Part I: Community Board 2 and NY City Council Disavow Oversight of Washington Square Park Redesign Project As Phase II Construction Stalled for Five Weeks

Amended sign- Completion Date: "Or whenever... zzz"

On September 29th, I wrote about how construction on the SouthWest Quadrant/Chess Plaza at Washington Square Park had been stopped for about 3 weeks. 5 weeks passed with no movement or signs of life on this last piece of long overdue Redesign: Phase II work. At this point, delays in the project do not surprise me. Why this is happening is due to a dispute between the Parks Department and the contractor (more on that later).

What does surprise me is the lack of oversight by just about everyone you’d expect to be monitoring this project.

Let’s review the players —

Washington Square Park Task Force

There IS a Washington Square Park Task Force – although you’d never know it – this body seemed to dissolve once City Council Member Alan Gerson left office – replacement Margaret Chin has been totally MIA on the project. Community Board 2 has pretended that the Task Force doesn’t exist and Council Speaker Christine Quinn has not prompted it to keep going. The body was part of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” created for the express purpose of giving the community an opportunity to provide oversight on the project and monitor work on the park’s redesign. In March of 2010, I wrote a piece about how the only way the Task Force would function properly is if it was separated from Community Board 2. Clearly, that remains accurate.

Community Board 2

Trees are dying, work is stopped, project is months behind schedule, budget continues ballooning, something is wrong with the Fountain … and yet Community Board 2 has only chimed in – with regards to WSP in the last year – when they sent out Bob Gormley to talk to the media about the bathroom hours being cut.

Brad Hoylman is back after a 2 year hiatus as Chair of the Board (CB2 chairs only serve 2 year terms). Some may have mixed feelings on his role in the negotiations for the park’s redesign years prior, and he does, after all, work for pro-Bloomberg entity, Partnership for New York City. My experience was that he was pretty decent at moving things along and bringing up and addressing issues during the period I first became involved (2008).

However, since Hoylman returned in June of this year, there’s been no progress or spotlight on the park by the board. He’s left Parks Committee chair Tobi Bergman in charge. As I’ve mentioned, Bergman is a former Parks Department employee who doesn’t take a very hard look at anything related to the Parks Department (in fact, his current job is somewhat dependent on the city agency).

NY City Council

No involvement at all. Council Member Margaret Chin’s office completely unresponsive. Council Speaker Christine Quinn – who was a huge part of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” – is hands off at this point but, then, she’s not being pushed to be involved by the bodies that ought to be doing so – the Community Board and Task Force.

We know that the Parks Department is a dysfunctional agency, and so, at this point, this is a project run amok.

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An Overview:

Phase II Original completion date: Fall 2010. Work was split into two parts earlier this year — Phase II-A (eastern end) opened June 2nd. Budget for all three phases of the park’s elaborate redesign was $16 Million – that figure has now doubled.

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Previously on WSP Blog: Has Phase II just stopped? September 29, 2011

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Washington Square Park Redesign Phase II: An Eerie Silence – What’s Going On? – Part 1

Well, that's not going to happen...

Lack of Parks Department Transparency; No Governmental or Community Oversight Lead to Eerie Silence on WSP: Phase II

What’s happening with Phase II? It’s been a bit quiet on the Washington Square Park Redesign news front. Hard to believe but there have been no official updates on the current work on the $30 million + project for 9 months now since a brief overview was given in December 2009 shortly after the work got going.

It’s somewhat understandable why Phase I — which included the controversial, and, most would say, unnecessary aligning and leveling of the Fountain Plaza — got all the attention.

Yet Phase II’s tinkering, with no spotlight on it at all, includes some of the most loved aspects of the park, including: the Chess Tables, Mounds and Play Area, Dog Runs, Garibaldi Statue and Performance Site, Seating Alcoves, Children’s Playground, as well as the lawn, pathways and gardens throughout the SW, E and NE sides of the historic park.

So, why the silence? If you read Washington Square Park Blog regularly, you know that I’ve advocated for more governmental and community oversight on the project.

Who, you ask, should be doing that oversight?

  • Body #1: The New York City Council.The two public faces at the onset of Phase I were Council Member Alan Gerson and Speaker Christine Quinn who engineered the famous Gerson-Quinn Agreement. Gerson lost his bid for a third term when he was voted out of office by disgruntled constituents. His replacement, Margaret Chin, has distanced herself from the project. At the rare meetings that have occurred in relation to WSP since she assumed the position early this year, no representatives from her office have attended.
  • Body #2: The Washington Square Park Task Force. Lacking Phase I’s high profile and without Community Board 2 and Task Force Chair Brad Hoylman there, the WSP Task Force has gone silent on Phase II. I’ve emailed Hoylman’s replacement, Jo Hamilton, multiple times reminding her of the Task Force’s purview but she has been resistant, likely believing former Parks’ employee (and chair of the CB2 Parks Committee) Tobi Bergman’s insistence that oversight is not part of their role. (Here, he perhaps intentionally mixes things up between the CB2 Parks Committee and the Washington Square Park Task Force. The latter is charged, in fact, with the role of oversight of the finer details of the redesign.)

