Letter to Elected Officials re: Washington Square Park For Review/On Plan Going Forward (12-18-08)

First, let me share with you my letter addressing my concerns about Washington Square Park thus far and going forward. See follow-up post with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe‘s response (1-30-09).

Subject: Washington Square Park – For your Review / Oversight

-via email and fax-

December 18th, 2008

TO: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Council Member Alan Gerson

CC: Council Member Bill de Blasio, Council Member Letitia James, Council Member Helen Foster, Council Member Helen Sears, Council Member Darlene Mealy, Council Member Charles Barron, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Council Member Tony Avella, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Comptroller William Thompson, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, State Senator Tom Duane, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

FM: Cathryn Swan

RE: WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK

—————————————————————————————————

I am writing to you with regards to Washington Square Park, the subject of a recent Sunday New York Times City Section cover story, “The Battle for Washington Square” (11-23-08), after being left under the radar for way too long. Washington Square Park is in the midst of an extensive redesign by the New York City Parks Department. Currently completing Phase I of this redesign, the City is now about to begin Phases II and III. I am writing to ask you to please assert some necessary oversight over this project, for reasons I outline below.

BUDGET

The initial budget was set at $16 million dollars for the entire project. However, at a presentation by the Parks Department at a meeting December 3rd convened by the Washington Square Park Task Force, it was revealed that the “budget” now stands at $27 million and rising. Phase I – which is currently being completed – was projected at $6 million and has now crept to $14 million with no explanation nor oversight. Phases II and III while now projected at $13 million combined will most likely double as well.

OVERSIGHT

The question I can’t help wondering is – who is minding the store? If the New York City Council does not oversee and protect New York City’s precious (and few) public spaces, who will? The Parks Department has demonstrated that it needs oversight and yet none is apparently forthcoming. When a budget for a City Council-approved project with designated City Council and “City funds” skyrockets and doubles, who reviews this? Who says, in the midst of a budget crisis, “Wait a minute.”

PUBLIC SPACE AT RISK

You might have read in the Times’ story that the public space surrounding the famous Washington Square Park Fountain is slated to be reduced by 25%. However, that is sadly not where the reduction in public space ends. There are six seating “alcoves” that people greatly appreciate in the park. As was revealed at the meeting, and only under intensive questioning, those are being obliterated in the new plan. (These have graced the northeastern, eastern and southeastern sides for almost 40 years, and are very well utilized.) In addition, the area where the chess tables are (southwest) is being greatly reduced, as well as the entrance to the park at the northeastern side which is another area that people use greatly for spontaneous performance and the like. I urge you to stop this destruction before it happens!

“GERSON-QUINN AGREEMENT”/WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK TASK FORCE

The offices of Christine Quinn and Alan Gerson assured me when I first got involved in the Washington Square Park issue that they had an “agreement” with Parks Commissioner Benepe. This agreement, while frankly quite tepid and unfortunately not addressing most of the key issues the Greenwich Village community and New Yorkers in general had with the Parks Department’s redesign, was allegedly to provide some oversight by their offices over what the Parks Department is doing at Washington Square Park. The body that is charged with overseeing this – the Washington Square Park Task Force – is largely comprised of Community Board 2 members, community members, and representatives from elected officials’ offices (all of whom are copied on this letter). The elected officials have not played more than a perfunctory role in the Task Force. The result is that the Task Force has been unable to uphold even the weak stipulations in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement or to advocate effectively for this public space in its dealings with the Parks Department.

How strong is this supposed agreement? At the meeting held December 3rd, when I asked Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro about a violation of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” he told me “there is no agreement.” This is outrageous, to refuse to abide by even these tepid mandates. It exemplifies the New York City Parks Department’s contempt for the people and the institutions set up to safeguard the public interest.

AN EXAMPLE OF A VIOLATION – THE FENCING

The question Manhattan Parks Commissioner Castro was answering was about the fencing being installed presently in the Northwest Quadrant of the Park. The new fencing being installed at 4 feet high already defies community sentiment that the fence be left at 3 feet, as is. The “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” stipulates that the new fence “will not include any spears or points” on top. However, what does the new fencing contain? Decorative spears! which prevents people from sitting on the fences as they currently do, and which makes the park unique. This is one tiny example of the egregious liberties the landscape designer and Parks Department are taking, at the public’s expense.

ABUSE OF THE PUBLIC TRUST

The problems with the Parks Department in relation to Washington Square Park pre-date the present period. While Commissioner Benepe will often state that local Community Board 2 approved the Parks Department’s plans, the Community Board ultimately rescinded its approval when it saw that the Parks Department was not being forthcoming with information about its plans. The Parks Department presented flawed information to both the local Community Board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to deceive these public institutions and win approval for what would amount to bulldozing large sections of this park.

WHAT IS NEEDED?

I started writing a blog about Washington Square Park and parks/public space/city issues in late February. I felt that the true story of what had transpired at this remarkable public space – the Parks Department’s deceptions and the community’s wishes and lack of a true say in the process – had not been told. While the Times’ story did a decent job in presenting the overall picture, it lacked much detail and isolated the story down to a few characters when it was about the larger community. To this day, the Parks Department continues the same process of disrespect, manipulation and non-transparency in its actions.

Things that need to be addressed include:

* Save the park’s trees (at least 14 mature trees have been chopped down in Phase I alone) – the Parks Department needs to incorporate existing trees into its design;
* Preserve the public space around the Fountain — add back any reduction in space ;
* Preserve the Seating Alcoves along the Northeastern, Eastern and Southeastern sides ;
* Review the fencing being placed around the park – consider lowering the height (the existing 3 foot high fence was the perfect height for a fence at this park) and cancel the fence with “decorative spears” (as this violates the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement”) ;
* Cancel the reduction in public space at the Northeast and Southwest (chess area) quadrants ;
* Review height of stage of performance area (currently “Teen Plaza”) to address needs of Washington Square Music Festival — which has requested a 36″ height for the stage — and other performers/events;
* The fountain name being sold off to a private bidder and now scheduled to be called Tisch Fountain — there are so many renowned people associated with Washington Sq Park that deserve this distinction;
* Confirm No Private Conservancy

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

I would like to call on the New York City Council to take a new look at what’s happening at Washington Square Park. Please review the budget and the design plans put forth by our city’s Parks Department.

Washington Square Park is too important a park and too vital a public space in a city of limited public spaces to be left to chance and the whim of one Parks Department landscape designer. I would be glad to work with the City Council on this matter but it is important that you act now – we only have two months to prevent further desecration of this wonderful public park.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Cathryn Swan

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