Washington Square Park Administrator Departs; Search on for New WSP and Union Square Park Administrator

Updated — Scoopy’s Notebook in The Villager first reported on Thursday that Rebecca Ferguson, park administrator for Washington Square Park, has left the building, so to speak. Ms. Ferguson arrived about the time this blog began, sometime in early 2008 as Phase I of the park’s redesign first got underway. I’m sure it was not always an easy job maneuvering between the city’s Parks Department’s ‘wishes’ and the community’s. As time went on, she seemed a little less congenial but mostly cordial and efficient. It was clear she had a mixed response to this blog. The Villager says she’s gone off to a “plum job with the National Parks Service” (I have to wonder who the source was – “plum job?”). Ms. Ferguson began with just Washington Square under her purview. At some point in the last few years, she was also given oversight as administrator over Union Square Park.

The Village Voice is wondering who will replace Ms. Ferguson and therefore oversee Union Square and Washington Square. However, I’d say the Voice is stretching a bit in saying that Ferguson was somehow behind or at all instrumental in the “crackdowns” at Union Square (for artists) and Washington Square (for musicians). That was clearly coming from up ‘above’ in the ranks at the Parks Department. I do agree that it’s worth paying ‘attention’ to who is chosen as her replacement.

Victoria Bekiempis at The Voice writes:

However, there’s good reason to pay attention to this kind of development (as boringly administrative and bureaucratic as might seem) , even though it’s still unconfirmed.

As we have been reporting, Parks and Rec recently has seen its fair share of scandal and shakeups.

Aside from three lawsuits on the issue of artist vendors, longtime Commish Adrian Benepe quit in June, and will be replaced by Veronica M. White.

Because she has no related experience whatsoever, White has been billed as the “Cathie Black” of parks.

In addition to heat faced by these top honchos, it’s important to point out that Ferguson has also gotten flak.

Not only are Washington and Union Square Parks largely the epicenter of the artist-vendor controversy — some have criticized Ferguson’s management for failing to protect parkgoers’ safety.

This last bit was in relation to Union Square and some problems the park was experiencing although I’d never seen her name linked to that. With the presence of the Union Square Partnership, the BID “overseeing” the park, I’m not sure how the responsibilities were shared, what was brought to the attention of her bosses at the Parks Department, how they responded, etc., so I would be hesitant to criticize for that.

At the end of the day, it will be interesting to see how long it takes to find a replacement, will that person handle both parks at the onset, and who will it be. It is an important job and helps Washington Square Park run smoothly — that person oversees pretty much everything that goes on (whether on site or not), schedules events, handles maintenance and care of the park, etc. — and it’s often, it seems, done on close to a shoe string budget. (Note: I don’t really know this for sure but issues of maintenance have been mentioned before.)

The Parks Department’s budget has been cut by the Mayor(s) and the City Council by about 2/3rds over the last 20 years and needs to be increased so they are not endlessly privatizing our parks. If money was spent on maintenance and upkeep the way it has been, during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, on splashy redesigns and other schemes, our parks would be in much better shape overall.

That being said, I wish Rebecca Ferguson well and we’ll see what happens next!

(Links to be added.)

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Taste of the Village at the Park – Recap

Updated 10/30 — So, “Taste of the Village,” happened in mid-September at the Park, hosted by the Village Alliance, the 8th Street BID. This post about the event got delayed due to dying trees, stalled construction and the occupying of Washington Square Park. Since I try to mix it up a bit here, even a bit late, I wanted to report back on the event.

Readers of WSP Blog know that I am not in favor of the trend of privatization of public space — which has increased greatly under the Bloomberg Administration — that includes endless reliance on the model of park conservancies and BIDs – business improvement districts – to either oversee or be entrusted with funding and programming at parks.

We could certainly tie the Village Alliance (the BID from nearby 8th Street) among those pushing at the onset to dramatically redesign the park, particularly under former director Honi Klein. (Klein, inexplicably, also held a position on Community Board 2). There’s a new executive director at the Alliance now, William Kelley, who seems a little more of the times.