For a quick refresher, here are the first three points of the WSP Task Force “goals”:

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.

Meanwhile, Phase III, yet to come, which reconstructs the rest rooms and Park administrative offices into one elaborate structure, has been the subject of three separate meetings. Numerous questions have been allowed by the community members – and they have been answered. The reason? This leg is being overseen by an outside architecture firm.

Oh, Garibaldi...

Phase II is overseen by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe‘s favorite, landscape designer George Vellonakis. Vellonakis, as it is widely known, dislikes community input; therefore, only cursory details have been presented — these more than a year ago. There have been no substantive updates – or opportunities for review – since.

In fact, the only time anyone saw the blueprints up close, they were dropped off on a table at a February meeting of the CB2 Parks Committee with no discussion allowed. Tobi Bergman brushed this off; although even he seemed a bit disgruntled that the blueprints were handed over FIVE MONTHS after the project had begun.

Do you sense a lack of respect – and even disdain – by the Parks Department for the community and everyone involved?

It’s no surprise that Phase II is mired in problems that no one knows about, and the Parks Department – with Community Board 2’s and the NY City Council’s complicity – wants to keep it that way.

Wondering what the problems are?

Read Part II here.

Washington Square Park Task Force Meets Tonite; Also, CB2 Parks Committee addresses Friends of the High Line Proposal and Public Hearing on “expressive matter” i.e., art in NYC Parks

The Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee meet tonite Wednesday, April 7th at 7:15 p.m. to discuss Phase III Washington Square Park redesign. The New York City Parks Department will be presenting a proposed design for the restrooms and Parks’ maintenance building — public comment is welcome.

Prior to that, at 6:30 p.m., the Parks Committee will discuss two other interesting issues. (How they will accomplish this in 45 minutes will be interesting!) These items are:

* Friends of the High Line will present their plan for a maintenance building to be located adjacent to the High Line in CB 2. (Update: This topic has been removed from the agenda.)

* Public hearing on proposed new Parks Department rules regarding vending of “expressive material” in parks.

— If you haven’t been following this, it’s quite controversial. It’s yet another way for the Bloomberg Administration to give private interests continued and additional reign over our parks and will limit artistic diversity and vitality, click here to read yesterday’s New York Times story. It’s not, as the Parks Department is asserting, that the artist vendors are taking up too much room and causing congestion in our parks by any means. To see that, go to Union Square when the GreenMarket is there on Saturdays or during the holiday market which takes up way too much of that public space in December.

Location for the meeting: NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Place, off Washington Square East, Room 401

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

Part 1 of 2; 3/10/10There have been issues with the lack of follow-through of the Washington Square Park Task Force, the body designated to oversee the park’s redesign, since its inception. Since I touched on this body and issues with it back in November ’08, I thought I’d run an edited version of this post again. If you think about it, if the Task Force had been paying attention to details, as
mandated, they would have been aware that the new benches the Parks Department were installing at the park were rainforest woodmuch called into question now – and could have stopped it. Just one example!

Original post (slightly edited):

The Washington Square Park Task Force was put into play by (former) NY City Council Member Alan Gerson and (present) NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (both of whom 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 Gerson-Quinn Agreement and the “stipulations” put forth in that letter (of 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*.

Co-chaired by Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman — now, Jo Hamilton — 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 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, which follows, will explore this next.

* 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(now Margaret Chin), State Senator Tom Duane, and Assembly Member Deborah Glick.

Edited from original post published November 7th, 2008.

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

Part 2 of 2; 3/10/10: The same issues I wrote about when this post first was published in November 2008 seemed abated for awhile but have resurfaced anew. No one has any idea what is being missed in relation to Redesign: Phase II details pertaining to the chess tables, the Mounds, the childrens’ playground, the alcoves, the Garibaldi Plaza, etc., because the questions are not being asked. The heads of the Task Force currently have the laissez faire attitude that since the design is “approved”, there’s nothing for them to do now. In December 2009, the body asked for an update on Phase II. Since the Parks Department said they didn’t have one ready, the Task Force now sits idly by. They do not ask to view the design details which are part of the reason for their existence. No one has any idea how many trees are being cut down in Phase II because they have not asked.

Edited version of post from Nov. 13, 2008:

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 in which I listed its purported goals and the NY elected officials who have actual representatives on it. The Task Force has a lot of good people on it from the community 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 — now, Jo Hamilton — Community Board 2 Chair is the co-chair of the Task Force, with CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman.

