NYC Parks Department Not Complying with 2008 Law to Monitor Disparities and Track Private Money Amidst City’s Public Parks

The New York Times reports today that the city’s Parks Department has not been complying with a 2008 law passed by the New York City Council to  “shed light on how much money was flowing into different parks across the city.” Disparities between parks across the five boroughs have been a concern, with private money allocated to specific parks, primarily located in Manhattan, not revealed and properly documented.

The legislation “required the Department of Parks and Recreation of New York City to prepare an annual report that would detail, park by park, the contributions of nonprofits and other private donors.”

At the time the law was passed, the Parks Department went on record as agreeing that it was a good idea and even suggested that it played into the Bloomberg Administration push for “transparency” (the pretense of which many of us would question).

However, surprise! The documentation from 2010 was never listed on the city’s web site and, even if it had been, it is sorely lacking in its compliance, missing data that would properly shed light on the true state of affairs in our city’s parks, the intent of the legislation. In addition, the 2011 report is seven months overdue.

From the Times:

It [the 2010 report] fails to list the city’s largest parks nonprofit, the Central Park Conservancy, which spent $28 million during that period. Other major parks groups, including the Union Square Partnership, the Madison Square Park Conservancy and the Friends of Washington Square Park, are also missing.

Stopping there for a moment. These other “major parks groups” — Union Square Partnership, Madison Square Park Conservancy, one is a BID (Business Improvement District), the other is obviously a Conservancy –are really well known. Friends of Washington Square Park? I’m not even familiar with that. (I’ll come back to that later.)

Nonetheless, Alan Gerson reappears. The former City Council Member, who previously represented the district which encompasses Washington Square and is now under Margaret Chin’s purview, so to speak, was a member of the Parks Committee, and is quoted in the story. (I wonder if Gerson will run again against Margaret Chin – who has been so disappointing – next election; that would be interesting.)

“It doesn’t reflect a real effort to comply with the law,” Alan J. Gerson, a former councilman who sat on the parks committee in 2008, said.

“Whether it’s for schools, or parks or any public place, the public should know where the private money is coming from and what it’s buying. It’s basic good government,” Mr. Gerson, a Manhattan Democrat, said.

“That’s what we wanted to establish,” he said.

The city’s Independent Budget Office concurs with the problems. Doug Turetsky, its chief of staff, states, “It’s clearly not the most illuminating. You’d want to see more detail in terms of specific amounts.”

Some things are peculiar in the article — the current Parks Committee Chair, Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has been somewhat of a champion of changes in the Parks Department’s structure, declined to comment. A spokesperson for Council Member Helen Foster who represents the Bronx and was the previous Parks Committee Chair said  that Ms. Foster “did not feel she remembered the legislation.”

The Parks Department declined a request by the Times for an interview with a Parks Department “official” and offered no rationale for the incomplete data. My guess is that this data would not reflect favorably and that’s exactly what the City Council was pushing for – to see what – and how – resources are allocated to, say, Central Park vs. Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.

As for the “major parks group,” Friends of Washington Square Park (an organization, as I mentioned, with which I’m not even familiar), via a Google search, I see that it is now listed on the Washington Square Association’s web site (and given pretty much equal ‘billing,’ so to speak, listed on a line with the organization’s name). That seems a bit, uh, dubious. However, such is the world of the city’s parks under the Bloomberg Administration.

*  *  *

Previously at WSP Blog:

Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks October 8, 2010

New “Mounds” at Washington Square Park Taking Shape – but in what form?


The somewhat controversial “Mounds” at Washington Square Park are starting to take some shape in the Southwestern mid-section of the park. Originally part of Phase II of the park’s redesign, they were moved into Phase III construction, going on now. I’ve always been a little confused by the Mounds — as I indicated in this post from 2008 — but I also respected the passionate ‘fight’ for them, what they offered and perhaps also represented to people with a longer history at the park.

I suspect, however, that they are becoming “cable-net play” structures and less “the Mounds” (which were also referred to as “the three hills”). There’s not really anyone overseeing what’s going on; the people who had been fighting for them with former Council Member Alan Gerson have long been silent.

What will be the end result be? It will be interesting to see. It would be great if Community Board 2 stepped in and asked for an update now that there is a new Parks Committee chair! (At last! Rich Caccappolo, who I do not know, has replaced Tobi Bergman, who had been Parks Committee chair for way too long.)

The Mounds are supposed to remain six feet high. This photo represents a ‘first look’ but doesn’t really look like they are going in that direction. Also, unfortunately, despite protest, they will be covered in artificial turf.

