Monday, December 9, 2013

Washington Sq. Park Vendors Demand City Keep Privatization Out Of Park - Further Conservancy Influence Revealed

"The claim that they (the Conservancy) have no influence is ridiculous.  Elizabeth (Ely) was instrumental in making that decision."  -  city source. 

Mohammed Mastafa and Golam Rabbani, brothers originally from Banledesh,  display their Parks Department  permit in front of one of their two food carts currently licensed to vend in Washington Sq. Park.  They have been selling food in the Park for five years,  but not for long.  The City is removing hot dogs and replacing the vendors with high end - sellers.  To add insult to injury for years the Parks Department has refused to refund more than twenty-thousand dollars owed to them as part of their deposit.  The revenue division is overseen by Bloomberg family friend Betsy Smith.  (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on imaes to enlarge.

The group's influence however goes way beyond food vendors, and much further back than previously disclosed NYC Park Advocates has learned.   Conservancy founder Elizabeth Ely was on the interview panel to decide which city employee was going to be hired as the park's new administrator.   


By Geoffrey Croft

First it was the Bloomberg administration illegally  cracking down on musicians playing in one of the City's oldest parks,  this time its hot dogs.

On sunday food vendors, community residents and park advocates gathered in Washington Square Park to denounce the Bloomberg administration's plan to kick out hot dog vendors and replace them with high-end sellers.  A newly formed conservancy made up of wealthy neighbors is being accused of using its influence to make it happen.

The press conference was held to raise awareness in support of immigrant vendors who organizers say have provided inexpensive food options to the area for many years but are on the verge of being evicted after December 31st.  

The group called on Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio to prevent private, corporate and real estate interests from privatizing public spaces like Washington Square Park, and to ensure that  inexpensive food vendors can continue to serve the area.  

Critics held hand lettered signs in several languages - some read Mayor Elect De Blassio Reverse Bloomberg's Privatization of our Public Spaces,  and Hot dog Cart In, Private Influence OUT of Washington Square Park and  Hot dog in Socialites Out on a frigid day.    

Critics wary of yet another public-private park group forming and exerting influence over public park policy say their fears have already come to fruition in Washington Square Park.   

The Washington Square Park Conservancy's high profile board called for the removal of hot dog vendors deeming them “unsightly” according to emails recently uncovered.  

Park watchers and neighborhood residents were already suspicious of the groups' intentions and point to the recent email revelations as further evidence of a lack of transparency and accountability from both the Parks Department and the newly formed conservancy. 

One by one vendors got up and spoke in front of the park's large foundation about the need to have jobs and support families.  

On sunday critics held signs saying,  Mayor Elect De Blassio Reverse Bloomberg's Privatization of our Public Spaces,  and Hot dog Cart In, Private Influence OUT of Washington Square Park and  Hot dog in Socialites Out in several languages in the park. 

Mohammed Mastafa and Golam Rabbani are brothers from Bangladesh and have five children between them.  They moved to New York  24 and 15-years ago respectively and own seven pushcarts including two that have been selling hot dogs and peanuts in the park for five years. 

On Sunday they brought a copy of their Parks Department permit which expires  on Dec. 31st. They say they were given no warning of the agency's recent decision not to renew the permit nor were they given an opportunity to add new items the City is now claiming they want sold.   

To add insult to injury the siblings say for years they have been demanding the return of  more than $ 20,000 dollars owed as part of their deposit but the Parks Department's revenue division has kept it despite repeated requests.  

According to terms of the agreement they were required to pay the city $ 130,000 annually to operate four pushcarts in the park.    A September 18, 2009 notice from the Parks Department however reduced the number of pushcarts to two. 

"The security deposit in the amount of forty thousand five-hundred dollars ($ 40,500) is reduced by fifty percent (50%) accordingly. The balance of twenty-thousand five hundred and fifty dollars ($ 20,250)  may be refunded to the Permittee at the Permittee's written request," the letter states.

"May be refunded, May be refunded,  What is that," asked an angry Rabbani,  a father of two. "This is my money. They are keeping it.  They are not even giving me interest."

Conservancy Influence 

The city is increasingly coming under fire for deals that hand over enormous power and decision making authority to public/private park groups with little transparency and accountability on what is supposed to be public land.   An issue the city pretends does not exist. 

The City and people associated with the Washington Square Park Conservancy have repeatedly tried to claim the group has no influence in the City's hot dog vendor decision but critics say the emails prove otherwise.   

NYC Park Advocates has learned however that the group's influence goes way beyond food venders and reaches as far back to at least the summer of 2012,  a time when the group was privately in discussions with the Manhattan Parks Borough Commissioner Bill Castro to officially form a conservancy.

On The Hot Seat.  Founding Washington Square Park Conservancy board members (from left) Justine Leguizamo, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari and Elizabeth Ely.  The fledgling group had already succeeded in influencing public park policy even on which city emplyee to hire before the group even presented themselves to the public for the first time on June 5, 2013.  (Photo: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates.) 

