Part II: What Needs to be Done to Have a Functioning Washington Sq Park Task Force? #1: Separate from Community Bd 2

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

I’ve been grappling with how to tackle addressing the Washington Square Park Task Force following Part I last week in which I listed its purported “goals” and the NY elected officials who have actual representatives on it. I listened to audio tape of a meeting from July 2007. I attended the July 2008 meeting. I’ve spoken to members of the Task Force. The Task Force has a lot of good people on it who from the beginning wanted to have an impact but as Fusun Ateser, a member of the Task Force, told me recently, “we were not allowed to do anything.”‘

Task Force Linkage to Community Board 2

Part of the problem I believe is the close linkage of the WSP Task Force to Community Board 2. Presently, Brad Hoylman, Community Board 2 Chair is the co-chair of the Task Force with CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman. There are many capable people on the WSP Task Force – it does not need to be led by the Community Board.

Community Board 2 has already made its own share of mistakes around Washington Square Park — notably, approving the Parks Department’s redesign plan twice with insufficient data and despite widespread community disapproval. They ultimately rescinded their approvalalbeit on the third try.

There needs to be an independent body monitoring what’s happening at this Park and – barring some other organization appearing – that ought to be the Washington Square Park Task Force but not in its present incarnation.

At meetings, Mr. Hoylman and Mr. Bergman are adamant that the Task Force was only created to uphold the Gerson-Quinn “letter.” While others on the Task Force seem ready to go further, they are continually reined in by (Community Board 2 co-chairs) Hoylman and Bergman. In July ’07, when people tried to make resolutions, Mr. Hoylman stated that he “wanted to be sure it doesn’t resemble a Community Board resolution.” Therefore, resolutions were not allowed.

What would a Functioning Body look like?

I’ve seen how groups can function well – and also not function well. I believe the Task Force needs to be taken out of the hands of Community Board 2. We need people to continue fighting for this park. The people who comprise the WSP Task Force feel they have no power. This is a historic park. It is a landmark in New York City. It is a dynamic public space. It deserves to have people fighting for it – who will fight for it.

Problems with Washington Square Park Re-Design not caught by WSP Task Force

Example: The lamps in the park. I asked Ms. Atessur if the Task Force was ever shown two different lamps (which was supposed to be done – the Task Force has oversight on design “details”) and asked for their approval on them. She replied no. When I asked Brad Hoylman if they approved the choice of the lamps, he told me he thought so but never got back to me with a confirmation. The lamps being installed presently do not fit the character of the park. If they were not approved by the Washington Square Park Task Force, then what is the Task Force doing? This is part of their charge. Clearly, either the two co-chairs have too much on their plate or cannot give this proper attention. Control of the WSP Task Force needs to be removed from their hands.

Example: The fence. The fence (coming in is 4 feet high, as opposed to the more welcoming 3 feet that exists currently) is not supposed to have decorative spears or points on top (this is actually stated in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement). And yet – it does. (See photo above.) Is anyone looking after this? Isn’t this important?

There needs to be a point person from the Washington Square Park Task Force walking through that park regularly and monitoring each aspect. There needs to be a point person talking to the Parks Department. Now, unfortunately, if Council Member Alan Gerson is the designated elected official you go to if you are not getting answers from the Parks Department, then you may be in trouble because he will not rock the boat. But at least get the boat in the water!

Note: I am going to send this information to every elected official listed as involved with the Washington Square Park Task Force.

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Top photo (fence being installed): Cathryn/WSP Blog
Bottom photo (girl with guitar sitting on fence): Louis Seigal

Part I on The Washington Square Park Task Force – What is it and what are its stated “goals?”

The Washington Square Park Task Force was put into play by NY City Council Member Alan Gerson and NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (both of whom, if you weren’t aware, voted to extend their own terms in the whole term limits fiasco).

The WSP Task Force is supposed to be the body that follows up on the tepid Gerson-Quinn Agreement and the “stipulations” put forth in that letter dated October 6, 2005 from Gerson-Quinn to NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

The WSPTF is run presently under the aegis of Community Board 2 but it 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.

