A Reader of WSP Blog writes: “Let’s catch the persons responsible for the horrid destruction of the Park and misappropriation of funds”

On November 30th, a reader “pattycake” responded to the blog piece, “The Squirrels of Washington Square Park have many fans but Now also a Killer in Their Midst,” with the following comment:

so stupid.. im sure the girl isnt intentionally letting the dog kill them. Forget “catching” the squirrel killer..lets catch the person or persons responsible for the horrid destruction of the park and misappropriation of funds…where is the money? why isnt the park done? where is the new dog run? why are the trees cut down? WHAT ABOUT THAT?

I responded, on December 1st, as follows (this version is slightly expanded from the original response):

Hi Pattycake, I’ve heard enough to believe that some malicious intent may be going on in relation to the woman and the squirrels. She knows her dog(s) is(are) aggressive – I don’t blame them, they’ve been encouraged by her – and I’ve heard other dogs have been attacked, to the point where she’s been banned from the LeRoy Park Dog Run.

Re: the park itself, I agree with you!

I’ve tried to get questions answered and more scrutiny on the process of the redesign of Washington Square Park at Community Board 2 meetings.

The chair of the Parks Committee, Tobi Bergman, is very evasive and states there’s nothing more they can do. (He is a former NYC Parks Department employee, it should also be noted.) The chair of Community Board 2, Jo Hamilton, hasn’t given it her attention, leaving it in Parks Committee’s hands, but I don’t think people are pressuring her about it either.

I’ve written to City Council Member Margaret Chin – who took Alan Gerson’s place – with finally a response from her sister who works in her office. I sent a bunch of follow-up documents and then received no further communication.

Without a loud yet effective group asking questions, I don’t know how anything can be achieved. People who were involved for years need to become visible and outspoken again; too many have become silent. And new voices are needed as well. I am happy to have others speak out !

PLEASE CONTACT City Council Member Margaret Chin at chin@council.nyc.gov. It’s her district. She took Alan Gerson’s place but has not been involved at all. She needs to hear from people that they want her involved.

You ask good questions but asking them of (CB2 Parks Chair) Tobi Bergman and (CB2 Board Chair and WSP Task Force Chair) Jo Hamilton and Margaret Chin would be a great follow-up.

Thanks for writing.

Cathryn
WSP Blog

p.s. Which trees are you referring to?

** ACTION YOU CAN TAKE **

Write to New York City Council Member Margaret Chin. Some of the unanswered areas and concerns around Washington Square Park are:

1) the delay (Phase II – currently under construction and encompassing the Eastern and Southwestern sections of the park – was supposed to be completed Fall 2010; it is now projected for Spring 2011 with some of the work moved into Phase III)
2) the budget having more than doubled (budgeted at $16 million; now $32 million + counting)
3) the destruction of trees
4) lack of Community Board 2/Washington Square Park Task Force oversight
(basically : zero oversight)
5) no attention being paid to the details of the redesign, etc.
(see point #4)

Write to her at: chin@council.nyc.gov

Did you notice with NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg that libraries, senior centers, animal protection, firehouses, police department and more are cut from the City Budget but never elaborate and unnecessary redesigns of parks?

Oh, and I never wrote a report back on the last Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting held October 6th addressing Washington Square — after 10 long months of silence — because it was mostly an exercise in frustration. (Although any doubts about Tobi Bergman’s role in stopping closer scrutiny of the redesign of the park were put to rest.) The Parks Committee has not met for the past two months following the meeting.

** To get up to speed on some of the issues, see previous WSP Blog Post: Washington Square Park Phase II: Lack of Transparency & Oversight Continues

2nd Anniversary of this Blog!

This is an abbreviated, edited version of the post I ran last year on the blog’s 1 year anniversary – with an update at the end:

I recounted here how I started this blog after going to an exhibit in January 2008 at the Municipal Art Society on Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs had been critically involved over the years at Washington Square Park (and, of course, New York City, in general). The goal of the exhibit was to inspire community activism. I recognized that many people in the community had tried the typical routes (go to meetings, talk to politicians, talk to your community board, hand out flyers, etc. etc.). At the exhibit, a little booklet was handed out which stated, basically, if all else fails, if you’ve tried everything, START A BLOG. That got my attention. I thought, why not?