This was the first “Taste of the Village” — which is considered a “benefit” to raise funds forthe park and has taken place for the last 9 years — under his watch. I thought it might be nice to experience the event. Kelley accommodated my request to attend and here are some photos and commentary.

8th Street Stalwart Eva's

The Lion on University Place

Mario Batali's GelOtto

Band at the Event

The Fountain in the background

wine tasting

Caviar Pie from Knickerbocker Bar & Grill

George Washington looks on

Set between the Arch and taking over part of the Fountain Plaza with the Fountain in the background, the evening focused on tables laid out with sampling – tastings – from local or nearby restaurants. There was a strong emphasis on meat dishes with only two vegetarian and onetwo fish options. The fish, fluke I believe, from Perilla on Jones Street was quite good. (I don’t eat meat so, in my opinion, Taste of the Village could nix a few meat dishes and add some other more vegetarian-friendly options.) There were vendors offering wine – red, white and rose – as a band played against the backdrop of the fountain.

Tastings included offerings from local restaurants and businesses such as Alma, Eva’s, La Palapa, 8th Street Wine Cellar, Gusto, Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, BLT Burger, The Lion, Otto and Argo and Rob’s Really Good Teas (which I really like).

The ticket price was $50 and director William Kelley says that about 400 people attended (did it seem that high? I’m not sure). He said that typically the organization raises about $50,000 for the park (includes money from sponsors).

People I noted by sight were members of Community Board 2 and also the city’s Parks Department. I was surprised that there was no talk or introduction as to why people were there — but maybe that was for the best. Overall, it was a festive soiree and those attending seemed to enjoy it.

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Still, it raises questions – We have a city public space undergoing a redesign that started out with a budget of $16 millionwhich many felt was already unnecessarily high. Now, we see that the projected costs have skyrocketed to double that. If money had been properly allocated and monitored to begin with, would we really need private forces to be raising money to upkeep the park?

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Photos #4, 5, 7, 8: David Sigal

Photos #1, 2, 3, 6, 9: Cathryn

Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks

Last year there were numerous creative actions by Save Union Square/Union Square Not For Sale aiming to stop the placement of a private restaurant within Union Square Park‘s north end pavilion. The pavilion had long been closed. It was the focal point of the first Labor Day parade and other historic events, and later used extensively for musical, children and community activities.

The model for all things successful about a city park concession often leads people to point to Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. But is that such a good model to follow?

WNYC.com set out to find out with the piece, “Shake Shack $$$: Bad for City Parks?. It reveals what the “executive directors” of conservancies at some of the tonier parks get paid (Friends of the High Line head Robert Hammond takes home $280,000 a year) and how the popular Shake Shack, as a concessionaire in Madison Square Park, has paid a smaller amount of its $4.9 million a year revenues to the city than most.

City park concessions typically return up to 20% of their revenues back to the city. Meyer’s deal allows him to pay only 12%. In addition, Meyer caters private events at the park from which his company makes up to $15,000 an hour, according to the WNYC piece by Arun Venogopal which references Patrick Arden’s well-researched article “The High Cost of Free Parks.”

Due to the Bloomberg Administration’s over-reliance on private funding in city parks and the administration’s overarching belief that this can take the place of proper funding allocated from the city budget, the Parks Department is in sad shape. This is greatly affecting parks in poorer areas, which don’t have the good fortune of being in high value destinations for real estate and commerce.

Some alarming information follows:

In 1960 parks maintenance and operations claimed 1.4 percent of city funds. Mayor Bloomberg’s new $63.6 billion budget would send parks’ percentage to a record low of 0.37 percent, or $239 million. (Chicago spent almost $150 million more last year on 21,000 fewer acres.)

WSP Blog Note: Really…? Do we want Chicago outpacing us?

The mayor’s cut would drop the full-time workforce below 3,000, less than half the number employed by the Parks Department in 1970. “No other city agency has lost a greater percentage of its workforce over the last 40 years,” says [Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates]. “Private money will never make that up.”