Co-chaired by Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman and CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman, the Washington Square Park Task Force meets infrequently and it is unclear how and when certain decisions are made. Yet it is the only body that has been given some jurisdiction (in theory) over the Parks Department and the outcome of the redesigned Washington Square Park.

Therefore, the hope would be that it would have some teeth and it would be in there fighting for this dynamic and historic public space. But is it?

Goals of the Washington Square Park Task Force:

I have an undated document which stipulates the goals as such:

1. Make sure all points of Quinn-Gerson agreement are adhered to.

2. All bid documents, all changes of plans, and all design details should be run by task force.

3. Enable the community to have input on design details.

4. Maintain the sense of informality of the park which is so central to its charm and character.

5. Maintain Washington Square Park as a well maintained, diverse, plural park where all sorts of people feel welcome.

6. Maintain as much green space as open to the public as possible while keeping it alive.

7. Maintain as many of the trees as possible.

8. Create conditions which allow funding of bathroom renovation.

9. Step up maintenance pending the resolution of the legal issues.

10. Oppose the establish of a conservancy without a good deal of public vetting.

So how has the WSP Task Force done thus far on these stated “goals” and what are the inherent problems with it?

Part II will explore this next.

NYC Arborcidal Waterfalls “Public Art” Ended Yesterday

Public Art "arborcidal" Waterfalls Brooklyn Bridge

Arborcidal Waterfalls as Public Art

I received a bulletin from outside.in which led me to Gothamist which announced that the “arborcidal” NYC Waterfalls ended their much-publicized killing spree of Brooklyn Heights‘ trees yesterday.

Despite our Mayor’s much hyped “love OF trees,”* the artist, Olafur Eliasson “received an award for the exhibit’s contribution ‘to the public environment‘” from Mayor Bloomberg, according to the Brooklyn Paper.

I suspect the only tangible thing the NYC Waterfalls truly contributed to the public environment was dying trees in Brooklyn Heights.

Mayor Bloomberg stated initially that Eliasson’s Waterfalls would bring $55 million to the City’s economy. Not that I think that’s what public art is about but since Mayor Bloomberg does… how’d they do? When asked, our CEO Mayor’s spokesperson pointed to an increase in sold-out boat tours. $55 million = a lot of boat tours. We can expect an accounting from the city’s Economic Development Corporation but since they most likely report to the Mayor … I’m sure we can anticipate a positive outcome.

For WSP Blog previous coverage when the arborcide first occurred, click here.

* Related post: “How do you define hypocrisy, Mayor Bloomberg? 14 Union Square Trees Scheduled to be cut down.”

Photo: Wally G

Christine Quinn announces Public Hearings on Term Limits Thurs. Oct. 16 and Fri. Oct. 17

Christine Quinn and friend

Christine Quinn and friend

From NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn:

Thank you for taking the time to voice your thoughts and views on term limits.

The Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by Council Member Simcha Felder, has scheduled two public hearings on this matter.

The first hearing will be held on Thursday, October 16th at 1:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall (2nd Floor).

The second hearing will be held on Friday, October 17th at 10:00 a.m. in the Committee Room at City Hall (2nd Floor).

Individuals who wish to give testimony may do so by registering at either hearing. Written testimony is strongly encouraged and can be submitted at the hearings or mailed to Matt Gewolb at New York City Council, 250 Broadway, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10007. Testimony can also be submitted electronically to testimony -at- council.nyc.gov.

To view the legislation being considered and to receive updated information, please visit the New York City Council’s website or call (212) 788-7210.

Thank you again for voicing your thoughts and views on term limits.

Sincerely,
Christine C. Quinn
Speaker

WSP Blog Note: It is believed the City Council has been instructed by Mayor Bloomberg to do this all quickly and therefore will vote the following week.

Billionaires for Bloomberg Make Their Case – Who needs change?

A Billionaire for Bloomberg dropped by the site last night and left a comment with a link to this video. He wanted folks to see this clip arguing the case to “let Bloomberg finish” what he started. Indeed.

