To the New York City Council on NYC Parks Department

The New York City Council Parks Committee held Preliminary hearings on the Parks Department budget yesterday, March 19th. My testimony follows.

We would have liked to have heard some hard hitting questions from the City Council members to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe but that did not occur. Perhaps we can work on this for the Final Budget hearings in May.

Note: I would have liked to have covered the proposed tree destruction and privatization in Union Square Park, dangerous artificial turf in parks across our city, the attempted privatization of Randall’s Island, the mass destruction of trees for Yankee Stadium, etc. — I focused on Washington Square Park as I think it is representative of the Parks Department’s reckless abandon and I think it is an area in which the City Council needs to – and can – intervene.

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I am concerned about the Parks Department and the privatization of our parks but I’d like to specifically focus on what’s happening at Washington Square Park.

The New York City Council needs to hold oversight hearings on what’s transpired at Washington Square Park.

It should not be up to lawsuits to be the only method that holds the Parks Department accountable to transparency and honesty.

The Parks Department did not reveal essential elements of their plans before going before local Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission – and gaining their initial approval. These are part of our checks & balances and if the information is flawed, then the process will be.

The Parks Department went before the community stating that there would only be a 5% reduction in public space.

The existing entire plaza is 51,223 square feet.

The proposed plaza is 39,419 square feet.

That is a reduction of 11,804 square feet.

That is no five percent. That is a 23 % REDUCTION.

The Parks Department is messing with the historic character of this Park which is a landmark. People come from all around to go to this park to see what is happening there each day and each day it is something different.

The Parks Department sold off the naming rights of the fountain to the Tisch family for $2.5 million so that the fountain could then be called TISCH FOUNTAIN. Another fact not revealed to the Community Board.

In addition, I’m sure you’ve heard that they are digging up 18th and 19th century burial grounds. They told the community they would only dig 1-3 feet below grade and they are digging 7-11 feet.

Community Board 2 later rescinded its approval – something Commissioner Benepe does not recognize when he writes to City Council members who question his actions around the Park.

Eleven 50-100 year old trees have been cut down thus far.

It is not JUST, as Commissioner Benepe implied, about cavalierly cutting down old trees and planting new ones — it’s about being STEWARDS for the trees that are there.

The Parks Department let Washington Square Park fall into disrepair and then swooped in with a disingenuous redesign that is unwanted by virtually everyone.

The original plan called for the costs to be $16 million.

Phase I (there are two Phases) was originally $6 million and is now budgeted at $13 million.

Where is that money coming from?

This allows for the further privatization of the park.

I ask the City Council to hold hearings on this issue and apply further scrutiny to the Parks Department.

Thank you.

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–There’s some more we’ll post about what we learned about some other parks — particularly Ridgewood Reservoir in Queens – having major interference from Parks Department – which must be stopped – and some heart breaking details if the plan is allowed to go through. Interestingly enough, Ridgewood Reservoir (which I’d never heard of, and is on the Brooklyn-Queens border) was constructed in 1848 to provide drinking water to the city of Brooklyn! It was taken out of the water system during the late 20th century. According to testimony by advocates for the Reservoir, the Parks Department plans to destroy thousands of trees to build new synthetic turf ballfields on this pristine site. ! More on this to come. Did we mention we think the Parks Department needs some oversight?

Where in the world is Alan Gerson?

Alan Gerson — the NY City Council representative for District 1 in Manhattan, which covers Washington Square Park — was missing in action Wednesday March 19th at the City Council hearing on the Parks Department and its Preliminary Budget. Alan Gerson is on the Parks & Recreation Committee of the City Council and all of his colleagues on the committee showed except for Gerson and Letitia James (Brooklyn).

Since Washington Square Park is a ‘hot topic’ for his constituents, we find it a bit odd that he would miss this presentation by the Parks Department and a chance to ask them some questions. (Although Parks & Recreation Committee chair Helen Foster – Bronx – noted that “if Alan had shown up,” his topic of focus was to ask Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe about “the bathhouses.”) Since the budget for the City’s redesign of Washington Square Park’s Phase I alone has more than doubled from $6 million to $13 million (the project was initially budgeted at $16 million TOTAL), it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Council Member Gerson to quiz Commissioner Benepe on this topic.

Council Member Gerson also failed to show up for an important Community Board 2 meeting in late December at which the Washington Square Park “renovation” was discussed and in which he was supposed to report back on whether he was releasing key City Council funds – under his discretion – for the Washington Square Park project to the Parks Department. (He sent his aide who read a statement which did not answer this question. His office now says that they told the community at that time that the funds were being released).