Temporary Restraining Order issued against NYC work on Union Square Park

A lawsuit against the city of New York and the Union Square Partnership in relation to their redesign plans for Union Square Park is being announced this morning as well as the issuance last night of a TRO(Temporary Restraining Order) by the New York State Supreme Court on the City’s work at Union Square Park.

The NYC Parks Department’s plans for Union Square Park, according to NYC Park Advocates, which announced the lawsuit, would “take away thousands of square feet of desperately needed play space in a community with the lowest amount of playground space and the highest concentration of restaurants in the city.”

The press release from NYC Park Advocates also states that the previously announced $5 million “anonymous donation” has now risen to $7 million. The stipulation with the donation is that the redesign of Union Square Park include a restaurant. That restaurant is believed to be already allocated to restauranteur Danny Meyer, also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership, the local BID (business improvement district).

“The neighborhood wants the pavilion to be returned to its historic use as a children’s play space as well as for other community uses. For more than 100 years, the pavilion provided indoor space for children.”

The plaintiffs prevailed in their request for a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) last night (4/21) which was issued by State Justice John E.H. Stackhouse of New York State Supreme Court. This stopped work on the project. The city has insisted on pushing forward this unpopular plan for Union Square Park despite community opposition.

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Also, Arbor (Tree) Day Event at Union Square Park will take place Friday, April 25th from 6-8 p.m. to Protect Our Trees and Stop Privatization of Public Space. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s hyping of his “MillionTreesNYC” P.R. initiative, thousands of mature trees have been cut down in all five boroughs at our City’s Parks, mostly in the interest of privatization of public space, which has dramatically increased under Mayor Bloomberg. More Details Later Today.

1 Year Ago: Community Board 2 Rescinds its Approval of Parks Department’s Washington Sq Park Plans

On April 19, 2007, Manhattan’s Community Board 2 rescinded its approval of Bloomberg’s plan to bulldoze and rebuild Washington Square Park. Happy Anniversary!

All, right, technically the Board gave the City until May 9, 2007, to adequately respond to questions that had been raised; otherwise, the approval would be rescinded. Which is what happened when the Parks Department ignored the Community Board’s directive.

While Community Board votes are largely considered “advisory,” officials like to cite Community Board decisions to validate their projects when those decisions go in their favor. In the case of Washington Square Park, Parks Commissioner Benepe falsely cites in his letters that he had the approval of the local Community Board, and ignores the inconvenient fact that the Board had rescinded their previous approval.

Here are the Minutes from the April 19th, 2007 Community Board meeting at which the Board took back its approval.

COMMUNITY BOARD 2 Manhattan MINUTES
DATE: April 19, 2007

13 3. Washington Square Park

WHEREAS, the Appellate Divisions opinion affirmed Community Board 2’s legal right to be fully informed and provided with accurate plans for review, irrespective of the Parks Department adherence to the Board’s recommendation

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that Community Board 2 will rescind its prior approval of the plans for renovation of Washington Square Park effective May 9, 2007 unless before such date the Parks Department presents for review and examination its current plans for renovation to the full Community Board 2, the Community Board 2 Park and Waterfront Committee or to the Washington Square Park Task Force; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Community Board 2 calls on our elected officials, most especially City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Councilman Alan Gerson, State Senator Tom Duane, Assembly Member Deborah Glick and Borough President Scott Stringer, to use their respective offices to urge the Parks Department to appear before the Community Board and/or the Washington Square Park Task Force and present its detailed plans for Washington Square Park before any contracts are put out to bid and work of any nature is performed in connection with the renovation of Washington Square Park.

Vote: Passed, with 42 Board members in favor and 5 in opposition.

Support Union Square Park * Upcoming Events Tues. Apr. 22 and Fri. Apr 25

NYC Parks Advocates and local Union Square community groups are filing a lawsuit to stop the city’s redesign of Union Square Park – to end the privatization and stop the destruction of public space and mature trees. The announcement will take place Tuesday, April 22nd at 11 a.m. at Union Square Park on 16th Street between Union Sq East and West in front of the Lincoln Statue.

It seems like a continuous dance … community groups having to file lawsuits to attempt to get New York City to proceed in the manner in which they should be proceeding anyway taking the community into account, not reducing the public gathering space, leaving mature trees where they are, not selling out the community to corporate interests.

