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John Leguizamo Speaks Up for Proposed Washington Sq. Park Conservancy

 The comedian and actor, who lives in the Village, supports the formation of a conservancy for Washington Square Park. Critics say it would privatize the park, wresting control away from ordinary people.
John Leguizamo at Village Community Meeting
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WEST VILLAGE — Better known for his comedy routines than his community activism, performer John Leguizamo threw his support Wednesday behind a disputed plan to create a conservancy for Washington Square Park that provide additional upkeep at the iconic public space.

The planned conservancy — proposed by Leguizamo's wife, Justine Leguizamo, and a group of three other Village residents that includes Bulgari jewelry executive Veronica Bulgari — would provide supplemental gardening, sanitation and security services in the bustling green space.

John Leguizamo, a 48-year-old Village resident, attended a Community Board 2 meeting Wednesday night and described visiting the park since his childhood. Growing up, he watched moms sit at the park every day to try to reclaim it from "drug dealers and hooligans," he said to the crowd.

"I applaud anyone who takes action to make the park better, safer and more beautiful," he said.

Parks Department Manhattan Borough Commissioner Bill Castro said Wednesday that the formation of the conservancy, a public-private partnership for which the Parks Department needs to give final approval, would secure reliable funding despite vagaries of the city budget.

"It would be a shame, a real shame, to see this park fall prey to the normal things that happen with city parks," he said. "The benefit and the outcome of [the conservancy] will be you can have a park you are consistently proud of."

But critics at the meeting attended by more than 100 people said formation of the conservancy risks the loss of control of the public park to private interests. The conservancy would be funded by foundations and private donors, while its adminstrator would be paid a salary by the city.

"This is very fishy," longtime Community Board 2 member Keen Berger said. "The community board's power is being undercut by this conservancy."

Others asked what could prevent NYU from paying the conservancy to take over the park for private events, pointing to decades-old "friends" groups that have supported the green space. They asked why the Parks Department was not suggesting giving these groups the same power as the conservancy, for which Parks Department administrator Sarah Neilson would serve as director.

Geoffrey Croft of New York City Parks Advocates argued that the Parks Department should be responsible for equitably distributing resources to keep the park beautiful.

"All New Yorkers deserve quality parks, not just those who can pay extra," he said.

Conservancy board member Elizabeth Ely said anyone can be on the board of the group or volunteer on a committee.

Responding to accusations of secrecy regarding the formation of the group, CB2 chair David Gruber said the conservancy has been discussed by board members since last summer.

CB2 will vote on a resolution advising the Parks Department about the conservancy at the CB2 full board meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 20.