Right around the time I started, I met all these wonderful Brooklyn bloggers at a luncheon. They were all so inspiring, honest, quirky, talented, encouraging. Truthfully, if I had realized how much work it would be, I might have rethought it but this blog provided a place to practice writing in a structured way that was part activism, part journalism. I have a background in public relations so it seemed like some of that might get thrown in also.

I started out wanting to tell the story of what had happened – to that point. Then, last summer (’08), new meetings about the park’s redesign began and I was able to report the story as it was happening. Curbed called this a “watchdog blog.” Along the way, this blog got written up in the New York Times, linked to by numerous other blogs and web sites, and I had written dialogue with the NYC Parks Commissioner.

I’ve felt it was important to interconnect other issues going on in our city and public space that also relate to the issues at Washington Square Park, such as:

* the reduction and privatization of public space (particular emphasis on Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, and Yankee Stadium Parkland);

* the cutting down of hundreds if not thousands of trees in our parks across the five boroughs while the Mayor hypes his MillionTreesNYC “initiative” ;

* the dangerous and controversial use of artificial turf in our parks and playing fields;

* NYU: Washington Square Park’s influential neighbor and its reckless real estate land grabs which are decimating communities and neighborhoods throughout Manhattan as it plants its flags seemingly everywhere. (NYU owns, after all, basically all the real estate that surrounds the park.);

* Business Improvement Districts and Park Conservancy Models : The problem with the overly pervasive BIDs and Conservancies is that they get a stronghold on our public spaces, thereby influencing usage based on bolstering real estate values over community interests;

* Failure of elected officials: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and (former) City Council Member Alan Gerson failed in protecting Washington Square Park and in responding to their constituents’ pleas for intervention;

* Washington Square Park Task Force — Largely comprised of members of Community Board 2, as well as representatives of elected officials, and community members. Too often the requests it puts forward to the Parks Department lack a true sense of advocating for the Park;

And… of course…

* Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Without him and his deft and slickly corrosive way of maneuvering through city agencies and outside groups, none of what’s happened at Washington Square Park and in our city would have been possible.

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

2/26/10: Right now, we’re in full swing of Phase II construction at the Park. There is a Phase III yet to come! This blog became an important space for me personally when I first started writing it — it’s written itself at times! I’ve had to slow down and post less often (I posted once a day for close to the first year and a half) and future posting will be more sporadic. Yet, there are 492 posts in the archive (check ’em out – see Categories on right hand side bar) and a lot of material has been covered here.

I learn all the time from the other NYC bloggers, and it’ll be interesting to see where this whole “citizen journalism” movement goes (especially as mainstream journalists move in).

If there’s one change I would have liked to have seen, it would have been more transparency and less arrogance, a change in the way the NYC Parks Department related on Washington Square Park and all park issues.

While the Phase I section of the Park (around the Fountain), which opened May ’09, looks “pretty,” it also looks suburbanized, homogenized, “aligned.” Even the latest news, of those two old trees axed amidst Phase II Construction ones that landscape designer George Vellonakis insisted would be saved – confirms another untruth, on top of too many others, from the New York City Parks Department. Another inappropriate action from a city agency, as we navigate Mayor Bloomberg’s (engineered) third term.

However, the spirit of the park will live on! It’ll change (again) as the years go by. And I believe ultimately the truth (about Mayor Bloomberg, about the Parks Department under Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, about whatever behind-the-scenes deals that were done) will prevail.

As always, thanks for reading and stopping by whether it’s been often, from time-to-time, or just today!

best,
Cathryn.
WSP Blog

*The First Post: The Magical Park, February 26, 2008

*Links to many of the issues noted above (topics covered on this blog) here.

Photo: Venetia27

A Personal Appeal — Support This NYC Blogger/Writer

Dear Blog Readers:

I’m writing you a personal note to ask for your support! Whether you read my blog regularly, stop by from time to time, or totally disagree with some of my views but appreciate the updates and hard work (!!) that have gone into this blog, I thank you! — this note is for you – and you – and you!

It’s hard to imagine that it’s close to two years since I started the Washington Square Park Blog (February 26, 2008) but it is. I’d never written a blog before but jumped into creating it because the issue of New York City’s actions as they affect our parks and public spaces is so important.

As I was figuring out various things in my own life, this blog connected me to other bloggers (I met many of the amazing Brooklyn bloggers in person and the Manhattan & other borough bloggers have been great support virtually). Those connections have been very important to me and this blog.