Support is needed and please show up if you can.

In other news, working with NYC Street artists and others in planning an event at Union Square on Friday, April 25th (Arbor Day) from 6-8 p.m. — Save the Date! — more details to be posted later today or tomorrow. Bring your creative spirit.

In the News… Parks in Bronx…NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe: artificial turf is “safe”

Metro NY reporter Patrick Arden’s consistent reporting on the NYC Parks Department is a welcome presence.

In today’s edition of Metro, Arden reports that there’s some news about the Yankee Stadium “replacement parkland” in the Bronx.

On Friday, the Bloomberg administration opened a new artificial-turf ballfield on an old schoolyard here and billed it as “the first Yankee redevelopment park.”

The city had promised to create replacement parks in the South Bronx to make up for the 25 acres of parkland lost to the new Yankee Stadium project.

Unfortunately, as Arden reports, the new Park is one mile away from the previous parks (Macombs and Mullaly Parks) and in a another neighborhood.

(Didn’t Mayor Bloomberg announce as part of “PlaNYC 2030” that everyone in New York City should be within ten minutes of a park? … Unless, I gather, they want to build a corporate ballpark there.)

It seems artificial turf is questionable to everyone except for Parks Commissioner Benepe. The Metro article also states:

Last week, two artificial turf fields were closed by New Jersey health officials after detecting high levels of lead. Lead can cause brain damage and other illnesses.

While the concerns arose from surface coloring and airborne dust, many turf fields use crumbled tire rubber, which has also been found to contain lead.

The city’s Health Department is currently compiling its own report.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s safe,” said Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

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To read more, previous entries covered the Yankee Stadium situation in the Bronx (“Play Ball: How New York City Destroyed Two Bronx Parks”) and also the City Council initiative to end use of artificial turf in our city Parks.

Washington Square Park: Free love and relationship advice

Washington Square Park is an eclectic, wondrous place. There have to be reports on some of the positive things, right?  So, here we go…

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Washington Square News (NYU’s daily newspaper) has its own blogger, Life of Alvin. Alvin reports that last Sunday, on the southern side of the Park, a man appeared with a sign that said “Free love and relationship advice.”

Here’s an excerpt of Life of Alvin’s report back:

On Sunday, a man sat on the southern side of Washington Square Park with a cardboard sign that read: “Free love and relationship advice.” A handful of people waited patiently to speak to him, almost as if he had something important to offer.

I thought many people would talk to him for fun, not as a serious act of seeking advice. But I was wrong.

The one guy who sat across from this self-professed love expert clung to his every word. I tried to read lips, but I’ve never been too good at that so I settled for reading his facial expressions. It went from pouting to smiles back to pouting. It was almost as if this man was a puppeteer, changing the motions of his patrons with a twitch of his tongue.

I thought about approaching him, but I was afraid he would look at me and say, “Kid, I’m going to have to charge you money. You’ve got issues to sort through.”

(I tried to link to Life of Alvin but the linking was not working. Sorry!)

Did anyone talk to him? Witness this? Would love to hear some report backs.

I’ve often thought it would be worth sitting at the Park with a sign that says “Tell me what you think of Washington Square Park’s ‘renovation.'” Maybe that’ll be next. In the meantime… people can find “love and relationship advice” on a random Sunday at Washington Square Park, a place where you never know what will happen next.


The Soul of Washington Square Park: What the NYC Parks Department Left Out of their Redesign Plans

While looking up articles on Washington Square Park earlier this year, I came across a research paper by a student at SUNY(State University of New York) Syracuse College of Environmental Science and Forestry entitled: “Searching for the Soul of Washington Square Park: Employing Narrative, Photo-Voice and Mapping to Discover and Combine Pragmatic Issues of Urban Park Design with a Community’s Emotional Needs” (May 2007). It was written by Yamila Fournier as a senior project.

Spending time at Washington Square Park working on her research, Ms. Fournier interviewed Park users as well as Parks Department “officials.” She investigated people’s routines at the Park and what they loved about it as a public space. She explored what the Parks Department procedures are for redesign of a park (the answer: there are no protocols in place).

As she delves into the history and process of the redesign of Washington Square Park and the interactions between government agencies and the community, she ties together themes in ways that have not been fully explored elsewhere. I have excerpted parts of it here.