[Patrick] Arden and parks advocates say the “Golden Age for Parks” that Adrian Benepe claims is more like a Gilded Age, “with wide — and growing — disparities between lavish, showplace parks for the haves and cast-off parcels for the have-nots. For every Madison Square, Bryant Park or High Line, there are hundreds of parks that depend solely on the city, and many suffer from scandalous neglect.”

(more…)

Daily Metro Reports Parks Department Says “No Way” to Anonymous Wealthy Donors’ Plans to “better” Washington Sq Park with their private security Force

Daily paper Metro NY checked in with the NYC Parks Department about yesterday’s report in the New York Post that wealthy but anonymous donors, in addition to New York University, acting as part of a self-appointed entity called “The Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park,” were scheduled to hire private “off duty NYPD” cops to police Washington Square Park.  

From today’s Metro:

The Parks Department would not consider such a proposal,” a Parks spokeswoman said. “The NYPD is responsible for crime prevention throughout the city, including in all parks.”

She noted that one member of the Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park — a group of block associations, Fifth Avenue co-ops and others“expressed interest” in raising money to hire off-duty officers, but said the park is already staffed by Park Enforcement Patrol officers paid for, in part, by NYU

It does raise the question why Gil Horowitz, et al. (we don’t know who the “et al.” are because they won’t reveal who they are!) were so sure their plan was going to proceed and be implemented that they allowed themselves to be quoted extensively in the Post.  I imagine they considered that story quite a feather in their cap.  So… despite the supposed nixing of the private security, will their plans to pay for “maintenance” in the park proceed?  And will they still be meeting with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe as stated in the article?  There’s probably more to this story, don’t ya think?

Photographer Stacy Walsh Rosenstock weighed in with her thoughts in response to WSP Blog’s post on the topic yesterday with yet another insightful comment:

A security force to protect “the investments made in the park?” Perhaps there’s a dastardly plan to move the fountain 23 feet to the west? Lounge on a closed lawn? Or worse, walk on one of the chain fences?

And what will these security patrols do when they do apprehend such quality of life offenders? Issue a citizen’s violation? Isn’t hiring private security forces to monitor all the plain clothes and under cover police posing as criminals in the park like the tail wagging the dog?

But just to add to the equation, wasn’t Washington Square Park one of the first locations to have NYPD surveillance cameras installed back during the Giuliani administration? Maybe the primary function of this new security patrol can polish the lenses of the surveillance cameras.

“Bidding adieu to BIDS” — on the Business Improvement Districts in New York City

The Brooklyn Paper takes a look this week in an editorial, “Bidding Adieu to BIDS,” at the formation in the ’70’s of the Business Improvement District, an entity which has become increasingly popular in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. According to the weekly, there are 60 “quasi public” BIDS, as they are called, throughout the five boroughs.

As I’ve written here before, these organizations play a complex role in neighborhoods, taking over services the City itself should be providing, while spreading their tentacles outward in ways that are never quite as harmless as they may seem.

One newly formed BID — which is experiencing a mini-revolt amidst local business owners — is along Fulton Street in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. The businesses are being asked to pay a second “new city tax that would fund enhanced sanitation, policing and other basic services.” From the Brooklyn Paper editorial:

Taxes on business owners within the so-called “BIDs” raise $80 million — on top of the taxes already taking a bite out of Mom and Pop.

We’re not naive as to why BIDs were created two decades ago. The city was not — and, indeed, is still not — doing a good enough job providing sanitation and security along some of our busiest commercial strips. With the city abrogating these most basic of services, business owners jumped into the breach, taxing themselves to make up for the failure of our elected leaders to ensure clean and safe streets.

In the case of Fulton Street, another issue is arising in the debate. The anti-BID merchants argue that a BID’s cleaner and safer streets actually speed the gentrification process. … In a sense, the business owners forming a BID would actually be paying to speed their own demise.

… We agree with the BID renegades on the issue of who should pay to keep our neighborhoods clean, safe and vibrant. To us, this is solely a city responsibility.