Washington Square Park Blog has given me the opportunity to delve into this burgeoning concept of citizen journalism and expose the intense – and sometimes joyous – details of what is happening in our City. Today, the idea of hyper-local blogs focusing on specific neighborhoods or places like Washington Square Park as a window onto the larger world has gained more traction.

While I’ve been writing my blog, I also have been writing a book.

Connecting the Dots

At times, finding the connections between disparate news items — such as the City’s attempt to put a privately owned restaurant in Union Square Park, or the construction of the new Yankee Stadium (which involved confiscation of 22 acres of public park land that still has not been fully replaced), privatization of our parks, or the question last year of Mayoral and City Council term limits! — and writing about these topics on this blog has been so compelling that I couldn’t turn away and not write about it, sometimes at the expense of working on the book!

And, of course, all the material directly related to Washington Square — the Community Board, Task Force & Landmarks Preservation Commission meetings, outlining the Phases of the redesign of the Park, letters to – and from – the NYC Parks Commissioner, write-ups in the mediaNY Times, NY Daily News, NY1, Time Out NY, NYmag.com, MSN.com, Curbed (Curbed has kept me going at times and always made me laugh!), and numerous other blogs, the re-opening of the park upon Phase I completion, highlighting events at the park, the history of the park, to, more recently, breaking the news of the discovery of the tombstone from 1799 during recent construction! – it has often been difficult to turn the stove down to simmer.

I realize that when we read blogs – I read many of them! – we consider the content “free.” As it SHOULD be! There’s something really nice about the fact that it is.

But, as you probably know, A LOT OF WORK goes into researching and writing this blog. So, I’m asking you, now, to help support your local blogger! For a number of personal reasons, this would be a very good time to do so! And there’s good reason to: You can help me publish my book. (more…)

NY Times Story Confirmed Last Week Washington Square Park Tombstone Discovery Was from 1799; Blog Writing Hiatus

The New York Times wrote a story last week (Wednesday, 10-28) with a photo and additional information about the tombstone discovered in Washington Square Park during Phase II Construction – it was from 1799!

WSP Blog first broke the news on Friday October 23rd when commenter Matt Kovary wrote in with his sighting and then confirmed the story with the NYC Parks Department and added details from Mr. Kovary in blog postTombstone Discovery at Washington Square Park Could Date Back to 18th Century” on Monday October 26th.  It was very exciting (in its own way, of course)!

******************************************************************
Updated: This technically all happened in the midst of a blog writing hiatus, therefore, WSP Blog needs to take some additional time away from the blog starting tomorrow, Thursday, November 5th. (Note: this hiatus does not have anything to do Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election news!) And, unless another tombstone is discovered(!), this break will go through Monday, November 16th end of November — but will update now and again. During that time, I hope to get further along on a separate writing project. Check other updates (although hopefully not too much!) at twitter.

More from the NYC Parks Commissioner! — On Washington Sq Park and WSP Blog Concerns

A follow-up letter from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to me in response to my letter of February 13th. We’ve had a bit of a back-and-forth. It’s true that the Parks Commissioner and I are most likely never going to agree on many aspects of the redesign – and the history of the redesign – of Washington Square Park. I have a few thoughts in response to this, but first, his letter which I’ve posted below:

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

April 7, 2009

Dear Ms. Swan:

Thank you again for your correspondence about the renovation of Washington Square Park. It seems there are a number of points where we will have to agree to disagree. We may never come to an understanding on what is or is not public space (I would argue the entire park is public space), how to define a renovation versus a “spruce up,” a spear versus a ball and whether or not the Parks Department has been responsive to community concerns.

Many aspects of the renovation you wish to “come to an agreement” on were settled long ago. In fact, your request to change aspects of the renovation that have already been completed or that are currently under construction is nearly impossible to grant at this point. The fountain plaza is very close to completion and the fence is already installed. After the February 4th Washington Square Park Task Force meeting, the Parks Department made additional changes.

When Washington Square Park is completed I am confident that it will continue to be a vibrant, eclectic gathering and performance space for Villagers, students and visitors and I truly believe you will enjoy the restored park.

Thank you for your support and interest in Parks.

Sincerely,

Adrian Benepe

The One Year Anniversary of this Blog!

