New York Times: “Judge Blocks Overhaul of Union Square Park”

Today’s New York Times‘ article by Timothy Williams, “Judge Blocks Overhaul of Union Square Park, covers the latest at Union Square Park.

As noted in the article, “The dispute over Union Square, one of the city’s most popular public spaces, is the latest in a series of disagreements between the parks department and neighborhood groups over changes to local parks that have ended in lawsuits and protracted court battles.

Such as with Washington Square Park, Yankee Stadium, Randall’s Island, among too many others. The article continues:

Workers started site work at the park several days ago. On Tuesday, hours after the restraining order was issued, a backhoe sat idle in the park’s north plaza, its arm resting atop a large mound of dirt. Equipment from two of the park’s three playgrounds had already been removed.

The Parks Department declined to comment. However, “in a statement, Ramin Pejan, a lawyer at the city’s Law Department, said that the Bloomberg administration would eventually prevail.”

Isn’t that continuously the attitude of the Bloomberg administration? That they will “eventually prevail.” It’s non-stop arrogance towards communities across the five boroughs as they bulldoze through massive changes in the composition of our city. Privatization of public space is just one method in their arsenal but it has reverberating effects.

The lawsuit was filed by the Union Square Community Coalition, NYC Parks Advocates, former City Council Member Carol Greitzer, among others, against the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, The City of New York, New York City Department of Buildings, and Union Square Partnership(the local BID, Business Improvement District).

They will be back in court on Monday, April 28th at 9:30 a.m. at Supreme Court of the State of NY, NY County Courthouse, 60 Centre Street, IAS Part 55 to determine if a preliminary injunction will be ordered by the Judge.

Play Ball: How New York City destroyed two Bronx parks


hawk, squirrel & tree-Wash Sq Pk

Baseball season starts today!
(Or, so I’ve been told.)

I thought I’d take a look at Yankee Stadium and what happened there when New York City’s government paved the way (literally) for 400 40 year-old trees to be cut down and sliced away TWO parks in the Bronx to accommodate a private corporation.

At Washington Square Park, what transpired over the last few years is definitely complex. I’ve been busy researching the maneuvers the city employed to get its redesign “plan” approved — via lack of transparency or outright lies. However, the taking of two parks in the Bronx, which has “some of the highest rates of asthma and obesity in the city, yet the lowest ratios of parkland to 1,000 residents,” also strikes me as particularly outrageous. (Gotham Gazette, “Yankee Stadium Parkland Swap,” March 21st, 2006)

It is also yet another lesson in how the Bloomberg administration uses maneuvers, manipulations, lack of community input/awareness, and the New York City Council’s bad decisions, lack of oversight and/or looking the other way to put forth its agenda.

As Anne Schwartz outlined in the Gotham Gazette:

What if the city decided to put a stadium in the middle of your local park?

Don’t worry though. The city would rebuild most of the displaced athletic facilities in several other places.

But instead of being set inside a large, green space surrounded by hundreds of mature trees, the fields would be scattered on separate parcels, including the tops of parking garages. The new recreational spaces would be closer to the highway and train tracks and an additional five-minute to half-hour walk from where people live. Most of the trees would be cut down. The new stadium would go smack in the middle of the community’s current park, next to a residential area.

Seems hard to even imagine, doesn’t it? Yet it all happened to accommodate the Yankee’s “vision” for their new stadium.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe stated proudly before the City Council that he had 8000 trees lined up for planting in the Bronx to “mitigate” the loss of the 400 mature trees destroyed to build Yankee Stadium.

Mayor Bloomberg’s “Million Trees” initiative is “greenwashing” at its most manipulative. A true tree boosting initiative would work to save existing trees, not just haphazardly plant new ones.

And where do the wildlife live once their territory is destroyed? Wouldn’t a true “Parks” Department be advocating for wildlife, trees and open space? Shouldn’t paving over a city park and cutting down mature trees be the very very VERY last resort or – I’d argue – something we don’t even contemplate? This should be territory non grata for a private corporation.