Although the Brooklyn Paper almost comes out in favor of gentrification in their Editorial, claiming it’s all about “change,” the rest of the information is on point.

For more on the Business Improvement Districts and their negative consequences, see previous WSP blog post: Parks for Sale and the Privatization of our Public Spaces by Robert Lederman which looks at the Business Improvement District, the (purposefully) mildly named Union Square Partnership, which oversees – and has total control over – Union Square Park.

For more on the Business Improvement District around Washington Square, the also benignly named Village Alliance (formerly the 8th Street BID), see recent WSP Blog post here.

What we need are COMMUNITY Improvement Districts!

Union Square Partnership’s Harvest Gala v. Citizen Chefs – Union Square Park 9/18

The people come marchin' to defend their Park

The people come marchin'

Thursday night. Union Square. The setting of Union Square Partnership’s Harvest in the Square, an annual gala held by the ubiquitous BID (Business Improvement District). Although their promotional materials stated the gala would inhabit the “west plaza” of Union Square Park, in reality, they took over half of the south plaza as well, including the area surrounding the George Washington Statue. Billed as the “premiere food and wine tasting event,” tickets ranged from $125 to $400 for VIP early bird event.

The BID — the ones who want to put a private exclusive restaurant in the historic Union Square Pavilion, thereby shutting off more public space — is led by Jennifer Falk. Falk previously worked for Mayor Bloomberg. (Funny how it’s just a game of musical chairs at times.) Co-chair of the BID is restauranteur Danny Meyer.

I don’t think they were prepared for the festive arrival of Reverend Billy and assorted citizen chef/passionate public space advocates who came out to chant their message and bang some pots and pans saying ‘no giveaway of our public space’ – as we watched our public space taken over by the BID for their harvest gala.

Police And Onlookers

Police And Onlookers

Reverend Billy was arrested as was another activist – I believe both charges were “disorderly conduct.” Reverend Billy was addressing the attendees of the gala through a megaphone about the takeover of our public space when he was escorted away. The other activist had the audacity? to crumple up a flyer and throw it over the fence. A random act of (at the most) littering somehow becomes “disorderly conduct.”

People sitting around Union Square all curiously watched and eagerly took flyers which stated “Parks for People – Not for Profit.” We’ve all gotten so buttoned-down in New York. How often do you see such a creative action? All too infrequently.

Oh, and yes, our NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, was there and addressed the crowd at the gala event. I think his speech may have been, um, overshadowed by the sound of the citizen chefs (and their pots, pans, and chants) however. All too fitting.

The BIDs in more recent years have gotten more sophisticated and yet wish to appear ‘just like us.’ A part of the community. The Union Square BID is a 501(c)3 non-profit — something we link with advocacy groups, not organizations trying to promote more shopping. Around Washington Square Park, the BID – previously known as The 8th Street BID – changed its name to the Village Alliance. Doesn’t that sound neighborly?

Rev Billy addresses Gala

Rev Billy addresses Gala

Photos: #1 and 2: Quilty; #3 and 4: Cathryn

Tonite Thursday, September 18th, 6 p.m. At Union Square Park: “Citizen Chefs Cookin’ Up Change” and Harvest Gala : 2 divergent messages

CITIZEN CHEFS COOKING UP CHANGE!
to Keep Parks for People NOT for Profit

Thurs Sept 18, 6 pm * Union Square Park, NYC
Meet near George Washington Statue On Plaza, South end of the park (14th Street)

Union Square Not for Sale will provide chefs hats –
Bring your own pots & pans and something to bang with!
Come in costume if you like – black pants, white shirts, bow ties…
Bring a bike if you’d like to join the ChefBlock Bike Brigade

* KEEP UNION SQUARE PARK PUBLIC *
Info below from Union Square Not for Sale:

Context:
The Union Square Partnership is selling out one of our most important public spaces, the pavilion on the north side of Union Square, site of seminal speeches from Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day and many many more AND one of the last remaining public assembly areas in the city. Tonight, they hold their yearly Harvest In the Square private gala in the park. Gather to say:

NO the Union Square Pavilion can not be an upscale restaurant
NO our precious public resources cannot be auctioned off to the highest bidder
NO to conditional anonymous donations and for-profit enterprise in our public parks
NO to Danny Meyer, Jennifer Falk and the Union Square Partnership takeover of this park

YES to transparency and full disclosure
YES to public spaces in public spaces
YES to community use in public parks

YES to public space, community, and democracy.