I recounted here how I started this blog after going to an exhibit in January 2008 at the Municipal Art Society on Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs had been critically involved over the years at Washington Square Park (and, of course, New York City, in general). The goal of the exhibit was to inspire community activism. They handed out a little booklet which said, basically, if all else fails, if you’ve tried everything, START A BLOG. I recognized – from hearing their stories – that many of the people in the community had tried the typical routes (go to meetings, talk to politicians, talk to your community board, hand out flyers, etc. etc.). A blog seemed like something new, different.

Right around the time I started, I met all these wonderful Brooklyn bloggers at a luncheon. They were all so inspiring, honest, talented, encouraging, quirky. Truthfully, if I had realized how much work it would be, I might have rethought it but this blog provided a place to practice writing in a structured way that was part activism, part journalism. I have a background in public relations so it seemed like some of that might get thrown in also.

I started out wanting to tell the story of what had happened to that point. Then, last summer, new meetings about the park’s redesign began and I was able to report the story as it was happening. Curbed called this a “watchdog blog.” Along the way, this blog (and I) got written up in the New York Times, linked to by numerous other blogs and web sites, and had written dialogue with the NYC Parks Commissioner.

When I first got started – to catch up – I surveyed video footage and scoured newspaper articles recounting the numerous meetings and lawsuits and presentations … oh my! … navigating a history of incomplete and often inaccurate information presented by the Parks Department, questionable decisions made by the local Community Board 2, Landmarks Preservation Commission and City Council, and political deceptions and maneuvering across the board. Catching up, the well of information seemed bottomless.

I recognized early on that I needed to interconnect other issues going on in our city and public space that also relate to the issues at Washington Square Park.

Those inter-connections are:

* the reduction and privatization of public space (particular emphasis on Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, and Yankee Stadium Parkland);

* the cutting down of hundreds if not thousands of trees in our parks across the five boroughs while the Mayor hypes his MillionTreesNYC “initiative” ;

* the dangerous and controversial use of artificial turf in our parks and playing fields;

* NYU: Washington Square Park’s influential neighbor and its reckless real estate land grabs which are decimating our communities and neighborhoods throughout Manhattan as it plants its flags seemingly everywhere. (NYU’s influence on Washington Square Park’s plans is very behind-the-scenes but it is there. NYU owns, after all, basically all the real estate that surrounds the park.);

* Business Improvement Districts and Conservancy Models : The problem with the overly pervasive BIDs and Conservancies is that they get a stronghold on our public spaces, thereby influencing usage in ways that are based on bolstering real estate values over community interests;

* Failure of elected officials: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Council Member Alan Gerson (its Gerson’s district but Quinn’s is next door, covering Greenwich Village) have failed in protecting Washington Square Park and in responding to their constituents’ pleas for intervention. They made some modest changes to the Parks Department’s plan in October 2005 and yet they can’t be bothered – to date – to make certain even those modest modifications are upheld.;

* Washington Square Park Task Force — The one body charged with watching the Parks Department as the redesign plan is put into place. Largely comprised of members of Community Board 2, as well as representatives of elected officials, and community members, I’ve been attending and covering the meetings this past year. While I recognize some of its strengths and gains, too often the requests it puts forward to the Parks Department and information it relays from these meetings to Council Member Gerson and Speaker Quinn lacks a true sense of advocating for the Park. “Going along to get along” seems to be its method of operating.;

And… of course…

* Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Without him and his deft and slickly corrosive way of maneuvering through city agencies and outside groups, I believe none of what’s happened at Washington Square Park and in our city would have been possible, particularly at such an accelerated rate.

-He and his policies are responsible for placing the interests of developers and corporations over neighborhoods and communities which has been a real detriment to the diversity and uniqueness that is (or should be) New York City.

-The Mayor (with the assistance of Speaker Quinn and 28 City Council members) and the overturning of voted-in term limits is another issue I’ve covered in-depth since I started, believing it highlights our CEO Mayor’s arrogance, lies and sense of entitlement.

So there you have it! I can’t say what the year ahead will look like. I believe there’s room for change in the NYC Parks Department’s plan for Washington Square ParkWe’ll see! At least we’ll all know exactly what went down. I hope you will continue to send me your ideas, your feedback, your comments, your help, and your encouragement, and we’ll navigate the road ahead together.