Community Board 2 has already made its own share of mistakes around Washington Square Park 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 ought to be an independent body monitoring what’s happening at this Park. At Task Force 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 Hoylman and Bergman. In July ’07, when people attempted to put forth 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?

The Task Force needs to be taken out of the hands of the Community Board in this instance. 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

Most recent example: As I noted in the updated version of Part I, the Task Force totally missed that the new benches being installed at the Park were made of rainforest wood – a wood from an endangered area that certainly could have been avoided putting into use. They never asked so they didn’t know.

Example: The lamps in the park. Ms. Atessur said the Task Force was never shown the two different lamp choices (the Task Force has oversight on design “details”) and asked for their approval on them. When I asked Brad Hoylman if the body approved the choice of the lamps, he told me he thought so but never got back to me with a confirmation. (Task Force member Doris Diether also confirmed she never saw – or approved – the lamp choices.) 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.

Note: some people wrote to me at the time this post was written and told me that the lamps were a trivial item to focus on, that they were fine enough. But I don’t think it’s trivial to note that the Task Force hadn’t been doing its job. They have not been paying attention to the “details,” as mandated.

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?

There needs to be a point person from the Washington Square Park Task Force walking through the 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!

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

Edited version of post originally published November 13th, 2008

Updated Part I here.

Two of Seven Newly Planted Trees Surrounding the Washington Square Park Fountain Have Died — Is the Cause the Design? + WSP Task Force Meeting Update

Dying Tree Lining Fountain, Since Removed

Last week’s meeting of Washington Square Park Task Force/Community Board 2 Parks Committee on December 2nd provided minimal new information about Phase II (currently in progress) and Phase III of the Park’s redesign.

Another meeting of the WSP Task Force is scheduled for February 2010 at which the NYC Parks Department will be prepared to present information on Phases II and III since they admitted they were not equipped to do so at the December 2nd meeting.

[Update: This meeting did not happen; it was the infamous meeting where the blueprints for Phase II were dropped off on a table with no discussion. It was a CB2 Parks Committee meeting; the Task force did not meet.]

There was one item of note: A brief discussion on why two of the new trees planted around the Washington Square Park Fountain died earlier this year. Landscape designer George Vellonakis insisted that there is “no drainage problem” and that it was just a result of the construction (which is troubling, if so, also).

I encountered a landscape architect at the park one day in August when the two trees were being dug up and removed who informed me that the (new) design is not appropriate for proper water drainage with structural soil and that this diminishes (perhaps eliminates) the tree’s ability to survive.

Seven of the trees that lined the Fountain (close to forty years old) were axed because of the Bloomberg Administration’s desire to relocate the Washington Square Park Fountain 22 feet east so that it would align with the Arch at Fifth Avenue. The Fountain had been in its previous location since 1871.

The true test will be if the new trees planted survive. If they don’t, let’s hope that the Parks Department will take some corrective action.  It seems wrong to sacrifice living trees for a potentially flawed design.

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Washington Square Park Task Force to Meet Wednesday, December 2nd to Address Final Phases of WSP Redesign Plan

On Wednesday, December 2nd, the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Committee will meet to address the following in relation to the final phases of Washington Square Park’s redesign:

* Review of the current status of Phase II construction including presentation of various final details of the park plan.

* Review of current status of plans for (Phase III) the Washington Square Park maintenance building and rest rooms.

The meeting will begin at 7:15 p.m. Various NYC Parks Department representatives will be present.

Earlier that evening, at 6:30 p.m., CB2’s Parks Committee will be addressing a proposal by NYU to remove 6 trees on Thompson Street in connection with construction of the Interfaith Center (58 Washington Square South) and installation of heating pipes under the sidewalk.

Location: NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Place, Room 714

Washington Sq Park Task Force to Meet about Design of WSP Buildings – Administration and “Comfort Stations” – Wednesday, May 6th

Some News: There will be a meeting of the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee on Wednesday, May 6th focusing on the design of Washington Square Park‘s comfort stations (i.e., bathrooms) and administration buildings, all located on the South side of the Park.

Community Board 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman sent out a special notice yesterday about this meeting. From the notice: “In previous public hearings about reconstruction of the park, many community residents focused on the condition of the rest rooms as the single worst condition in the park and CB 2 has prioritized the construction of the new facility. At this meeting, the Washington Square Task Force and the CB 2 Parks Committee will meet with the Parks Department to discuss the scope for this project. This meeting represents the most important opportunity for the community to advise the Parks Department of our needs and preferences regarding this important project. All are welcome to attend.”