Since I am all for giving both sides an opportunity to argue their position (although one could say that the Mayor has much of the media locked in taking care of that for him), here it is:

Union Square Partnership’s Harvest Gala v. Citizen Chefs – Union Square Park 9/18

The people come marchin' to defend their Park

The people come marchin'

Thursday night. Union Square. The setting of Union Square Partnership’s Harvest in the Square, an annual gala held by the ubiquitous BID (Business Improvement District). Although their promotional materials stated the gala would inhabit the “west plaza” of Union Square Park, in reality, they took over half of the south plaza as well, including the area surrounding the George Washington Statue. Billed as the “premiere food and wine tasting event,” tickets ranged from $125 to $400 for VIP early bird event.

The BID — the ones who want to put a private exclusive restaurant in the historic Union Square Pavilion, thereby shutting off more public space — is led by Jennifer Falk. Falk previously worked for Mayor Bloomberg. (Funny how it’s just a game of musical chairs at times.) Co-chair of the BID is restauranteur Danny Meyer.

I don’t think they were prepared for the festive arrival of Reverend Billy and assorted citizen chef/passionate public space advocates who came out to chant their message and bang some pots and pans saying ‘no giveaway of our public space’ – as we watched our public space taken over by the BID for their harvest gala.

Police And Onlookers

Police And Onlookers

Reverend Billy was arrested as was another activist – I believe both charges were “disorderly conduct.” Reverend Billy was addressing the attendees of the gala through a megaphone about the takeover of our public space when he was escorted away. The other activist had the audacity? to crumple up a flyer and throw it over the fence. A random act of (at the most) littering somehow becomes “disorderly conduct.”

People sitting around Union Square all curiously watched and eagerly took flyers which stated “Parks for People – Not for Profit.” We’ve all gotten so buttoned-down in New York. How often do you see such a creative action? All too infrequently.

Oh, and yes, our NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, was there and addressed the crowd at the gala event. I think his speech may have been, um, overshadowed by the sound of the citizen chefs (and their pots, pans, and chants) however. All too fitting.

The BIDs in more recent years have gotten more sophisticated and yet wish to appear ‘just like us.’ A part of the community. The Union Square BID is a 501(c)3 non-profit — something we link with advocacy groups, not organizations trying to promote more shopping. Around Washington Square Park, the BID – previously known as The 8th Street BID – changed its name to the Village Alliance. Doesn’t that sound neighborly?

Rev Billy addresses Gala

Rev Billy addresses Gala

Photos: #1 and 2: Quilty; #3 and 4: Cathryn

Danny Meyer chairing gala event in Union Square Park Thursday 9/18 – and Citizen Chefs Cooking Up Change will be there too.

The USP BID chair, Danny Meyer

The USP BID chair, Danny Meyer

Updated 9/16!

Union Square Not for Sale moves into the fall season with a bang! (literally) when Citizen Chefs Cooking Up Change meets up Thursday night, September 18th, as restauranteur Danny Meyer co-chairs Harvest in the Square in Union Square Park.

Billed as “a festive celebration of community and cuisine,” Harvest in the Square is presented by the Union Square Partnership — the local BID, business improvement district (which Meyer also co-chairs). Described as “Manhattan’s premier food and wine tasting event,” tickets are $115; $125 at the door. VIP pre-event starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $400.

The BID states: “Great Food. Great Fun. Great Fundraiser. Everyone leaves feeling Great.

Well, isn’t that … um, GREAT?

Except… they are taking over our public space (already threatened) for a private event.

Except… Our public parks should be funded by our City budget and not a private organization which then retains incredible control over the public space. The New York City budget allocate less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the entire budget to Parks and public spaces. Yet these areas comprise 14% of City land.

Except… Union Square Partnership is interested in “beautification efforts” to help improve businessaround Union Square. We are interested in public space, interactions, people, community, art, conversation, politics in Union Square.