Thank you !

Cathryn.

Photo: Venetia27

Guess what? Washington Square Park Blog is 1 year old on Thursday, February 26th!

It’s true. This blog’s one year anniversary is this coming Thursday!

I might have missed the 1 year mark if I hadn’t gone back to the archived February 2008 calendar to check. I thought the blog’s starting date was February 28th, but actually, it was February 26th, 2008 that I created the Washington Square Park Blog. I’ll write more about it that day.

Thank you to everyone who has read regularly or stopped by now and again.

Cathryn.

Photo: Venetia27

My Response to the Parks Commissioner! Regarding Washington Square Park.

February 13, 2009

Dear Commissioner Benepe:

Thank you for your January 30th response to my letter outlining my concerns around the work being done on the redesign of Washington Square Park and the lack of responsible oversight by the NY City Council and other elected officials.

While your letter contained some useful information, the situation still warrants additional scrutiny and oversight by both you and the City Council. Contrary to your assertion in your email that I have “misconceptions,” and in your reply to Council Member Tony Avella that I have “misrepresented the project,” what is going on at Washington Square Park is troubling on many levels. It is the re-design that is “misconceived,” not my statements about it. Further clarification follows:

Washington Square Park Plan: Extensive Review?

You state that “the renovation of Washington Square Park has probably undergone more review than almost any other Parks capital project in recent memory.”

First, the plan is not a “renovation” – which would signal repair, maintenance, ‘sprucing up’ – it is a dramatic re-visioning of this public space.

Second, While there were many meetings around the redesign plans, those plans were often misrepresented by representatives of the Parks Department, the designer and others. The community members, Community Board, and Landmarks Preservation Commission were frequently given incorrect or insufficient information, and so thereby lacked the necessary information to effectively evaluate the Parks Department’s plans for the park.

Third, “more review” is not meaningful if officials disregard the community sentiment (which I’ll address later in this letter).

Instead, with New York City in a budget crisis, the budget for Washington Square Park’s redesign now stands at $27 million and counting — an increased cost of $11 million over the $16 million budgeted. The Park could have been fixed up without chainsawing trees and bulldozing parts of the Park for a much smaller (and more fruitfully used) expenditure.

Public Space

Washington Square Park, as you know, is a dynamic public space with a history of being used for protest, performance, art. This park invites unique and spontaneous interactions between the people who visit and utilize the park. The park is not lacking for green space. The Parks Department had allowed the lawn – as well as the walkways and bathrooms — to fall into a state of disrepair. When maintained properly and brought back to a lush state, the Park contains more than enough “green space” for the “passive recreation activities” you suggest, like picnicking and relaxing. Each park – as you know – has its own distinct personality and cachet. In my opinion, these elements ought to be respected and nurtured.

You wrote: “The renovation will not result in the reduction of public space.” And yet, here are the actual figures:

THE FOUNTAIN PLAZA

* The interior plaza around the fountain — from outermost edge of fountain wall to innermost edge of any seating — was 27,650 square feet.

* The PROPOSED interior plaza is 20,662 square feet. – A LOSS OF 6,988 square feet.

* The entire (what is called the) exterior plaza (which includes and goes beyond the interior plaza) has been 51,223 square feet.

* The PROPOSED exterior plaza area is 39,419 square feet.
That’s an 11,804 square foot reduction, right in the official plans. How can you state “the renovation will not result in a reduction of public space?

In August 2007, the Washington Square Park Task Force – which, as you noted, is comprised of representatives for various elected officials, community members, and Community Board 2 Members – issued its report. Addressing the Fountain Plaza Interior area, it stated that the Task Force “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.”

The “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” puts some mild monitoring on the Parks Department’s plans. Council Member Gerson and Council Speaker Quinn stipulated that the public space of the interior Fountain plaza would not be diminished by more than 10%. Clearly, there is a greater reduction than previously admitted. No further information has been provided by the Parks Department to allow anyone to ascertain what the exact reduction in space is. When I tried to get the information from the Parks Department’s press office, I was told it wouldn’t be a problem and then received no further information or return correspondence, despite following up on it several times.

As far as the entire exterior plaza, no further information has been given on the reduction in space (other than the numbers above, which had to be obtained via one of the lawsuit’s brought against the city in relation to its plan). The November 23rd, 2008 New York Times article “The Battle for Washington Square,” reports that the Parks Department will be reducing the public area around the plaza by 25 percent.

