Conservancy, C.B. 2 feel unmitigated heat at very tense meeting

Richard Caccappolo, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee, responding to comments from the audience about the Washington Square Park Conservancy at the March 5 meeting. Beside him, from left, were committee members Judy Paul, Frederica Sigel and Shirley Secunda.  Photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Richard Caccappolo, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee, responding to comments from the audience about the Washington Square Park Conservancy at the March 5 meeting. Beside him, from left, were committee members Judy Paul, Frederica Sigel and Shirley Secunda. Photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  Richard Caccappolo, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee, might have been putting Sarah Neilson on a witness stand.

“State your name and your title,” he said at the beginning of a meeting on March 5 to discuss Washington Square Park and the Washington Square Park Conservancy, which was formed last summer to supplement services provided by the Parks Department.

“Sarah Neilson,” she replied, “administrator of Washington Square Park and executive director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy.”

Without going any further into Washington Square Park issues, many people in the audience already thought that this was a problem: having Neilson, a public employee, also head a private entity — the conservancy — that, critics say, has only minimal accountability to the public.

Caccappolo invited her to stand and give a presentation about the park — wearing both hats. She seemed nervous.

“We’re hoping to have the park’s house [office and comfort station] open by the end of March,” she started.

Someone in the audience snapped a photo.

“Could you please hold your photos to the end so it doesn’t distract me?” she said.

The last nine months, since her appointment to the dual position, cannot have been easy for her. The Washington Square Park Conservancy, started by four wealthy women who said they wanted to help keep the park “clean, safe and beautiful,” has aroused great suspicion in the community that the new group’s stated intentions would turn into gentrification of a spirited public space.

The specter of N.Y.U. also cast a shadow. Would it have its way with the conservancy as it has attempted to do elsewhere in the Village?

Despite efforts at civility, the room grew increasingly tense.

“A lot of residents are very resentful of the conservancy,” said a woman in the audience. “They feel that they’ve taken control. They don’t represent the neighborhood.”

“So how would you propose to mitigate that fear?” asked Caccappolo, a question that he would repeat often during the next two hours.

“I think that if you work for the city and are a public employee, then you shouldn’t be such an active participant,” the woman said, referring to Neilson. “There is an appearance, in any event, of a conflict of interest. Other members of the community feel very uncomfortable and therefore suspicious, and it would be a simplification if [Neilson] didn’t hold those two positions that some people view as a conflict.”

Neilson replied that this model had worked in other parks and had kept those conservancies from coming up with proposals that the parks really didn’t need. She said there were “checks and balances.”

Since this January, Maria Passannante-Derr, a Community Board 2 member, has been on the conservancy board of directors. As a condition for its approval by C.B. 2 last June, the conservancy had agreed to have a member of the community board on its own board.

“All financial decisions come before the board. She would know what those steps were,” Neilson said of Passannante-Derr.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin also has a representative who attends the conservancy meetings.

“This is not a new thing that was invented for Washington Square Park,” said Tobi Bergman, another C.B. 2 board member. “It exists for many parks and has existed for around 30 years.”

Caccappolo next asked Neilson to talk about the conservancy and its activities. She described planting flowers and bulbs, weeding, hiring a summer playground associate and hiring extra maintenance staff.

“My goal from this conversation — there have been a lot of questions, a lot of concerns, a lot of theories,”Caccappolo said. “Quite honestly, some rather mean claims have been made.”

A woman in the audience called out, “Not so, Rich!”

“I try not to take it personally, but there have been claims that this board rushed the decision [to approve the conservancy],” Cappappolo continued.

Members of the audience interrupted him: “They did!”

“That’s your opinion,” Caccappolo said. “If you have an opinion, a concern, all that I ask is that you express it in a way that allows us to truly understand a very tangible fear. The fear is that N.Y.U.’s going to take over?”

“Yes!” shouted out a woman in the audience.

“Let us tell you why…what the process is…ma’am!… what the process is for mitigating that, O.K.?” Caccappolo responded. “And when we get to the end of that, I’d like to have people walk out saying, ‘My questions have been answered, my concerns have been noted,’ and then we can work on how to mitigate that.”

