Today’s Sunday NY Times “City” Section Letters to the Editor: “Face-off in Washington Square”

Two well crafted letters with excellent points appear in today’s Sunday New York Times in the City section where the article “The Battle of Washington Square” appeared last week. The letters are accompanied by a large picture (at last!) of the fenced-off Arch and Park under construction.* The points emphasized by the letter writers – the letters are posted below – are unfortunately missing from the Times’ article. Inclusion of these (and other) aspects would have given readers a better picture of what’s transpired and what is at stake.

New York Times Letters to the Editor — Face-Off in Washington Square

Seeing Larger Issues in a Park’s Redesign

To the Editor:

Re “The Battle for Washington Square” (Nov. 23), about local residents’ criticism of the redesign of Washington Square Park:

There is a motive that the article leaves implicit. Washington Square was a place for people to congregate and exercise free speech, a place to occupy and use. In the new plan, it’s a place to pass through and admire, where fixed installations crowd out the space that people once enjoyed. Gates and fences do not say welcome; they say keep off the grass, do not loiter, keep moving, this space no longer belongs to you.

If there are two things the Bloomberg administration does not like, it is people who exercise their rights of free assembly and speech in public and people who might do so. The victims drag-netted by police tactics during the 2004 Republican Convention know this. Places like Washington Square Park, Union Square Park and the Sheep Meadow are dangerous for demagogues and autocrats.

Sheldon Bunin

Jackson Heights, Queens

*******************************************

To the Editor:

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe‘s contention that “most people will not remember what all the fuss was about” is a poor rationale for replacing a much-beloved Greenwich Village people’s park with a lower Fifth Avenue patrician’s promenade. After all, who in today’s younger generation remembers seeing and experiencing McKim, Mead & White’s glorious 34th Street Penn Station, which was torn down in 1963 and 1964 to make room for today’s ugly replacement?

That destruction helped lead to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to prevent further desecrations. It is hoped that our experience with Washington Square Park will lead to further preventive measures.

Vahe Tiryakian

East Village

**********************************************

As I mentioned last week, The Times sent photographer Annie Tritt on my Walking Tour in September for photos to accompany the article; however, none of those photos were published. Instead, there were numerous photos of Washington Square Park throughout history – which made this public space seem very impressive – and it is, of course – and showcased its illustrious past. Nonetheless, at least one photo of the park under construction would have been appropriate.

And while I think it’s the great that the Times story on “The Battle for Washington Square” appeared (the whole issue has been woefully under-reported), I did have some further critique and reflection on some omissions and characterizations in the story which you can read here.

Correction: Actually, the Times did run two photos from the day of the Walking Tour of the Park but they are rather small and do not illustrate any of the construction.

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Why Mayor Bloomberg Wants Redesign of Washington Square Park

Before Mayor Bloomberg‘s well orchestrated push to overturn voted-in term limits (with the complicity of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and 28 other members), the mainstream media applied a general lack of scrutiny to his actions. More recently, some light has been shone on the man behind the curtain. Until now, the Mayor had almost succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of our city.

His initiatives include: taking over control of schools (with parents outraged over the non-stop testing) – and then cutting funding from them, privatizing our public parks, eliminating recycling(until activists got on his case, along with the NYC Comptroller), cut backs to libraries and senior centers, issuing non-stop Tax breaks to billionaire developers and corporations & misusing confiscations through eminent domain so that our city is basically owned by corporate interests, besieged by “luxury” housing.

The list goes on and on.

We’re on the precipice of WHAT OUR CITY IS GOING TO LOOK LIKE for the NEXT 30 YEARS. Drastic changes are being made with his finger on all the triggers. I could coexist with our billionaire Mayor if he’d keep on his side of the room. I’d stay on mine. Unfortunately, he owns the room. So what then?