I respect Brad Hoylman a lot. He has been extremely helpful and welcoming to me. Community Board 2 is addressing many critical issues in the neighborhoods it represents (overcrowding in local schools and open space issues among them — also included in the special notice). But I question whether this is the “most important opportunity for the community to advise the Parks Department of our needs and preferences regarding this important project.”

There have been four Washington Square Park Task Force meetings since July of last year addressing crucial phases and issues related to Washington Square Park and none of them – to my knowledge – had special notices sent out informing people about them. (The other meetings were well attended and they were listed on the CB2 regular e-mailed Monthly Calendar. Yet, a “special notice” gets people’s attention.)

It’s true that a large percentage of park users and neighborhood residents wanted the bathrooms given priority (they’ve fallen into serious disrepair). However, that sentiment applied to moving the implementation of their reconstruction up in the Parks Department’s plan to Phase I (or even Phase II) of the project, not to leave this for last – which is what is happening.

To learn more about the plans and/or give input, here are the details:

Washington Sq Park Task Force/CB2 Parks Committee Meeting
Wednesday, May 6th, 5:45 p.m., Meet at WSP Maintenance Office (south side of Park); Continues afterwards (approximately 6:30 p.m.) at Judson Memorial Church, Assembly Hall, 239 Thompson Street (off Washington Square South).

Check out Community Board 2‘s new web site.

Washington Square Park Task Force To Meet Wednesday, February 4th

On Wednesday, February 4th at 6:30 PM, the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee will meet to review Washington Square Park Redesign Phase 2 including plans for the stage, mounds, and sitting alcoves. Location: St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 W. 12th St. Cronin Auditorium, 10th Floor.

Report-back from Washington Sq Park Task Force Meeting on Phase II of Park’s Redesign (Emphasis: The Playground, But So Much More is Revealed)

Washington Sq Pk in the Snow, Fountain/Arch, 2005

Washington Sq Pk in the Snow, Fountain/Arch, 2005

What was learned from the Washington Square Park Task Force – Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting Wednesday, January 7th held at the NYU Silver Center addressing (more of) Phase II as Phase I of Washington Square Park’s redesign nears completion:

* The large playground (Northeast side) will be done in segments so that the whole playground is never closed at one time. It will remain in its footprint (same size) and will include a spray shower, new lightweight gate, spray area, spray features, a water trench, sand box, swing area, a children’s garden (outside the playground fence), floating benches, new trees (one cherry tree is slated for destruction), and “safety surface” (a sample of which will be provided at some point in the future).

* A Parks Department representative said, of the playground, “only so much needed to be done.” A statement which I find sort of ironic … isn’t that the case for the entire park? (Needed a renovation? … Yes. Some fixin’, some sprucing up, but a massive redesign? No, I think not.)

* Then, there’s the fact that playground received its own separate meeting. I asked CB2 Parks Committee chair and WSP Task Force co-chair Tobi Bergman about this: “Will the other parts of Phase II be getting their own meetings, the seating alcoves, the chess area, the Garibaldi performance area, the dog runs?” He answered no. So why did the playground get special treatment? Mr. Bergman informed me that, for the rest of Washington Square Park, the Task Force just submits its suggestions to the Parks Department and basically accepts whatever the answer is, like it or not. (I stopped writing at this point, so mesmerized was I by this answer, but it’s on film. I can get back to you on the exact words.)

CB2 Chair and WSP Task Force co-chair Brad Hoylman added, to explain the isolated meeting, “There are no parents of young children on the Task Force.” (Its purpose was to outreach to the community. Then, he said, by way of clarification, there are parents but of older children.) Matt Davis, who directed the documentary SQUARE: Straightening Out Washington Square Park,” then asked if there were any “dog owners” on the Task Force. This was not adequately addressed although it seems the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean the dog runs are getting their own meeting.

* So, basically, what is convenient for the New York City Parks Department is discussed by the Washington Square Park Task Force, at this point in time. (I’ve written a number of posts about my concerns with the WSP Task Force, a body which was put into play by local NY City Council Member Alan Gerson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. See WSP Task Force under Categories, column to right.)

* The Parks Department has assigned a designer to work on the playground (Chris Crowley) who is willing to work with the community, contrast this with the landscape designer working on the majority of the park (George Vellonakis) who isn’t.

* And it was the first time I heard someone quote from the Landmarks Preservation Commission‘s ruling in a way that limited what was done. Apparently, the LPC “did not want McDonald’s in the playground” so there will be a limit to big, colorful, plastic fixtures, I gather.

* Wouldn’t it be nice if … high, unwelcoming fences, misplaced lamps, overdone gardens, leveled off plazas, aligned (Tisch) fountains, massive reduction of public space, sterile pathways, suburban plazas, and a close-to-maniacal-emphasis-on-symmetry were off limits in their ruling also?