to have had any input whatsoever. Thank you David, at least we know what to expect from our leadership. Let's see what happens on March 5th.

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