I understand the Yankees opening game today (their last at the old Stadium) is delayed because of rain.

Update : Yankees Opening Day game postponed until tomorrow.

Connect the Dots: A guide to the NYC Parks Department –Washington Sq Park and Union Sq Park “Redesigns”

Washington Square Park and Union Square Park are both in the midst of redesigns by New York City. There are some striking similarities in how these controversial plans of two historic parks initially got pushed through despite community disapproval and widespread negative public opinion.

A Primer on how the New York City Parks Department — headed by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg — works:

  • Community requests some repairs of Park

At Washington Square Park, the background is a bit murkier as far as who initiated the discussion with the Parks Department but most everyone agreed that the Parks Department had let the Park fall into disrepair and it needed some basic fixing (roads repaired and cracks in paths paved) and a tune-up.

At Union Square Park, in 2002, City Council Member Margarita Lopez was able to allocate $1.9 million from City funds expressly for the improvement of two playgrounds on both sides of the pavilion (on the north end).

  • Local Community Board Votes

At Washington Square Park, in 2005, Community Board 2 in Manhattan initially approved the city’s “renovation” plans — a flawed vote since essential information was withheld by the Parks Department about the redesign elements. (Community Board 2 later rescinded its approval in 2007.)

At Union Square Park, Community Board 5 (also, Manhattan) “approved a new design for the north end of the square with the stipulation that the city would contemplate the pavilion housing ‘cultural institutions (and) community groups … in addition to restauranteurs.” (Metro, March 21st, 2008)

Note: Community Boards votes are largely “advisory” and are not binding in any way. However, they are utilized in the court of public opinion and it is considered important for City Agencies to gain their approval. City Council Members like to point to their approval – when it suits them.

  • Crucial Information Withheld and Subsequently Discovered; Parks Department Dishonest With the Public

After numerous rounds of meetings with the NYC Parks Department about Washington Square Park’s “renovation,” the community discovered that the presentations omitted key information: that there was a major reduction in the amount of public space based on the redesign plan; that the Tisch Family had been given naming rights to the historic fountain; etc.

At Union Square Park, despite city assurances that they were considering the Community Board’s wishes for community groups to utilize the pavilion, it was discovered recently that the city had “already applied for building permits to put a restaurant in the pavilion.” C.B. 5 member Kevin Finnegan was quoted as saying “The building plans are for a restaurant — it has a kitchen and seating for 120 people.”
(Metro, March 21st, 2008)

  • Historic Elements of Park Treated with Contempt by Bloomberg Administration

The aspects that make Washington Square Park historically a free speech gathering place and a great overall public space were treated with disdain by the Bloomberg Administration. Their plan is to cut away public space to control public gatherings and un-permitted performances. They are ruining the historic nature of the park, dismantling the large circular Fountain, which also serves as a public rallying venue, rebuilding it in a smaller version eight yards away with vast reduction of the ad-hoc seating and renaming it (a plaque on each side) for the billionaire Tisch Family.

The Union Square Park Pavilion’s history is primarily known as the space where numerous political demonstrations occurred. The first Labor Day Parade in 1882 ended up at the northern end of Union Square at the Pavilion.

  • Budget Swells ; Corporate Entities Enter Picture

At Washington Square Park, repairs could have been accomplished with the $6 million the Parks Department allegedly had on hand for Washington Square Park but instead a $16 million budget was put into play with financing by the Tisch Family ($2.5 million) and NYU ($1 million). Current “designer” of the redesign, George Vellonakis, is on the record as stating that half of the money will come from private donors. Thus far, no others have been named but the budget for Phase I alone has skyrocketed from $6 million to $13 million.