A year before the group publicly announced its formation plans,  Conservancy founder Elizabeth Ely was on the interview committee to decide the Park Administrator and was instrumental in picking the city employee for the job according to a city source.   

The Washington Square Park Administrator job was posted in July 2012, and interviews were conducted over the next few months.

"The claim that they (the Conservancy) have no influence is ridiculous.  Elizabeth was instrumental in making that decision (on who to hire) ,"  said a city source involved with the interview process.  

"They all seemed to defer to her. I was thinking why is this person even here. Elizabeth was asking all the tough questions. It was clear she would be the person working with who ever was hired."  

The job went to Sarah Neilson,   a Parks Department employee who now serves in a dual role as the conservancy’s executive director.  Sarah was the former chief of staff for Jonna Carmona-Graf,  Chief of Capital program management.

"A lot of qualified people interviewed for the job. Sarah was a clerk in the office. She had no park experience, zero, " said a source,   sentiments that were echoed by several park employees.

"She was a pet in the front office. "

The duel role of city employees simultaneously holding a Park Administrator job while serving as the non-profit's Executive Director has repeatedly raised conflict of interest issues but the city under Mayor Bloomberg and then Parks Commissioner Adrain Benepe have merely blown the concerns off.   

In public, a year after the Park Administrator interviews,   Elizabeth Ely conveyed the party line. 

"We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. The city runs the park,”  Elizabeth Ely said at a Community Board 2 meeting formally announcing the group's creation.

Those gathered in the park on Sunday were not buying it.  
"They say its just to raise money to keep things looking beautiful, but their definition of beauty does not include these vendors,"  Sean Basinski of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center  said of the Washington Square Park Conservancy.

The vendor group organized sunday's event along with Washington Square Blog creator Cathryn Swan.

“The park is a public space. It’s not their private backyard, and so they don’t get to control who’s here. The city does, and we think it’s a city of immigrants, and workers, and regular folks like these hot dog vendors who have been here for a long time.” 

Despite repeated requests the Parks Department refused to answer any questions including commenting on the deposit money owed; why the brothers were not  asked to submit a proposal with a "diverse selection of food choices" as the city is now claiming one of the reasons for the switch;  if hot vendors  are being displaced for ice cream sandwich concessions in other park locations;  Whether or not  the new ice cream concession Melt was chosen through an RFP and how much they are paying;   

The City however may already be backing down -  based not on sound decisions being made before the issue was revealed publicly -  but instead as usual on negative media attention.

“We will be assessing the public’s desires for what foods they would like to see . . . as we determine what mobile foods — including hot dogs — may be offered, and where in the park they will be located,” a Parks spokesman said.

Actor John Leguizamo spoke in favor of his wife's project at a Community Board 2 meeting on June 5th, 2013. (Photo: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates.) Click on image to enlarge

Meanwhile actor John Leguizamo and his wife Justine have taken to Twitter to defend the newly formed non-profit and deny claims of the group's power and infleunce in the city's desion.

  1. FOR DOG'S SAKE! Nothing better to do with your life? Let Moon Mohammad stay in Washington Square!
  2. the conservancy has no power over policy in the park. If you want something done, go to manhattan parks dept. come volunteer!

  3. I 'volunteer' in a way via blog, becomes important when misleading info presented to public. Hope for more future transparency.

  1. Email obtained says otherwise. These decisions were not made until private conservancy gained influence at WSP.
  2. : as a real New Yorker you should be ashamed of this. ”I'm ashamed you believe that hooey
  3. : can you have a chat with to let Moon Dogs stay in the park?”we love cart food
  4. : can you have a chat with conservancy has no power to ban anyone!! Talk to manhattan parks dept
  5. : so what did happen?" The parks department did it. We have no power but to raise money for improvements
  6. : so what did happen?”we had nothing to do with it. The park did it on their own and we became the scapegoat
  7. : you can take john out of the ghetto and you "CAN" take the ghetto outta john.”I wanna keep the hot dog guy
  8. : Great reporting by Wash Sq Pk blog on how rich Conservancy people kicked hot dog vendors out of park"but it never happened
  9. : you can take john out of the ghetto and you "CAN" take the ghetto outta john. #KeepTheHotDogGuyBro#Shady”not true
    1. you can take john out of the ghetto and you "CAN" take the ghetto outta john. #KeepTheHotDogGuyBro#Shady
: you can take john out of the ghetto and you "CAN" #KeepTheHotDogGuyBro#Shady”its a big slanderous lie!

One of two push carts  in Washington Square Park slated to be removed by January 1st.

Some of the attendees and organizers at sunday's event. 

Read More

A Walk In The Park - December 8, 2013 - By Geoffrey Croft

WNBC - December 8, 2013 By  Sheldon Dutes

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