Is that acceptable to the community? No. Are our public officials monitoring this? Not that I can see.

The fountain plaza’s reduction in size, along with the removal (currently planned) of four of the six seating alcoves and a reduction in space at the northeast corner and southwest corners (these are the ones you acknowledge), signify a significant reduction in “public” space – particularly the public gathering space for which Washington Square Park is renowned, any way you cut it.

Would the additional grassy areas compensate for the reduction of the central plaza, as you suggest? And exactly how high will the fences around those “green spaces” be which are supposed to add to and compensate for the reductions in what is now an open central plaza?

Seating Alcoves

At the Washington Square Park Task Force meeting I attended on February 4th, the seating alcoves were discussed at length. You state that two – of the present six – alcoves are now being “included” as a modification to the original plan – in response to the Washington Square Park Task Force. One of the alcoves across from the playground is being retained in its entirety. From the ‘before and after’ diagrams shown by Parks Department landscape designer George Vellonakis at the meeting, the second alcove faces an unacceptable and dramatic reduction in size.

These alcoves contribute to the uniqueness of the park; they are used by students, tourists, seniors, classes, and people who’d like to retire to a more private nook of the park while viewing what’s going on in the park.

George Vellonakis stated that the plan is going to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on February 17th with just the “two” alcoves despite the fact that back in July 2008, the Task Force expressed the sentiment for keeping all the alcoves. I hope you will listen to the overwhelming public sentiment and retain these important spaces, in their current configuration.

Northeast and Southwest corners

You claimed that I described the reduction in the chess area (Southwest corner) in “misleading terms.” Not so. Unfortunately, the size of reduction of this area is hard to determine. At the Parks Department presentation last week to the Washington Square Park Task Force, your department did not come prepared with figures, specs, renderings, or with a model – in other words, the Parks Department failed to present anything that would give a true presentation of the changes to the Park. Unfortunately, this has been the case throughout the entire project. The correct figures concerning the reduction in space should have been presented at the meeting. This was not done.

You state that the center of the chess area is “generally empty” right now. An area may seem “empty” but other things occur within that space, thereby giving people options for congregating and interacting without feeling confined. Why must the Parks Department consider all unused space to be “useless”?

The Northeast corner reduction also is problematic. On the diagram, this actually appears to entail quite a large reduction, not a “slight” one as you put it. But once again the Parks Department presented no figures, no specs. Why not? It was confirmed that all the picnic tables in the park are being removed. Why? Why can’t some picnic tables remain in the park? Why can’t there be areas for picnic tables?

These changes amount to dramatic alterations of what has been a most successful public space – something you seem unwilling to acknowledge or respect.

Garibaldi Plaza (Formerly “Teen Plaza”) Performance Area/Space

The Task Force has submitted notes on what they would like to see at Garibaldi Plaza to meet the needs of the Washington Square Music Festival and other “ad hoc” use. The Washington Square Music Festival is apparently willing to work with the lower stage if the size of the stage can be increased. Because of the way the area is currently constructed, the musicians and performers are able to use the “Teen Plaza” area as a ‘back stage’/holding area. Without consulting the Music Festival, the Parks Department decided to reduce the stage and not accommodate this additional need. And, yes, under community pressure the Parks Department agreed to raise the stage from the originally planned 22″ to 28″ although the previous stage was well-liked and well-functioning at 36″ Lowering the stage height limits the number of people who can properly hear the music played from the stage.

There is a major reconfiguring of this entire area in Phase II of the Park’s redesign. Hopefully, the full information will be presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the 17th. The community should get the same degree of respect and level of information. At this moment, it is woefully underserved.

Fence

You state that the fence does not have “spears” but instead has “rounded balls.” Please! The fence is composed of spears with small balled ends soldered on top to reduce the number of accidental injuries. However, more important an ‘argument’ than spears vs. balls is the exact wording in the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” which states that the exterior fence of the park should “preserve the park’s sense of openness and its inviting character” and that it should “consist of a decorative ‘delicate’ design.” The new fence does not do that – just the opposite!