Without community space, there can be no democracy.

******************************************************
My previous post 9/15 here elaborated on this event.

Danny Meyer chairing gala event in Union Square Park Thursday 9/18 – and Citizen Chefs Cooking Up Change will be there too.

The USP BID chair, Danny Meyer

The USP BID chair, Danny Meyer

Updated 9/16!

Union Square Not for Sale moves into the fall season with a bang! (literally) when Citizen Chefs Cooking Up Change meets up Thursday night, September 18th, as restauranteur Danny Meyer co-chairs Harvest in the Square in Union Square Park.

Billed as “a festive celebration of community and cuisine,” Harvest in the Square is presented by the Union Square Partnership — the local BID, business improvement district (which Meyer also co-chairs). Described as “Manhattan’s premier food and wine tasting event,” tickets are $115; $125 at the door. VIP pre-event starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $400.

The BID states: “Great Food. Great Fun. Great Fundraiser. Everyone leaves feeling Great.

Well, isn’t that … um, GREAT?

Except… they are taking over our public space (already threatened) for a private event.

Except… Our public parks should be funded by our City budget and not a private organization which then retains incredible control over the public space. The New York City budget allocate less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the entire budget to Parks and public spaces. Yet these areas comprise 14% of City land.

Except… Union Square Partnership is interested in “beautification efforts” to help improve businessaround Union Square. We are interested in public space, interactions, people, community, art, conversation, politics in Union Square.

Except… Union Square Partnership wants to place a private restaurant in the historic Union Square Pavilion thereby closing off the public space and catering to an “exclusive” clientele, off-limits to many New Yorkers. (At the moment, a judge has ordered a “no-restaurant” decree on the space.)

Except… Union Square is a PUBLIC SPACE, and like Washington Square Park, it is important that it be regarded AS an important public space. It’s not just about beautification as these architects and realtors and business people would have us believe. Once you gloss everything over, you lose the gritty, you lose the bohemianism, you lose the unique indescribable interactions that can occur in these places when you gear the space for one type of person (which is happening at both these parks).

Except… Everyone becomes a bit more Stepford. No offense to Mayor Bloomberg (although regular readers know I am not a fan) but our CEO Mayor needs to stay out of our public spaces. Our Boston-raised Mayor is not the model for how to keep New York New York. How to keep Wall Street Wall Street and keep us believing that the Financial District is the most important thing for our city? That he does quite well.

So, come on out ! ******************************

EVERYONE IS INVITED to one of our premier public spaces, UNION SQUARE! (it’s free!)

CITIZEN CHEFS COOKING UP CHANGE * Keep Parks for People NOT for Profit

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH, 6 P.M.

UNION SQUARE SOUTH – GEORGE WASHINGTON STATUE (SOUTH END, AT 14TH STREET, ON PLAZA)

Bring some pots and pans (and something to bang on them with) and your spirit (or just bring yourself).

Attire: Festive — &/or Come in costume – black pants, white shirts, bow ties… Union Square Not for Sale will provide chef’s hats.

Context:
The Union Square Partnership is selling out one of our most important public spaces, the pavilion on the north side of Union Square, site of seminal speeches from Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day and many many more, rally site of the first Labor Day Parade, AND one of the last remaining public assembly areas in the city.

More Info: Union Square Not for Sale.

Union Square Park “Push Back Picnic” Takes on Danny Meyer and Union Square Cafe

Outside Union Square Cafe July 2ndBearing Trees!Outside Union Sq Cafe July 2ndThe “Push Back Picnic” presented by Union Square Not For Sale/Community Improvement District(CID) occurred at Union Square Park yesterday and contained a bit of a surprise for restauranteur and Union Square Partnership co-chair Danny Meyer. Union Square Partnership is the local BID(business improvement district) and has tremendous influence over what goes on at Union Square Park. It is their plan that aspires to place a private restaurant in the historic Pavilion at Union Square.