The $1.9 million that Council Member Lopez secured for Union Square Park has never been spent. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg himself (and greeted by hecklers) “announced the city would kick in $8 million* to fund a new $14 million renovation of the entire north end.” It was announced that “the balance (was) being paid by the Union Square Partnership, the area’s business improvement district, which currently helps take care of the park.” (Metro, January 25th, 2007) *The City’s contribution is now $11.75 million and the entire project is projected at $20 million. In addition, an “anonymous donor” has given $5 million towards the project, contingent on a restaurant being in the pavilion. (New York Times, January 28, 2007) The Parks Department of course insisted initially that there was no such stipulation but the truth has since been revealed.

  • Reduction of Historic Public Space

Presently, Washington Square Park is scheduled to lose 23 percent of public space around the historic fountain.

Union Square Park will see a widening of the street at 16th, and a reduction of the space allocated to the famous GreenMarket (The GreenMarket was interestingly enough founded by Parks Commissioner Benepe’s father, Barry) – largely responsible for helping revive the area and neighborhood – as well as reduction of green space around Pavilion and chopping down of numerous trees (see next item).

  • Trees Seen as Expendable for Corporate Interests

In Phase I ALONE of the Washington Square Park redesign, up to 16 trees in the Northwest Quadrant have been deemed ‘in the way’ of the city’s plans. Thus far, 11 have been axed. There is no word on what tree destruction will happen during Phase II.

At Union Square Park, 14 trees are inexplicably headed for the chopping block to expand the restaurant space at the Pavilion.

Note: We’d like to reflect for a moment on the fact that these plans are coming from our City’s “Parks” Department. Hopefully, you’ve taken that in…

  • Conflicts of Interest

Controversial designer of the “aligned” version of Washington Square Park, George Vellonakis, is allegedly on the board of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation which strangely enough took no position on the redesign of this landmarked historic Park, while seemingly taking strong positions on every other issue of redesign in the Village.

At Union Square Park, Restauranteur Danny Meyer — who is likely to helm the proposed restaurant at Union Square Park — is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (a BID – business improvement district organization) which is putting up a large part of the money to redesign the north end of the Pavilion.

***

There are many other aspects to Washington Square Park’s muddied approval “process” that we will go into at another time (“The Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Arts Commission approvals, etc.) but they don’t apply to what happened – thus far – at Union Square Park. There are enough similarities and alarming details outlined above without adding anything else at the moment.

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.

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

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.

*************************************************
–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?

What makes a great public space?

9721272_e7e8e2317b_m1.jpg

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.”

This leads to only one question : Why is the city putting forth a radical redesign of Washington Square Park, a great public space?

More on this to follow.

Why Mayor Bloomberg Wants Redesign of Washington Sq Park/NYC

Where to start about NYC Mayor Bloomberg…?

Because of the mainstream media’s general lack of greater scrutiny of Mayor Bloomberg’s actions, the Mayor has almost succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of our city.

His initiatives include: taking over control of schools (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), 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 and besieged by “luxury” housing. The list goes on and on.

I’m sure if I met Mayor Bloomberg, I’d find him slightly engaging. But we’re not at a society ball. We’re on the precipice of WHAT OUR CITY IS GOING TO LOOK LIKE for the NEXT 30 YEARS and drastic changes are being made with his finger on all the triggers. I could coexist with him 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 Washington Square Park “renovation,” albeit on the third try. Yet, from NYU to the “Tisch Fountain,” Mayor Bloomberg’s privatization agenda looms large.

The “renovation” of Washington Square Park is Bloomberg’s “pet project.” Why? Because Washington Square Park is the antithesis of his vision of New York City — a freewheeling cacophanous non-permitted jumble of free speech, free music, free performance, free political debate – and police cameras all over the place. Washington Square Park houses 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

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

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?

Jane Jacobs

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.

Washington Square Park – NYC

Trees that line the fountain – now gone.

Fountain – now dismantled.

Why do the City and the Mayor want to change every last thing that works (and people love) about this Park?