In the video that’s linked to below, one Mounds’ advocate states, “They are places of spontaneous play which is different from play equipment which sort of mandates play. The Mounds allow spontaneous play, discovery, risk taking, all the things that are part of growing up.”

It seems to me they are being turned into the opposite of this and will be “play equipment.” It would be good if there was some actual tracking of what the final result will be (before it is too late).

Go here to read this refresher on the Mounds; originally published December 16, 2008: What’s Up with the Mounds? Why People Like Them.
.
Also, this links to another video of the Mounds being used for sleigh riding a few years back and is very sweet.

It’s the Prime of Summer 2011 – Is Something (New) Wrong with the Washington Square Fountain?

Updated 4:45 p.m.

Opening Day Phase I - May 2009

Fountain Now, Summer 2011

Fountain, No Side Water Plumes, August 2011

In mid-May of this year, the new Washington Square Park fountain went under repair for two or so weeks. As part of the Bloomberg Administration’s redesign of the park, the famous fountain, in its previous location since 1871, was moved 22 feet east to align with the Arch. It is now a little over two years old. The “new” fountain was unveiled in May 2009 and is pictured at top at the opening of Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase I. The fountain was rebuilt from scratch using the stones from the previous structure. The “old” fountain was eighty years old — according to documents I unearthed recently, written by former City Council Member Alan Gersonand still working.

The fountain has side plumes or “jets” that spout water from them. They were working up until June of this year but they are currently not working and haven’t been for over a month. It’s unclear if the issue is (again) related to the construction or to perhaps maintenance of the Washington Square fountain.

Opening Ceremony Phase I 2009 - Side Jets Working

In June -- Plumes Still Working

The plume source -- Now

If you visit the fountain, the experience is somewhat lessened to say the least. It’s perplexing what the exact problem is. (I wrote to the Parks Department Press Office but did not receive an answer on this.)

Will this latest issue be acknowledged, addressed and fixed at some point? Much money and resources were used to dismantle, relocate, align and reconstruct the Washington Square Park Fountain. You’d imagine, at a major city park, in the prime of summer, that those side water jets on a virtually new structure would be working for the public’s enjoyment and use. If something is wrong – which appears to be the case – what could it be?

* * *

On a side note: Yesterday the fountain was drained and cleared of bottles that accumulate underneath it and cause problems and are of a concern to people wading IN the fountain. (Note: this is not the cause of the plumes not working!) I gather later in the evening people are leaving bottles in there. I don’t know if those people read my blog (!) but, if you see someone doing so, perhaps ask them to clean up a bit! There’s also handily now recycling for bottles and cans at the park. Someone just wrote in about seeing cigarette butts in the fountain as well. The Parks Department without a doubt has its issues but we do all need to respect the space that we are using and share.

** Previous WSP Blog Post from May 16th, 2011: Is the New Washington Square Park Fountain Falling Apart? Fountain Now Under Wraps

Photos: Cathryn

WSP Phase II Media Curiosity; Smaller Seating Alcoves?; 24 Hour Dog Run

Fall 2010? Well, that's not going to happen...

Updated 1/25 & 31*

Reporters are asking questions about Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II, but has anything much changed since my update in September 2010? (Re-posted below.)

There’s been great progress in the park’s construction on the Eastern side but the project as a whole is still lagging behind and far from completion. Continued Parks Department miscommunication, mishaps and errors. And there’s still NO community or City Council oversight of the project.

*Cost of the project is at $35 $30 million + counting. The initial budget for the entire 3 Phases? $16 Million. (WSP Blog ed.: The $30 Million figure is an estimate for all three phases. I am fairly certain the cost will reach $35 million but it will definitely reach $30 million so I am revising my figure – for now.)

Community Board 2 held a meeting in October last year at which there was a request to the Parks Department to add reconfigured seating, an improvement on what was illustrated on the design for the new alcoves (which some community members finally got a hold of). The request was for seating which would be more conducive to interacting with your neighbors if you chose to do so and viewing what was going on in the rest of the park itself – part of the charm of these spots. (There will be four seating alcoves, previously six, in the eastern quadrants of the park.)

Sounds like a good idea. Small concession, right?

Word on the street is that this got vetoed, likely by designer George Vellonakis — the landscape designer who created the controversial redesign of this historic park — who has a tremendous pull within the city’s Parks Department.

The seating alcoves — which were eliminated in Vellonakis’s original design for the park — were only added back in after the community, former Council Member Alan Gerson and the Landmarks Preservation Commission all strongly protested their removal. (We might have had issues with Alan Gerson but he was involved, unlike current Council Member Margaret Chin.)