That is one example of where the Washington Square Park Task Force and our elected officials should be better monitoring these aspects. Hence, my appeal to the City Council. The old fence was a nice feature; people could lean or sit on the fence anywhere in the park; but now, with the four foot high fence at the exterior of the park and the post and chain fence in the interior, that is no longer possible, and the open, welcoming character of the park is destroyed.

Trees at the Park

You say that 12 trees were “removed” for reasons of “declining health” (my count is 14). In April of last year I spoke with you at Morningside Park and asked about the trees at Washington Square Park. You told me the trees being removed were “all dead.” I knew that this was not accurate at the time and told you that there were only “four dying trees” which you then agreed was the accurate amount.

The truth is that 6-8 of the trees removed lined the fountain and were not in “declining health” or “dead” — they were just ‘in the way’ of the Parks Department’s plan to unnecessarily move the fountain to align with the Arch. Although “new trees” – saplings – will be or have already been planted, they can never be equal to 40-80 year old mature trees, which we should work to preserve.

Gerson-Quinn “Letter”/Agreement

You remark that the October 6, 2005 letter from Council Member Alan Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn is “not a legally binding document.” Nonetheless, you have gone “to great lengths to implement the sections applicable to Parks.” Yet Council Member Gerson and Council Speaker Quinn clearly believed you had reached an agreement. In fact as they stated in their letter, they were “delighted” that they had “reached an understanding” with you “resolving the outstanding major issues pertaining to the renovation of Washington Square Park.”

The “outstanding major issues” were articulated by the community (and not necessarily in the “Gerson-Quinn” letter), but the Parks Department ignored them:

a) leave the central fountain plaza sunken; b) do not shift the fountain so that it is now off-center, though aligned with the Arch at Fifth Avenue; c) do not cut down healthy trees; d) do not sell off the fountain naming rights to the Tisch Family, or to anyone; e) leave the dog runs where they were; f) leave the fence at its existing 3 foot height; g) keep all or the majority of the seating alcoves; h) keep the height of the stage and provide better accessibility to it for wheel chairs.

And more. None of these were accommodated.

It makes me wonder: If the public’s input is not respected and the Gerson-Quinn letter is begrudgingly implemented at times, at your whim, who is the Parks Department accountable to?

Shouldn’t input from our representatives and the community at large be taken significantly into consideration?

Shouldn’t the Community Board (which later repealed its approval of the plan) have been told that this was, in your view, a “Non-Binding (Non) Agreement,” and that even most of its very mild revisions to the Parks Department’s plan, such as keeping the fence in character with the park, consulting the Washington Square Music Festival on design of the stage, making the bathroom renovation a “priority item,” making “reasonable efforts to salvage all healthy trees,” etc. were non-binding and would not be implemented?

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

I ask you Commissioner Benepe – and the other elected officials – to please review the points in my letter and see if there are places where we can come to agreement

the public gathering space around the fountain being increased in size; retaining all of the seating alcoves; preserving the park’s remaining trees; reviewing and changing the fencing (interior and exterior); making the Garibaldi Plaza workable for the community and performing community’s needs; restoring the height of the stage to its full 3 feet; no Conservancy at this park; expanding the “plazas” to not have to be “uniform” but instead to fit the social character of this park.

Each park is different. You know this. Let’s honor the changes to Washington Square Park made in 1970 and the spirit of the last century, as well as the previous one. Right now, the Park Department’s design is much too formal and disrespectful of that history and today’s needs. Perhaps there is a way to save money in the city budget at the same time while bridging some of the previous discord between the New York City Parks Department and the public.

Thank you for your response and attention. Please feel free to contact me at any time.

Sincerely,

Cathryn Swan

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

Photo # 3 & 4: Cat (# 4 – addition of caption/red snazzy lettering: Curbed!)

Curbed on Washington Square Park “FenceGate”

In case you missed it, Curbed featured yesterday’s WSP Blog entry “A Tale of Two Fences” with a great post: “Washington Square Park Fence Gate.” Check it out.

Also, I’ve been corrected.  The comment referenced in yesterday’s other blog post — in relation to the new lamps in the Park as items possibly purchased on sale by the Parks Department– should mention Restoration Hardware, not Home Depot.  Oops.

Part I of II: NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe Responds to WSP Blog Concerns!

NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

Some news! NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe responded to a letter I sent on December 18th to City Council Member Alan Gerson and Speaker Christine Quinn – with a copy to him – outlining some of my concerns with the Washington Square Park Task Force as well as elements of the park’s redesign going forward.

