Conservancy wants to help the park, not run it, they say

Enjoying another glorious day in Washington Square Park, from left: Sarah Neilson, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari, Betsey Ely and Justine Leguizamo. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  They have their Twitter account up and they’re tweeting. Their Web site went live two weeks ago. This past summer, they hired a playground associate to improve kids’ playtime.

But they need more volunteers, and they’re also pushing for a late-night trash pickup.

“I’d love to buy a power washer for the benches — and a Zamboni for the pavings,” Betsey Ely interjected, as her colleagues broke up in laughter. “The park workers would love that.”

While a Zamboni is a familiar sight smoothing down the ice at Rangers hockey games — who knows? — maybe someday one of the massive machines really will be polishing the park’s pavement to a pristine sheen.

Photo by Tequila Minsky Betsey Ely checked out shrubs as her fellow conservancy members joined her in the park. Dense growth keeps outs weeds, Ely noted.
Betsey Ely checked out shrubs as her fellow conservancy members joined her in the park. Dense growth keeps outs weeds, Ely noted.   Photo by Tequila Minsky

The steering committee members of the fledgling Washington Square Conservancy gathered at Cafe Nadery on W. Eighth St. last week to give The Villager an update on what they’ve been up to for the past four months. Along with Ely, the group’s chairperson, they included Veronica Bulgari, a member of the famed luxury-goods family; Gwen Evans; and Justine Leguizamo, wife of actor John Leguizamo.

The conservancy was approved by Community Board 2 at the board’s June meeting. Before the vote, there was copious testimony from the public both for and against the plan, after which C.B. 2 members themselves then engaged in a vigorous debate on the issue. A last-ditch effort by Keen Berger to pass a substitute resolution delaying the board’s vote until the fall, so they could learn more about the conservancy proposal, failed for lack of support. Rich Caccappolo, chairperson of C.B. 2’s Parks Committee, had already stated that he strongly opposed his committee having any more hearings on the issue.

However, both Assemblymember Deborah Glick and state Senator Brad Hoylman had raised concerns about the conservancy, saying they wanted to hear more concrete details about it before C.B. 2’s vote. But after the vote, David Gruber, the board’s chairperson, said Glick’s questions were answered at the June full-board meeting. Glick subsequently told The Villager that, no, they weren’t.

At any rate, the conservancy is now established and up and running. Opponents’ main fear about the group is that it will ultimately start dictating park policy. But the four steering committee members made it clear that’s not something they want to do. With them last week was Sarah Neilson, Washington Square Park’s new administrator, who also is the conservancy’s executive director. While critics object to the “blurred line” between Neilson’s dual roles, the steering committee members said they’ll basically rely on Neilson’s expertise to help them in their efforts to keep the park looking good: Neilson, as they put it, will “ID where the effort of the conservancy can best go.”

Added Neilson, “I get one salary and it’s from the Parks Department.”

A Zamboni, at least for Ely, may be a project for the future.

“That is not a short-term goal,” noted Evans, the group’s treasurer.

“We’re dreaming big!” Ely said, laughing.

“We’re not talking about gold-plating the park,” Evans said, “just keep it looking nice and supplement” the city’s funding.

For right now, one of their primary pushes is to boost the number of people helping out in the park.

“We’d like to have a large pool of volunteers,” Evans said.

As Ely described it, the volunteers will pitch in with things like “planting bulbs, weeding the beds — mostly horticulture.”

Fridays, the hands-on Ely can be found in the park doing weeding.

“In two hours, I weed an area about the size of this restaurant,” she noted.

Added Neilson, “We would be interested in volunteer photography — to document the beds, and also an event photographer.”

History is another area the conservancy wants to explore, and is something they would put up on their Web site to make publicly accessible.

“There used to be a banjo group in the park in the ’50s,” Ely noted.

They also post general information on the site, such as a notice for the upcoming Dachshund Friendship Gathering on Sat., Oct. 5, from noon to 2 p.m. (Singing starts at 1 p.m.)

Also already on their Web page is a Q&A with their recent summer playground associate. It cost the conservancy $7,500 to employ the man, a college student, for two months, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Next summer, they hope to have a younger playground associate for four months.

As for their overall budget, their goal is to fundraise $100,000 for this first fiscal year, largely from friends and volunteers.

“There is no minimum and no maximum,” Bulgari, the group’s president, said of the amounts they’ll accept.

Speaking of figures, they also did a number count of people passing through the park during the summer. On a Saturday in July right before the heat wave, 30,000 people went through the park.