Mayor Bloomberg’s imprint is stamped all over what is happening at Washington Square Park. From the complicity of the City Council members (specifically Speaker Christine Quinn and Council Member Alan Gerson – it’s Gerson’s district), to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to the Arts Commission to the Community Board. However, despite the Mayor’s control and wishes, even the local Community Board voted against the Park’s “renovation,” albeit on the third try, once they recognized the arrogance and duplicity of the New York City Parks Department in ignoring their requests for information. Yet, from NYU to the “Tisch Fountain,” Mayor Bloomberg’s privatization agenda looms large.

The dramatic disruption of Washington Square Park, against the wishes of – and without input from – the community, has been termed Bloomberg’s “pet project.”

Why…? Because Washington Square Park is the antithesis of Michael Bloomberg’s “vision” of New York City a freewheeling cacophonous non-permitted jumble of free speech, free music, free performance, free political debate – and police cameras all over the place. Washington Square Park at one point housed more surveillance cameras per square foot than any other 9 acre area in NYC. Bloomberg has made no proposal to remove or reduce the surveillance, only the public activities they are surveiling.

Mayor Bloomberg’s lifeline is being a CEO of a corporation. He can pretend he gets this whole democracy ‘thing’ (while buying his way into it) — but that’s a farce.

Gawker recently covered what it’s really like to work at Bloomberg L.P., the corporation he founded, and how astonishing it is that the appalling conditions there have not merited more coverage (instead .. it’s as if he liberated City Hall by banishment of walls and dividers!). Read about this here: The Other Reason Mayor Mike Couldn’t Run.

* Note: A slightly different version of this post first appeared on March 4th, 2008. *

Celebrate Buy Nothing Day Friday, Nov. 28th at Union Square

A quick blog entry today. Note: There are 262 posts in the archives so scout around a little.

Here are some great tips from Reverend Billy on how to commemorate Buy Nothing Day (tomorrow, day after Thanksgiving, biggest shopping day of the year) this week.  Also, join him at Union Square tomorrow Friday, November 28th from 3-5:30 p.m. More info at the link above.  Enjoy your day.

What Makes a Great Public Space?


A study of Washington Square Park in 2005 by the Project for Public Spaces concluded:

“Washington Square Park is one of the best known and best-loved destinations in New York City. And as a neighborhood park and civic gathering place, it may be one of the great public spaces in the world. Anyone who visits the park and who looks at how people use it can confirm in just a few minutes that it has nearly all of the key attributes of a great public space. … Its success can also be measured by other indicators such as the amount of affection that is being displayed, its overall comfort and feeling of being safe, the level of stewardship, and the way that people engage in different activities at very close range and interact with each other easily.”

In addition, Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities wrote of the park’s famous fountain, “In effect, this [fountain] is a circular arena, a theater in the round, and that is how it is used, with complete confusion as to who are spectators and who are the show.”

About Washington Square Park overall, she stated, “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 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.”

This leads to one question : Why is New York City putting forth a radical redesign of Washington Square Park, a great public space?

New York Times takes in-depth look at Landmarks Preservation Commission

Today’s New York Times has an interesting, in-depth look at the Landmarks Preservation Commission by writer Robin Pogrebin which “reveals an overtaxed agency that has taken years to act on some proposed designations, even as soaring development pressures put historic buildings at risk. Its decision-making is often opaque, and its record-keeping on landmark-designation requests is … spotty.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has been under the direction of Robert Tierney for the past five years. The LPC members are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg. Only the chairman receives a salary (currently $177,698), the other 11 commissioners are unpaid. The LPC must “include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, one real estate agent and one resident of each of the five boroughs.”

On Washington Square Park

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held two days of public hearings on Washington Square Park. It was later ruled by NY Supreme Court Justice Emily Goodman that the City — specifically landscape architect and Parks Department employee George Vellonakis — during its presentation to the LPC had withheld key information. The incomplete and untruthful information is what LPC based its decision on. You can watch footage of the presentation by George Vellonakis at the hearing here.

Other missed opportunities

Then there were the buildings that were demolished before any public hearing was held, such as “the Beekman movie theater on the Upper East Side, a 1952 Streamline Moderne design that was demolished in 2005; Mott House in Rockaway, Queens, an 1800s mansion in the Greek Revival style that was torn down in 2004; the Donnell Library Center on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, which is to be demolished to make way for a hotel; and Edward Durell Stone’s 1964 “lollipop” building at 2 Columbus Circle, which reopened in September as the Museum of Art and Design after a radical alteration that was fiercely opposed by preservationists.”