Excerpts from “Searching for the Soul of Washington Square Park” (note: the formatting is all mine. It’s a 52 page+ paper so this is condensed.):

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When the idea to renovate Washington Square Park was first introduced, the general consensus was that the park is in need of much repair.

That is where all agreement ended. Since the plans for the redesign were unveiled in 2001, there has been no harmony.

The proposed redesign specifies:

*a closable 4′ fence around the perimeter;
*bringing the central fountain up to grade with the road;
*moving the central fountain 22′ to the east to create an axial relationship with the newly renovated arch;
*relocating dog runs;
*enlarging playgrounds;
*adding an adventure playground to replace the highly contentious mounds;
*creating a new building for Parks Department offices and equipment;
*relocating statuary;
*eliminating seating areas;
*adding light fixtures; and
*renovating bathrooms, among other changes.

Every portion of the design has its critics. One thing that almost all the critics can agree on is that the community felt left out of the design process. (more…)

NYC Parks Department: No record of number of trees felled at Randall’s Island

Metro NY reporter Patrick Arden reported Monday that New York City has no record of the number of trees felled at Randall’s Island for the “controversial sports fields” run by private corporations they are pushing to place there. The city is currently in court over this issue. It is estimated that thousands of trees were destroyed on Randall’s Island.

“Contractors are required to have forestry permits issued by the Parks Department before removing trees,” the article states. This information is provided by Henry Stern, former NYC Parks Commissioner prior to Adrian Benepe. Current Parks Commissioner Benepe seems to take any opportunity to cut down trees, particularly if it provides a way to privatize public space.

Metro has been trying to obtain the forestry permits but the Parks Department has refused their requests.

At Washington Square Park, the document that went out for contractors’ Bids had a blank space where the Forestry Department’s sign-off was supposed to be. Eleven 50-to-100 year old trees have been cut down at Washington Square Park thus far. No one knows what the total number will be.

Doesn’t this call for oversight of Mayor Bloomberg’s Parks Department? There needs to be a moratorium on their tree destruction and some careful thought as to how we utilize our public space — in ways that benefit people, not corporations.

Recycled Entry: NYC Parks Department- No Oversight? Out of Control

I’ve been out of town but Washington Square Park Blog will resume with new entries tomorrow.

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Originally published on March 3rd, 2008.

When we hear the word ‘parks,’ we think of people picnicking on manicured lawns… We envision those overseeing City parks out there riding around on golf carts checking on malfunctioning water fountains (except when they are mowing down and killing seagulls and pigeons but that’s another story – unfortunately a true one).

In NYC, a much more deviant version exists within our Parks Department. Under Mayor Bloomberg, Parks are looked at as playgrounds for the corporate elite, vehicles for privatization, and places to further an agenda for a sanitized version of New York in which the gritty, the bohemian, the diverse is airbrushed away.

Some examples of what has transpired under Mayor Bloomberg’s administration with his Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe:

*Union Square Park Reduction of Public Space and Tree Destruction – Recent plans put forth by Commissioner Benepe include reducing the popular Green Market and chopping down 14 trees to make room for a high end restaurant. (In an Oedipal note, it should also be noted that Benepe’s father founded the GreenMarket.)

*Denial of Health Concerns of Artificial Turf – Ten years ago, Adrian Benepe began pushing artificial turf to replace grass and has placed it in 77 fields in Parks and Recreation areas across the city. While health and environmental concerns have increasingly been brought to light, Benepe insists it is safe. (In Newark, NJ, the city government declared one of its synthetic turf fields to be a “public health hazard” after three times the approved level of lead was found in the dust there.)

*Randall’s Island Privatization Proposed – Instead of making this a unique public space for the benefit of all, Benepe and Bloomberg were hoping to privatize this 273 acre park and give the majority of its access to 20 private schools within New York City.

*Yankee Stadium Deal leads to Destruction of two Parks in the Bronx — In the Bronx (which desperately needs parks) destruction of parts of McCombs Parks and John Mullaly Park as well as death to 300-400 trees in a deal to build Yankee Stadium.

