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, thevillager.com. (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.