“Murky Areas” When it Comes to Washington Square Private Conservancy Go Beyond Elite Group “Banning” Hot Dog Carts at the Park

by cathryn on December 3, 2013

Updated 12/4 — If you are just getting up to speed on the “banning” of the hot dog vendors at Washington Square Park, orchestrated secretly by a private Conservancy group which deemed the food carts “unsightly” and felt they were messing with “view” of the Arch and Fountain at the park, there is even more that is troubling  - some documented already at Washington Sq Park Blog and more still to come.

Washington Square Park is known as an amazingly unique, active public space and it has always been run by the city’s Parks Department. On the whole, this has worked out well. Unlike other major parks in the city, Washington Square Park had avoided the fate of privatization. Yet, the Bloomberg administration, oh-so-fond of “public-private partnerships,” couldn’t resist pushing the model on the Greenwich Village community which had long said no to a conservancy-type organization at the park.

The city’s Parks Department, after years of experience with community meetings on the Park’s contentiously battled redesign, determined that to obtain Community Board and public “approval,” they would need to, oh, just leave out a few details that might raise alarm bells. They were aware at this point what set off those bells in the Village and they orchestrated their plans in advance behind closed doors with a selected group willing to go along with this.

When this private group of four affluent women came before the public in June, well coached at this point by Parks’ officials, they stated up, down, backwards and forwards, that they did not intend to make any decisions at the park. They just, they repeated over again and again, wanted to “raise funds, plant flowers and recruit volunteers.”

In order to secure some degree of public acquiescence, the Conservancy had been formed in secret with city Parks officials over two years, and, contrary to sound practices, its objectives and funding were concealed and misrepresented when it came before Manhattan’s Community Board 2 for approval. There was an intentional obfuscation of information to the public about the entity’s agenda and future plans. There was no “open and transparent process,” as had been promised years prior. And, as you might imagine, the hot dog vendors are a small piece of a larger puzzle.

Recently, I began a series here at Washington Square Park Blog outlining information from documents I obtained which clearly reveal the extent of misinformation, falsehoods and intentional omissions by City Parks Department officials (particularly Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro) and the private Conservancy founding members, colluding together before the public.

Some background:

1. Washington Square Park Blog has been documenting the questionable rollout of the Washington Square Park Conservancy since early this year. Prior to the C.B. 2 vote, the public was not given an opportunity to effectively review or modify the proposed plan and the process was rushed and fraught with omissions and misrepresentations. The details of this history can be read at other articles at this blog here on the private conservancy and via the “Washington Square Park Conservancy Timeline.”

2. Of course, the elimination of the “hot dog carts” is an indicator that the Conservancy will serve monied interests rather than the public. This concern exists for many conservancies and has serious negative implications. For an analysis of why this is so, visit this page: “Impact of Private Conservancies on City Parks.”

Recent WSP Blog Series on Private Conservancy Deceptions:

When community members and park users learned of the formation of a private conservancy, they voiced extensive concerns: the public was well aware that a private organization at Washington Sq Park could gain control, oversight and influence at this landmark public space, thereby opening a wedge which private, corporate, and real estate interests would be more than happy to fill and gain sway.

Although the Community Board did not take concerns seriously enough or vet the Conservancy sufficiently (neglecting to wait to see bylaws, mission statement, financial documents), the Board’s “approval” (the final vote was split and not in any way by consensus) was conditional, with “stipulations.” And it’s clear now that the Board was intentionally manipulated by city Parks officials who coached Conservancy founders on what to say – and perhaps, more importantly, what not to say. The road to “approval” was based on a web of deliberate deception.

Recent series based on documents obtained by Washington Square Park Blog reveal some of these deceptions and misrepresentations:

Part I: CONservancy! Intent to Privatize Washington Sq Park Confirmed; Undisclosed $500,000 NYU “Gift to the Park” & More

NYU Inc.’s “Gift to the Park” of $500,000 was never revealed at any public meeting as money available for Washington Square Park and terms of any agreement with NYU, Inc. are unknown. This information was undisclosed despite the numerous public questions about the corporation’s possible involvement with the private Conservancy. As one Board member said, “I am concerned about NYU. When you give money, you have control. What about NYU?” This $500,000 was negotiated with Parks Department officials prior to the Conservancy’s formation – yet this was kept from the Community Board and public. This money was available to the Park and could have been deposited in the city’s budget but instead NYU was put into play as a “silent partner” with the private Conservancy.

Part II: Bloomberg’s Parks Department to NYC: Privatize! | City Conspires to Legitimize Private Conservancy at Washington Sq Park Before New Mayor Steps In Withholding Information from the Public

Washington Square Park Conservancy founders were worried before their appearance in front of Community Board 2 in June. In an email obtained by WSP Blog, Elizabeth Ely (known as Betsey), the appointed “Chairman” of the Conservancy, wrote to the organization’s other Board members:

“We have to meet with [Manhattan Parks Commissioner] Bill [Castro] before the CB [Community Board] meeting. There are too many murky areas for which we do not have answers that would satisfy public inquiry.”