“No background in architecture, planning or historic preservation”

Mr. Tierney was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to head the Landmarks Preservation Commission despite having “no background in architecture, planning or historic preservation.”

Every city agency always wants their budget increased (one would think, right?). The article states, “Yet, in 2007 Mr. Tierney declined a budget increase of $750,000 approved by the City Council.”

Mr. Tierney told the Times that he was afraid the budget would get cut the next year. However, wouldn’t it be better for the agency to be well staffed for that one year vs. worrying about something that might or might not happen?

One wonders if Mayor Bloomberg wanted the LPC to have no teeth by appointing someone with no appropriate background to head it up, as development soars and the history of our city vanishes at an alarming rate.

Washington Square Park Task Force to Meet ! Wednesday, Dec. 3rd

WSP Blog readers know that I’ve had some critique of the Washington Square Park Task Force, a body presently under the aegis of Community Board 2 which is also comprised of members of the public, the Community Board, and representatives of elected officials.

The elected officials represented on the Task Force are: Congressman Jerold Nadler, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Council Member Alan Gerson, State Senator Tom Duane, and Assembly Member Deborah Glick.

The WSP Task Force is supposed to be the body that follows up on the (admittedly tepid) Gerson-Quinn Agreement and the “stipulations” put forth in that letter dated October 6, 2005 from Gerson and Quinn to NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe which mildly attempts to monitor some aspects of the Washingon Square Park redesign allegedly in the interest of the community.

The WSPTF meets infrequently. Understandably, to some degree, no one feels they have true license to monitor the NYC Parks Department since it is almost a rogue operation at this point. However, there are some great people on the Task Force who would like to push the envelope a bit and defend this dynamic, historic public space and this should only be encouraged.

An example of the NYC Parks Department’s non-compliance with the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement:” the 4 foot fence currently being installed with “decorative spears” on top does not comply with the “Agreement” and yet this has apparently not been addressed by anyone, either on Speaker Quinn’s or Council Member Gerson’s staff or by anyone on the Washington Square Park Task Force.

Nonetheless, the fact that they are meeting is a good thing.

Here are the details:

Washington Sq Park Task Force and Community Bd. 2 Parks Committee Meeting

Wednesday, December 3rd, 6:30 p.m.

Our Lady of Pompeii Church (Father Demo Hall). 25 Carmine Street @ Bleecker Street, Manhattan

* To read the purported goals of the WSP Task Force, go here.

Reflections on Sunday’s New York Times article, “The Battle of Washington Square”

Sunday’s November 23rd New York Times cover featured a photo of the Washington Square Arch promoing the article, “The Battle of Washington Square,” which prominently appeared on the “City” section cover with an array of photos capturing the park’s illustrious history.

The Bloomberg Administration’s push to radically redesign this public space has been under the radar for way too long. However, let me be clear — the issue was never about anyone in the community not wanting repairs, upgrades and a spiffier Washington Square Park. The park needed a renovation as the New York City Parks Department let it fall into serious disrepair.

The issues were (and still are) about the Process – how this extreme revisioning of this prominent public space was pushed through – and the Design – what the park’s composition would ultimately be, one that chooses to ignore what actually worked and was successful about the park.

When first contacted by New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, I thought … at last the story will be told.

And it’s great the story has at last been told.  It’s complex and it has unfolded over more than four years.  It’s about community and democracy vs. money and power and a government subsumed by its own arrogance.  There is still more of the story to be told.  While the Times gives an overview of what’s transpired thus far and reminds us how important Washington Square Park is as a public space, the story still doesn’t quite get to some key facets of the argument, of the timeline, of the nuance, and sidesteps the city’s corrosive and corrupt actions.

Outlined below are my thoughts and supplemental information to the article which, overall, is a welcome addition into the dialogue around what’s transpired to date to Washington Square Park.