Caccappolo was intent on “mitigating fears,” which he seemed to think had no factual or objective validity.

Many of the audience comments were about the perception that the conservancy was acting in secrecy and not being forthright about its plans.

“I disagree with a lot of what the Parks Department does, but we don’t have any say at all over what the conservancy does,” said Kevin Axelson, a member of the audience.

“It’s not a matter of whether we trust [them] or not,” said Keen Berger, a C.B. 2 member. “It’s not a matter of whether we like money going to the parks or not. We all like money going to the parks. But I think there’s an underlying concern about how decisions are being made for the park that we cannot be [a party to because we are not] major donors. I personally think that something in the public realm ought to be put out there and understood by everybody. Otherwise you get this undercurrent of suspicion about who, why, what.”

“That’s a very nebulous concern,” Caccappolo replied. “Do you have a specific concern?”

“Who is making the priorities?” Berger asked. “The fact that the Parks Department is calling the shots does not always make me feel happy.”

“Give me a scenario of a bad call,” said Caccappolo. “Tell us what you’re worried about, then we can mitigate it.”

“It’s not just mitigating the worries,” said Berger. “It’s dealing with the deep concerns.”

The interchanges grew increasingly hostile.

Cathryn Swan, who writes the Washington Square Park Blog, said that she had uncovered evidence through the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, that the conservancy was kowtowing to N.Y.U. as feared, and that the group had, at one point, been discussing a licensing agreement with the city that would increase its power and jurisdiction in the park.

“Betsey Ely [one of the conservancy’s founders] said in an e-mail that they had to meet with Bill Castro, Manhattan Parks commissioner, before coming before C.B. 2 to avoid any murky areas that might not satisfy public inquiry,” Swan said. “You think it was legitimate for her to state that? They did everything secretively. The community never wanted a conservancy, so everything was done in secret.”

Ely and Gwen Evans, another founding conservancy member, both attended the meeting.

Caccappolo asked Swan if she had “a specific feeling that you would like us to mitigate?”

“N.Y.U. is a concern,” Swan replied.

The university put up $500,000 to help renovate the park building and comfort station and has pledged another $500,000 to the conservancy, Swan maintained.

However, the Parks Department back in December told The Villager the remaining N.Y.U. money “would be directed to the Parks Department, through a fund for the park set up by the City Parks Foundation.”

The conservancy is saying, “that N.Y.U.’s money is just a pledge,” said Swan. “There are five e-mails where N.Y.U. is discussed…‘N.Y.U. wants to know what we’re going to do with their money,’ ” she said, citing one of the conservancy members’ messages.

Susanna Aaron, the Parks Committee’s vice chairperson, responded to this remark with increasing anger.

“I think that a lot of the things that you found out in your e-mails raise interesting questions and we asked those questions,” she said. “Question: Does N.Y.U. have undue influence on that money? Answer: No. Question: Do they [the conservancy] have a license agreement with the city? Answer: No.”

Swan said that the answers were based on what the conservancy thought the public wanted to hear.

“So are you saying that you think that they’re lying?” Aaron asked sharply.

“It’s not character assassination but…,” Swan started to reply.

Aaron interrupted her. “It IS character assassination.”

Caccappolo said that Swan was charging him personally and the committee with malfeasance.

“I’m tired of being maligned,” he said, “and I’m tired of this committee being maligned.”

After the meeting, Swan reflected, “I was really surprised at how protective of the conservancy the community board was. The board wasn’t ready to ask harder questions and really address the concerns. Instead they seemed to want to say there were no concerns, when there clearly are.

“We had incorrect information. There was manipulation of the truth,” she said. “We need to start anew.”

Axelson said he doubted much would come out of the meeting or that much would change in the short term.

“I think, though, in the longer term, it’s very likely that a private group with lots of money at their disposal will begin to take initiatives of their own outside of the boundaries that they’ve said they’re going to follow,” he said.

The committee does not plan to draft an advisory resolution calling for any action or change, but instead will give an update on the conservancy to C.B. 2’s full board.