Indeed. Emails obtained further reveal that they had plans for securing a future License Agreement at the Park, something never disclosed at any public meeting. C.B.2, in its voted upon resolution of “approval,” expressly stipulated that there would be no license agreement, and, apparently, Parks’ Bill Castro agreed to this — yet Conservancy emails reveal that they had already agreed in April to later change their bylaws to reflect a license agreement with the City.

License agreements point to handling maintenance and operations at city parks – which goes way beyond planting flowers – it is something the major park private conservancies do, and the exact thing the community did not want for Washington Square Park.

Part III: Hot Dog! Private Conservancy Secrets: Food Cart Vendors Vanishing, $5 “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches” on Way, Mario Batali & More at Washington Sq Park

While saying they wouldn’t be making decisions at Washington Square Park, the Conservancy founders neglected to mention (one of many things purposefully omitted) that months prior to coming before the public, they’d already decided to relocate, eliminate, and switch up some of the vendors at the ParkIn March, the private group decided at a meeting of their Board that Park Administrator Sarah Neilson, a city employee, and also, curiously, their “Executive Director,” should work to “move the hot dog guy away from the Arch view corridor” and bring in “new and different vendors.”That’s why the vendors at the Park have since been relocated to new locations and their contracts are not being re-bid at the year’s end, a new vendor, Melt, with its trendy $5 “ice cream cookie sandwiches,” is on its way! Mario Batali’s food cart will remain; Batali was recently added to the Conservancy board. Convenient.

Of course, Community Board 2′s “approval” also specifically stipulated that they would not be making these types of decisions. The Comm. Board not being informed that they’d already begun to.

Murky areas indeed.

Going Forward

As for right now, Community Board 2 should review all information and withdraw its conditional approval of the Conservancy. Informed members of the public can help the Community Board make a sound decision.

Thank you for your careful review of this issue.

Stay tuned for more to be disclosed here at Washington Square Park Blog!

*   *   *

Coming in Part IV — the Conservancy’s unrevealed grander plans, finances, bylaws & more! 

 
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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Monica McLaughlin December 3, 2013 at 8:09 pm

I admire you for all your efforts and this wonderful park news coverage. It is depressing to watch the wealthy take over everything that is public including and perhaps particularly the parks. Once the wealthy rule, they create rules that apply to every one but them.

On Roosevelt Island there is a new State Park called, oddly enough, Four Freedoms Park. Well it is against the rules to so much as give your kid a drink box in that park. No eating allowed! Apparently the consumption of anything other than water will destroy the sanctity of the park and dirty the memorial. Well, there is no music, no bicycles, no pets, no NOTHING allowed in this park. And just in case a member of the public does decide to go out of there way to check the place out, it closes at 7 pm. EXCEPT if you are wealthy. The wealthy hold gala sunset garden parties there complete with food, wine and music!!!! Minimal price for a ticket? $250. Imagine, the wealthy, in essence, have an exclusive outdoor space with sweeping views of Manhattan — built on and maintained on the public tax dollar!!

This is likely what the wealthy hope to turn the rest of Manhattan’s public parks into. Or maybe they will just put up tennis bubbles like they did in the public ball field in my neighborhood (Queensboro Oval). Sigh.

Reply

GVreader December 3, 2013 at 8:59 pm

As anyone reads the revelations about this Conservancy, they should use as a ‘truthiness’ touchstone the statements the Conservancy made in an interview with The Villager on October 3, 2013:

http://thevillager.com/2013/10/03/conservancy-wants-to-help-the-park-not-run-it-they-say/

for example:

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

and

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.”

Reply

cathryn December 9, 2013 at 4:36 am

Monica,

Thanks for your kind words and your comment. It is hard to ‘fathom’ the rules at Four Freedoms Park as you outline them and how this public park is overly restricted to the ‘general’ public yet the more affluent are given free reign. As you well know, that’s a big problem when private money is allowed influence over our public parks. This idea of parks being treated as being “pristine” spaces is scary. There was an article in the New York Times recently, maybe an op-ed, about how people who are a little ‘messy’ are more creative in their lives and contributions. This idea that a private group wants Wash Sq Park to only be “clean, safe and beautiful” … this seems like an innocuous goal to some people – but then it ends up having a whole other meaning when you start applying that to moving and eliminating hot dog vendors in the park! Where does it go from there…?

GV Reader,

Thanks for your comments and reminder about some of the quotes in that Villager piece. I never posted anything about that piece, intended to at some point but didn’t. Good point to point to those comments.

Thanks !

Cathryn.

Reply

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