All four members live within the several blocks north of the park, yet none of them actually overlook it. With the exception of Ely, they’re generally not interested in talking about themselves, rather about the park and how they plan to help it.

“We’re members of the community with a shared passion for the park,” Leguizamo said.

Three of them have lived near the square from seven to 12 years, while Ely has lived there more than 40 years. Originally from Canada, she married a folk singer and came to New York.

“It was the ’60s, it was fun, I wanted to get out of Canada,” she said. “I moved here in ’68 and raised both kids in the park. They played on the mounds.”

The quirky mounds — Downtown’s only hills to speak of — will be reborn in the final phase of the park’s renovation.

“One mound is elevated. Another goes down, with rope play,” Ely said, trying to explain what their new incarnations will look like. But no one can absolutely say for sure.

“We didn’t design them. We don’t really know,” Evans admitted. “We’re neutral on the mounds.”

More to the point, they maintained, they’re also neutral on the operation of the park.

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

Asked later on what they think, for example, of the park’s buskers, Evans responded, “We think it’s great. We think it’s what makes Washington Square unique.”

The Parks Department has been making moves to restrict busking in the parks as a commercial activity.

Washington Square generally is looking good, but it can look even better, they feel.

“The community loves the park and I think that’s why they make such an effort to keep it clean,” Leguizamo, the group’s secretary, pointed out.

“It’s not that garbage isn’t an issue,” Evans noted. “We’ve been looking to get an extra late-night pickup after 7 p.m. It’s a priority for us.”

As for their name, “conservancy” seemed to be the only option available. “Alliance” was already taken by the Village Alliance business improvement district, while “Friends of” was taken by the Friends of Washington Square, a fundraising branch of the Washington Square Association.

Ely noted that even Tompkins Square Park has a conservancy — the East Village Parks Conservancy.

“Eventually,” said Bulgari, “we decided not to get hung up on the word.”

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.”

“We didn’t feel it was rushed,” Ely said. “We met with everybody who wanted to meet. We met with the Parks Committee, we met with Gruber.”

Bulgari stressed that all their efforts are simply in addition to what the Parks Department is providing.

“Anything we’re putting forward is extra,” she said. “It’s supplemental.”

Said Evans, “With the beautiful renovation they did, the park was already starting to look a little rundown. So we are willing to supplement — plantings, garbage pickups and playground associate.”

As Neilson explained it, this “model” of a nonprofit fundraising group is being used in parks around New York City, such as Riverside Park and Fort Tryon Park.

If people have concerns about the conservancy, Leguizamo said, they can come to the steering committee members and they’ll relay them to Neilson. Neilson is currently based at Manhattan Parks headquarters in Columbus Circle.

Washington Square’s park building is slated for completion in October or November. It will contain the men’s and women’s restrooms, the park supervisor’s office, the pump room for the fountain and a locker room for the park staff. The foundations of the park’s former three buildings have not been expanded, so as not to disturb the underground archaeological remains; formerly, Washington Square was a potter’s field and 20,000 bodies remain interred beneath it.

The new park building will span, like a bridge, over the three foundation sites; it will have geothermal energy and solar panels.

Along with the completion of the new park building, the third and final phase of the park’s redesign will also see the opening of a large new lawn just north of it, where the large dog run was formerly. The dog run, which recently reopened, has been relocated south of the park building. This new lawn will get a lot of sun and sport lush grass, since it’s free of trees, the conservancy members noted.

For her part, Neilson said she feels lucky to have the job of overseeing Washington Square.

“As a new administrator, it is such an amazing park,” she stated. “Every time I walk through it, I am amazed and happy to be there. It is gorgeous and everyone is having a good time. It is such an honor.”

It’s a landmark whose renown is worldwide, Bulgari affirmed, noting, “It’s an international park as well as a neighborhood park.”

Although Washington Square used to be taken out of public use at least one day a year for New York University’s commencement, the school now uses Citi Field stadium in Queens, and doesn’t plan to return the graduation to the Village park.

“They’re too big,” Evans said.

“They wanted to have a venue where they could bring more than just two people” per graduating student, Neilson noted.

As for the new park conservancy, if it finds itself with a surplus of funds, they’ll be happy to take input from the community on how to use it. This first year, however, they expect they’ll just be busy getting things set up.

“We’re a work in progress,” Bulgari said.

They then walked over to the park for a photo shoot. Ely couldn’t help but check on the state of some of the plantings.

Touching a shrub with pink blossoms not far from the arch, she said contentedly, “The spiraea is blooming again.”


For more information or to volunteer, visit  https://washingtonsquareparkconservancy.org.