*Ripping Up Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park for Water Filtration Plant – The City had been attempting for ten years to put in a water filtration plant in this spot. Despite having an alternative, more favorable location to turn to, Mayor Bloomberg was able to buy favor with State legislature and rip up nine acres of Van Cortlandt Park disrupting the park usage for this under-served neighborhood, giving nothing back in return.

*Brooklyn Bridge Park Private housing – Bloomberg argues that this park needs to be “self-sustaining” (i.e., make money) and plans are moving forward for private real estate interests and hotels to be built within this Park.

*Washington Square Park — Plans include: Reduction of 23 % of the public space, manicured lawns and “plazas” which destroy the historic nature of this Park as a political and social gathering spot, “aligning” the famous fountain with the Arch (despite the fact that noted original architect Stanford White purposefully placed the two unaligned over a century ago), corporate naming rights of the fountain being given to the Tisch Family, cutting down of 11 trees thus far, and more!

We have to wonder where is the oversight? Where is our City Council?
The Parks Department being a City agency that reports to the Mayor, the City Council takes mostly a ‘hands off’ approach.

I’ll venture into the ineffectiveness and apparent duplicity of City Council Member Alan Gerson in relation to what is happening at Washington Square Park in another post. However, as the City Council Member who represents the Washington Square area and is also a member of the Parks & Recreation Committee, he could initiate hearings on the Parks Department and the issues above.

Contact City Council Member Alan Gerson at #212/788-7722 or gerson at council.nyc.ny.us

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New Posts Resume Tuesday, April 15th.

Recycled Entry: Bloomberg’s Privatization of the Park: NYU, Tisch, Who Else?

Originally Published February 29th, 2008.

Phase I of the City’s extensive planned “renovation” of Washington Square Park has gone from a projected $6 million to over $13 million. The “renovation’s” TOTAL costs — in two Phases — were stated to be $16 million at the onset (an excessive sum to begin with) but are now lurching upwards to $25-30 million.

Where will the money come from? Since most everyone believes that Washington Square Park could manage with a few repairs on a relatively minor budget, it seems like a tailor made scheme for future privatization of the Park.

Of course, the elephant in the room is New York University whose advertising pitches and promotional materials all feature Washington Square Park’s Arch (a public space, last we checked) larger than life. On the subway the other day, I saw five ads across the car for NYU’s School of Continuing Professional Studies — the Arch was bigger than anything else in the ad.

NYU is throwing in $1 million thus far for the “renovation” of the Park despite their insistence that they are “not involved.” We received a copy of a letter the University sent from their Community Affairs office to their “neighbors” recently. It stated that “the University believes it (the Park) has been in need of renovation for some time” … “though NYU had no hand in the specifics of the Park’s redesign.” ??

With the Tisch Family providing $2.5 million towards the reconstruction of the historic circular fountain — guaranteeing them the naming rights, thereby “officially” renamed TISCH FOUNTAIN with a plaque on each side — NYU’s $1 million(a small sum, for them, towards this spot that they use in all their advertising and as the site of their graduation ceremonies), will the city ultimately – with costs skyrocketing out of control – commission other corporate naming rights within the Park? (The Walmart Garibaldi Statue perhaps?)

Now, I realize Mayor Bloomberg would not have a problem with this, but I do. I don’t want every last inch of public space corporatized and particularly not Washington Square Park.

Other questions: Will the City set up a Conservancy and further privatize the park enabling them to hold exclusive ticketed events? Will they close off the Park to the public which, of course, will be easier once they erect their proposed four foot fence?

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New Posts Resume Tuesday, April 15th.

Recycled Entry: Jane Jacobs

Originally published: February 28th, 2008.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs released The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jane Jacobs had already made a name for herself as a community activist in the West Village.

At one point, the Washington Square Park Arch had cars running around – and through – it. Jacobs was involved with others in ending this. (See photo: Arch from 1955. Note cars.)

In her groundbreaking book on how we view planning of cities, she writes of NYC’s recurring plans to play around with Washington Square Park: “The city officials regularly concoct improvement schemes by which this center within the park would be sown to grass and flowers and surrounded by a fence. The invariable phrase to describe this is, ‘restoring the land to park use.’ That is a different form of park use, legitimate in places. But for neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stage settings for people.”

Forty seven years later, the city is bent on destroying Jacobs’ vision of what makes a successful public park.

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New posts resume Tuesday, April 15th.