Blogging as “Venting” ?

Mr. Bowley, in a way that I’m sure – to his mind – was a vehicle to add color to the article, describes my blog as a way for me to “vent my frustration.” I consider the Washington Square Park blog a place for my writing and p.r. background to be put to good use. An outlet in the so-called “Battle of Washington Square” to: track the process, analyze it, write about it substantively, and advocate for change. I don’t believe that is venting.  The use of the word venting feels very old vs. new media.

Characterizations and Omissions

The cost of the project

The writer states that the park redesign will cost “$16 million-plus.” Very vague, especially since, Phase I alone, initially budgeted at $6 million is now costing over $13 million – by the Parks Department’s own admission. More than double the projected cost. So, is there any real way that the remaining TWO phases can be anything less than $25 million? In a financial crisis – and really at any time – is this the way our city money should be spent?

Unattributed statements

The story states: “Many people who use the square have since accepted the changes as improvements.” And yet none are quoted. It continues, “Yet, even though the fences are due to come down next month on Phase I of the redesign to reveal a gleaming, newly paved central plaza with a relocated fountain, plush lawn and sculptured bushes around the fabled Washington Arch, a core group of protesters remain unconvinced and bitterly angry.”

Perhaps if the piece had not glossed over the lies by George Vellonakis — the “landscape designer” who was given license to alter this historic park with an unimaginative design — to the community; if Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was not given a blanket opportunity to make his greenwashing statements about the park being more “green” without a rebuttal; if the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Community Board meetings – which are all on video and which the Times watched – were not just breezed through towards the end of the article, perhaps then, the reader would understand why people might be “bitterly angry,” if that’s even the case.

Characterizations

It seems to me that the City “officials” are put on pedestals in which they are immune to characterizations. In my opinion, on this playing field, we are all equal participants. If Adrian Benepe lies, that should be in the article. If George Vellonakis shows his arrogance in a meltdown on camera when he thinks his “design” might be stopped, he’s fair game. If George Vellonakis also lies and misappropriates information to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, that should be in the article. That is part of the story. Understandably, that fuels community anger.  (Much of this footage is contained in the documentary mentioned in the story, SQUARE:  Straightening Out Washington Square Park.”)

What can be done?

I am glad that Graham Bowley – who assimilated years of information in preparing this story – and the New York Times covered the topic of Washington Square Park’s redesign despite some of the omissions from the piece.

I mentioned Saturday that my comments were inaccurate a few times in the story. And I would like to clarify this one, with which the article ends:

“[Ms. Swan] hopes that when Phase I of the renovation is completed and Phase 2 begins next year on the southwest, southeast and northeast quadrants of the square, she may still be able to persuade parks department officials to save some of the trees or the pathways or the alcove seating that she says was such a facilitator of conversation.”

“The biggest question people ask is, ‘Why?’ Ms. Swan said. Why are they doing this?

“There was a huge mass of people who fought for three to four years,” she added. “A lot soon ran out of steam, but there are still some people fighting. Though I am not sure a lot can be done.”

I did not say that last sentence. I would never say that. I said, “[some] people do not think a lot can be done” or they don’t know what to do. But that’s not me, folks. I think a lot can be done to maximize and retain the dynamic elements of this public space, still.

Sunday New York Times City Section Cover Story 11/23: The Battle for Washington Square

Tomorrow’s New York Times City section features a cover story “The Battle for Washington Square,” an effort by reporter Graham Bowley to outline what’s transpired thus far around New York City government’s controversial redesign of this renowned park and dynamic public space over the last four years.

What’s transpired could be a multi-part series or a book (and is a movie), so it would be exceedingly difficult to get every last nuance into one story. I’m still assimilating the article but a few immediate comments – it’s puzzling that there are no current photos of the park under construction especially because the Times sent a photographer on my September Walking Tour highlighting the redesign elements of the park.  The online story only portrays pictures of Washington Square Park in the past which strikes me as a bit, um, odd.