Except… Union Square Partnership wants to place a private restaurant in the historic Union Square Pavilion thereby closing off the public space and catering to an “exclusive” clientele, off-limits to many New Yorkers. (At the moment, a judge has ordered a “no-restaurant” decree on the space.)

Except… Union Square is a PUBLIC SPACE, and like Washington Square Park, it is important that it be regarded AS an important public space. It’s not just about beautification as these architects and realtors and business people would have us believe. Once you gloss everything over, you lose the gritty, you lose the bohemianism, you lose the unique indescribable interactions that can occur in these places when you gear the space for one type of person (which is happening at both these parks).

Except… Everyone becomes a bit more Stepford. No offense to Mayor Bloomberg (although regular readers know I am not a fan) but our CEO Mayor needs to stay out of our public spaces. Our Boston-raised Mayor is not the model for how to keep New York New York. How to keep Wall Street Wall Street and keep us believing that the Financial District is the most important thing for our city? That he does quite well.

So, come on out ! ******************************

EVERYONE IS INVITED to one of our premier public spaces, UNION SQUARE! (it’s free!)

CITIZEN CHEFS COOKING UP CHANGE * Keep Parks for People NOT for Profit

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH, 6 P.M.

UNION SQUARE SOUTH – GEORGE WASHINGTON STATUE (SOUTH END, AT 14TH STREET, ON PLAZA)

Bring some pots and pans (and something to bang on them with) and your spirit (or just bring yourself).

Attire: Festive — &/or Come in costume – black pants, white shirts, bow ties… Union Square Not for Sale will provide chef’s hats.

Context:
The Union Square Partnership is selling out one of our most important public spaces, the pavilion on the north side of Union Square, site of seminal speeches from Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day and many many more, rally site of the first Labor Day Parade, AND one of the last remaining public assembly areas in the city.

More Info: Union Square Not for Sale.

WSP Blog Presents apparent Conundrum to the NYC Parks Dept with the Question: What is Amount of Public Space around the Washington Square Park Fountain?


In attempting to clarify a simple point of information from the NYC Parks Department Press Office last month, I first received a gracious response — followed by a drop-off in communication.

Did I per chance hit upon something that the Parks Department does not want to admit or state publicly?

It’s basic information contained within Phase I of the redesign work. The same work they state will be completed in November.

My curiously difficult-to-answer question to the NYC Parks Department? … : What will the size of the Plaza area (the public space) surrounding the Washington Square Park Fountain be?

(As regular readers know, due to the Park’s redesign, the famous fountain is now moved 23 feet east of its original location in the center of the Park to “align” with the Washington Square Arch.)

Jane Jacobs and the Fountain’s Importance As a Public Space

Whether the fountain really needed to be moved, that’s a question most people answer NO to. However, perhaps a bigger point of concern is the amount of public space around the Fountain — the Plaza. As Jane Jacobs wrote about the Washington Square Park Fountain in 1971 in her renowned book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “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.”

WSP Blog and Parks Department Press Office Communication

I wrote to Jama Adams, the head of the Parks Department press department at the suggestion of Amy Freitag, #2 to NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe, in early August. Adams assigned Press Officer Cristina DeLuca to assist me.

I wrote the following on August 5th:

Hi Cristina,

Thank you for getting in contact.

I want to know from the Parks Department what the square footage of – what is usually termed – the “interior plaza area” or “inner circle” around the Fountain at Washington Square Park will be with the renovation of the Park.

The figure that I have is that the new interior plaza (which goes from outermost edge of fountain wall to innermost edge of any seating) will be 20,662 square feet.

In addition, the Entire Plaza Area around Fountain (which includes and goes beyond this area) will be 39,419 square feet.

Can you verify this?

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Cathryn.

On August 7th, this interchange occurred:

Hi Cathryn,

Hope to have this confirmed for you soon. Waiting on borough staff to give me the info. Just resubmitted request as a reminder.
Best,
Cristina

Sent: Thursday, August 07, 2008 4:41 PM
To: DeLuca, Cristina
Subject: Re: Washington Square Park

Hi Cristina,

When do you think you might have the information I requested ? It should be within Parks Department documentation for Phase I work of Washington Square Park.