This is Part I of a two part series. Part II will be my response. (But I have been known to write three to eight part series on Washington Square Park issues, so regular readers know that I can be a bit expansive on the topic!)

Some of the information contained in Commissioner Benepe’s letter is informative. But Washington Square Park’s redesign still needs additional oversight, transparency, and more attention to detail and review. The Parks Commissioner has his own “misconceptions” and doesn’t address some of the substantive issues in my original letter. Nonetheless, I appreciate his response. Please feel free to write in with any of your thoughts on this.

Copied on my original letter were other elected officials who comprise the Washington Square Park Task Force (along with Community Board 2 Members and community members), including City Council Member Rosie Mendez, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, State Senator Tom Duane, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, as well as other elected officials such as our Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Comptroller William Thompson, Council Member Tony Avella, Council Member Bill de Blasio, Council Member Letitia James, Council Member Helen Foster, and more.

Letter from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

January 30, 2009

Dear Ms. Swan:

Thank you for sending me a copy of the email you sent to various elected officials regarding the renovation of Washington Square Park.

I am sorry to read the misconceptions included in your email. The renovation of Washington Square Park has probably undergone more review than almost any other Parks capital project in recent memory. The Washington Square Park Task Force, which includes representation from elected officials, Community Board 2 members and community members, has added an additional layer of oversight and provided useful feedback that has influenced us to change certain design elements.

In light of the discussion about the seating alcoves at the last Task Force meeting, we have decided to revise the plans for Phase II to include two alcoves, including the one opposite the playground. In addition, in response to prior requests from Community Board 2 and the Task Force, we have increased the size of the large dog run and the height of the stage.

The renovation will not result in the reduction of public space. Rather, the renovation will reduce the amount of hardscape used by pedestrians walking through the park and increase the amount of green space, making underutilized areas of the park welcoming, active and vibrant. Not only will this be a significant benefit for park users, but also an environmental benefit. Less asphalt and concrete means less rainwater runoff and therefore less strain on our overburdened drainage system, healthier trees and plants that will grow larger with a longer lifespan, more space for passive recreation activities such as picnicking or relaxing on the lawns and overall a more beautiful and usable park. Furthermore, there will be many areas where performances and other special events can be held, including the central plaza, the Holley Plaza, the Garibaldi Plaza, where the stage can be utilized, and the lawns.

Similarly, you describe the chess area in misleading terms. While the overall size of the plaza is being reduced somewhat, the most critical area of the chess plaza is the chess tables, not the center which is generally empty. The renovation will include the same number of tables, but they will be new, better designed and more welcoming to more chess players – and they will be accessible to people with disabilities. There will be plenty of space for onlookers to stand and watch the games. As with the rest of the park, the renovation of the chess area will likely result in greater use, not less.

While the northeast plaza is being reduced slightly, it will still serve as a gathering place for park users since it will contain 14 benches. By the way, the southeast plaza is being enlarged and will contain eight benches.


Despite claims by critics of the project that the first phase would result in the removal of 32 trees, only 12 trees, many of them in declining health, have been removed, and 43 new trees were planted, four more than originally planned.

We have gone to great lengths to implement the sections applicable to Parks in the October 6, 2005 letter from Council Member Alan Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, despite the fact that it is not a legally binding document. These points include the height and design of the fence, the size of the fountain plaza, the inclusion of a stage in the design, the inclusion of the mounds in a new play area and the design process for the large playground. Despite your assertion, the top of the fence has rounded balls, not “spears,” as you put it. In any case, it was never intended that people would sit on top of the fence.

The renovation of Washington Square Park will guarantee that community residents, tourists, students and all New Yorkers will have the opportunity to enjoy the park as much as people have for the past 150 years – if not more so. I truly believe that you also will enjoy the renovated park when it is completed and that you will find that your fears were unwarranted.

If you have any further questions or concerns, please call Rebecca Ferguson, the Washington Square Park Administrator, at 212-408-0297.

Please feel free to post this letter on your blog.

Sincerely,

Adrian Benepe

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

My original letter follows:

From: Cathryn Swan
Sent: Thursday, December 18, 2008 3:33 PM
Subject: Washington Square Park – For your Review / Oversight

—————————————————————————————————

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. (more…)