There’s a nice synopsis of the Park’s value as a public space: “perhaps … [no park is] more valued than the 10-acre, 181-year-old Washington Square Park, the beating heart of Greenwich Village. Through the decades the park has been the haunt of some of America’s best-known artists, writers, musicians, anarchists and Beatniks, and a seemingly round-the-clock distillation of the frenetic spirit of New York.”

The reporter Graham Bowley walked with me through the Park a few months ago. There are a few inaccuracies as far as my comments. For example, Mr. Bowley quotes me as saying of the new exterior fence – currently being installed at 4 feet tall with unapproved “decorative spears” on top, vs. the current height of 3 feet: “That keeps you out. That is very threatening.” Actually, what I said is that it is not welcoming.

And I definitely think things can be done from here on. See my further comments: “On Washington Square Park’s Design Going Forward” here.

I welcome the New York Times covering the story – the story has been woefully un- (and under) reported to date – and I hope it leads to others. There are so many more pieces of what transpired to be told. And I’d love to hear other feedback from you.

Stop Mayor Bloomberg from Destroying Washington Square Park

Stop Mayor Bloomberg from Destroying Washington Square Park

Stop Mayor Bloomberg from Destroying Our Park

This flyer counters the NYC Parks Department’s spin on what is actually happening behind the fencing to Washington Square Park at the hands of the Bloomberg Administration. It’s been pretty effective since people read it quite thoroughly. The question everyone asks is “Why?” The flyer attempts to answer the question while putting into context the politics and involvement of everyone from Mayor Bloomberg, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to private interests like New York University and the Tisch Family in the unwelcome redesign of this dynamic public space.

However, there are still things that can be done:

1. No Conservancy: We want Washington Square Park to remain a public park without corporate influence.

2. Preserve the Seating Alcoves Along the Northern, Eastern and Southeastern Edges. In the redesign plan, these areas are scheduled to be removed. People utilize and enjoy them for reading, music, studying, talking. They further contribute to the charm of the park.

3. Maintain the public space around the Fountain. Numbers vary as to whether the entire Plaza will lose up to 23% of its valuable public space. The NYC Parks Department has been less than forthcoming in confirmation of this number.

4. Save the Park’s Trees. Work all existing, mature trees into the design. They are part of our urban habitat and deserve to be treated as living entities that are an integral part of Washington Square Park.  (At least 14 of the Park’s trees have been axed thus far in Phase I of the redesign.)

5. Change the Planned Fencing. The height of the fence at 3 feet has been a core design element of the park and is welcoming and desired. The fence being installed is 4 feet (which makes quite a bit of difference) and contains decorative spears on top in direct violation of the Parks Department “agreement” with Council Member Alan Gerson and Speaker Christine Quinn.

6. Save the “Teen Plaza” and maintain height of the stage. This stage has worked well for many years for the Washington Square Music Festival and other events. The current height is 36″. The proposed height of the stage at 22″ is much too low for classical music performances and other usage (protests, other performances, etc.).

7. Leave the Dog Runs as they are. Moving every piece of this park at this time does not make sense.

Write in with any and all ideas, of course.

Read an expanded version of the flyer’s information here.

Wayne Barrett in the Village Voice: The Transformation of Mike Bloomberg

Check out Wayne Barrett‘s in-depth piece on Mayor Mike in this week’s Village Voice. An excerpt:

Last month’s 29-to-22 [NY City] council vote to do Bloomberg’s bidding was the most tawdry moment in city politics I’ve ever seen. More camera crews and reporters attended the vote than any other session in City Council history—some said the passage of the bill was as close as we would get to a mayoral election in 2009.

The mayor justified the bill by saying that it gave voters an additional choice—namely, himself. But unnamed sources had already told the Times that Bloomberg would spend $80 million on his re-election (at least $20 million of it on attacks on anyone daring to oppose him). …

The Bloomberg who came into office as the anti-politician, promising to transform city government, has been transformed himself. …  But seven years later, Bloomberg has not only proved himself to be a master politician, as hungry for power as anyone we’ve ever seen, but he’s also ended up putting nearly everyone who deals with the city deep into his political debt.

Read the full story here.