Thanks for your help.

Sincerely,
Cathryn.

Then … what happened?

Nothing. Since then, I’ve sent numerous emails, I’ve called and left messages. No response.

Is the New York City Parks Department is hiding something?

Could it be that this plaza area is going to be less than what was stated and stipulated ? *

Background on the Public Space issue around the Fountain

*The Gerson-Quinn Agreement (drafted October 2005), a mild (but weak) document, written to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe by NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Council Member Alan Gerson, states its goal as: “a framework for resolving the outstanding major issues pertaining to the renovation of Washington Square Park.” The G-Q Agreement did not in fact even attempt to resolve the major outstanding issues (NOTE: This has made close followers of the redesign question Gerson and Quinn’s intention) but it did stipulate a few things that should nonetheless be adhered to.

One such stipulation: That the Fountain Plaza be no less than 90% of the current area.

In August 2007, The Washington Square Park Task Force issued a Report. It addressed the Plaza area and stated that: it “did not have enough information from the Parks Department to draw a clear conclusion on the size of the inner circle of the fountain plaza in the Plan. Rough calculations made by Task Force members of the total square footage of the inner circle ranged from 88% to 77% of the current area.”

When I questioned WSP Task Force co-chair Brad Hoylman last month if this question was ever answered, he directed me to lawsuit documents* from which I obtained the figures above that I queried the Parks Department about.

(*If you hadn’t heard, there were numerous lawsuits around Washington Square Park trying to stop the project from going forward and calling the Parks Department on its lack of transparency and accountability. They ultimately failed to stop the project from going forward.)

What is the Parks Department hiding?

It appears that the NYC Parks Department does not want to answer this basic – but important question – which impacts our public space. The Press Office is caught in the middle.

Perhaps the bigger question is…

Who is minding the store?



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

Hint: Is it Community Board 2? The Washington Square Park Task Force? Community Groups? Alan Gerson? Christine Quinn? None of the above?

Exhibit — Eminent Domain: The City and Shifting views of Public and Private space @ NY Public Library 42nd Street

The New York Public Library exhibit “Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City – Shifting views of public and private space” ends Friday, August 29th. 42nd Street and 5th Avenue (near Bryant Park!). There is an exhibition and photography from five New York-based artists which take on the “theme of the modern city” and the “changing nature of space in New York City today.”  I’m hoping to see this before it closes.  At the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall, 1st floor. Free.

From the NYPL description of the exhibit:

Last summer, public outcry forced New York City officials to reconsider regulations that might have required even the most casual of tourist-photographers to obtain a permit and $1 million in liability insurance to photograph or film in the streets of the city. A majority of the objectors felt that the proposed regulations threatened First Amendment rights to photograph in public places and amounted to a kind of privatization of public space. Similarly, people have questioned the current private/public arrangements that characterize much of modern urban redevelopment, from the proposed Columbia University expansion to Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and from Willets Point in Queens to the Atlantic Yards and Coney Island in Brooklyn.

Contention particularly surrounds the legal power of eminent domain, or the taking of private property for public use: at the core of the debate is the definition of “public use” and concern that the word “public” has become a euphemism to disguise what are essentially private investments.

[the] photography poses questions that resonate with current debates about the reorganized urban landscape and the consequent shifting of public and private space, whether through gentrification, globalization, or the suburbanization of the city.

Curbed goes inside Washington Square Park Redesign Site.

Well. Call me days behind on my Curbed reading but how is it exactly that Curbed got inside Washington Square Park to take up close photos of the redesign work? Could it be that someone inside the NYC Parks Department (or somehow linked to the work) wanted to counterbalance some of the news that has appeared there from this blog that is not quite so … favorable.

I enjoy reading Curbed a lot. They consistently cover issues around real estate and neighborhoods related to the massive changes going on in our City in a unique, accessible way. They’ve been great covering news from this blog.

But it still makes me go … hmmm.

Read the piece here.