The picnic began on the lawn at Union Square near the Abraham Lincoln statue on the northern end. There was preaching by Reverend Billy, singing by Community Improvement District/”Church of Stop Shopping” choir, petition signing (to stop the building of a restaurant in the historic Pavilion and further privatization of the Park) and watermelon!

Then, a large contingent, including a marching band, carrying trees marched through the Park and along 16th Street until they came to Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. Reverend Billy, Savitri D. and others sauntered in bringing with them the trees to the surprise of stunned diners and restaurant staff. Their message: “Union Square, Not For Sale.” The Park is pushing back.

Not surprisingly (although they were in there for a pret-ty long time), they were then asked to leave by management and also undercover policemen who came in to the restaurant from the street. After having delivered the message, Reverend Billy laid sod and trees down on the sidewalk outside the front restaurant window and put Danny Meyer on notice:

The BID has had enough influence on the Park; the community is pushing back and reclaiming our public spaces. A large sign appeared in front of the Cafe: “Union Square Community Pushes Back.” There was chanting. “Union Square. Not for Sale.” The lively group then marched and chanted its way along 16th Street back to the Park.

Really not enough of this type action goes on in our city right now. Diners seated outside at the Blue Water Grill and the Coffee Shop, both on the corners of Union Square West, watched in awe, took pictures, some chanted along.

What is up with Community Board 2? Approves NYU’s demolition plans for 133-139 MacDougal Street / Provincetown Playhouse despite widespread community disapproval

Manhattan Community Board 2 voted 37-1 (with 2 abstentions) to approve NYU’s proposal to demolish 133-139 MacDougal Street, the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments.

Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation(GVSHP) noted, at last week’s general meeting(June 19), speaker after speaker spoke out against NYU’s demolition plans and ONLY NYU and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer‘s office spoke in favor of demolishing the Provincetown Playhouse and yet the Community Board voted with them.

Who exactly does the Community Board represent?

After NYU’s initial plans to totally demolish the historic Playhouse were revealed, heated protest caused the University to back down – somewhat. According to GVSHP, NYU “did agree to preserve the four walls and entry facade of the theater portion of the building, although NYU originally claimed there was nothing worth preserving about the theater.”

The Real Deal, a real estate blog, wrote about the history of the building:

“The building, originally four separate townhouses, was combined in the early 1940s. In 1916, the Provincetown Players, including playwright Eugene O’Neill, called 139 Macdougal Street home, and two years later moved three houses down to its current home at 133 Macdougal. The Players, famous for experimental theater, book-ended the four houses with fellow radicals living in between them.

In the early 1900s, the Washington Square Bookshop promoted modern literature at 135 Macdougal. Next door at 137 Macdougal stood the Liberal Club, the self-proclaimed ‘Meeting Place for Those Interested in New Ideas,’ whose famous members included Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and Margaret Sanger.”

The article notes that, “… the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation deemed [the location] eligible for historic preservation this week.” NYU’s plans include a new building “with two extra floors to be used by its School of Law.”

Andrew Berman, head of GVSHP, commented: “Unfortunately there seem to be a little too much eagerness [by the Community Board] to accommodate NYU at the expense of our neighborhood’s history and character.”

Then, if you look at their track record on Washington Square Park, Community Board 2 voted twice in favor of the “renovation” of Washington Square Park again despite widespread community disapproval.

The Board eventually rescinded their approval when the New York City Parks Department’s lack of transparency and withholding of information became impossible to ignore.

That being said, neither Community Board Chair Brad Hoylman, nor NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, seem to remember that the “approval” was rescinded. The Community Board chairs are often seen featured in photos with Commissioner Benepe and the BID (Business Improvement District) members holding checks towards the Park’s redesign.

So, who exactly does the Community Board represent?