In addition, although it was promised that the seating alcoves would retain their original size, it is also believed that they are much smaller in the actual design and implementation. (*1/31 — WSP Blog note: This is unclear tho’ it would not surprise me. Will try to find out — )

The Villager is reporting this week that the large dog run will be 24 hours as if this is news. Way, way back at meetings that perhaps the Villager did not attend (no offense, Villager folks!) it was revealed that the entrance to the newly placed large dog run on the Park’s southern side would be accessible at all hours. (Not sure honestly how that will work but we’ll see!)

Phase II has been split into two pieces with a large portion – including the dog run – moved into Phase III.

Alan Gerson Loses NYC Council Democratic Primary in District 1 (covers Washington Square Park); Christine Quinn Prevails, but Barely Maintains Majority against Challengers

Updated

It was much stated during the NY City Council term limits hearings that one reason to limit New York City elected officials’ terms is that incumbents are re-elected 98% of the time.

Apparently; however, if you cross the voters on term limits (and perhaps other things), you may not be.

And so the big news of the morning is that Alan Gerson did indeed lose the Democratic primary held yesterday in District 1 (which covers Washington Square Park) to Margaret Chin. (In the district, people didn’t expect him to win but he was the incumbent so you had to wonder…)

From today’s New York Times’ story, “Voters Reject 3 Council Members Backing Longer Term Limits:”

At least three veteran City Council members were ousted by angry voters Tuesday, the greatest repudiation of incumbents in a generation. All three had voted last year to change term limits, allowing them to run again.

Until Tuesday, council members were more likely to lose their seats by being convicted of a felony than by being defeated in an election. Voters more than evened those odds. They rejected Alan J. Gerson of Manhattan, Kendall Stewart of Brooklyn and Helen Sears of Queens in a rare rebuff to incumbency.

Also:

This was the voters’ first opportunity to register their disapproval, and a record number of candidates took advantage of the backlash by mounting challenges in the primary.

The groundswell may be a bad sign for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who was instrumental in persuading the Council to grant the extension so that he, too, could seek a third term.

I think voters had issues with Alan Gerson other than term limits and this tipped the scale.  Under a stronger City Council member, what transpired at Washington Square Park would never have happened and would have played out much differently.  Under wishy washy Alan Gerson, Mayor Bloomberg’s Administration persevered in their quest to change the nature of the Park, repeatedly ignoring and bypassing Washington Square Park users and community input. This was done hand-in-hand with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.  (It’s time for her to go too.)  No word yet on #’s for District 3, Quinn’s district (tho’ Quinn prevailed against Yetta Kurland and Maria Passannante-Derr) but the Times did say in this article:  “Even Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, barely mustered a majority against two challengers.”

Updated: #’s for District 3 from the Downtown Express:
Quinn won with 6,868 votes (52 percent), versus Kurland’s 4,108 votes (31 percent) and Derr’s 2,117 votes (16 percent).

The general election, including the offices of Mayor, City Council, Public Advocate, and Comptroller, will be held on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009.

(Above image from The New York Times)

Blog Musings…

There are many things I would have liked to have covered over the summer here on the Washington Square Park Blog, but, alas, could not … such as:

*the unnecessary and cruel killing of the resident Canadian geese (and Mayor Bloomberg‘s role in it) rounded up from many parks across New York City;

*the Mayor’s re-election campaign for that third term and his spending on it – many interesting articles on this;

*NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who has some spirited challengers for her re-election campaign as City Council Member in Yetta Kurland and Maria Passannente- Derr, and who, uh, won’t commit to support the Democratic candidate for Mayor (which is code for … how can she not support Mayor Michael Bloomberg with whom she has a co-dependent relationship …? they need each other at this point. The other option being discussed is that she just won’t take a position on endorsement vs. backing him.) and Council Member Alan Gerson also running for re-election (and, whose name, last I checked, didn’t make it on the primary ballot because of an error on his petitions)*;

*The High Line Park opening ;

*The sad demise of many Central Park trees because of an intense storm a couple of weeks ago.  (There were some interesting comments in articles from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe who, on the one hand, has such an attachment to trees, but, on the other, is so quick to chop them down if he has some fancy design plan in mind that might raise his profile…)

I had to focus a bit less on this blog and a bit more on some other life things so these things were not covered here on the blog.

And what about Washington Square Park…?

I will definitely write when I find out more about plans for Phase II – which unfortunately, to date, the Parks Department Press Department has been less than forthcoming about.  What DID that accepted bid come in at for Phase II? Rumor is work will begin around mid-September. I still strongly believe the work should be done in two parts so that the Eastern side of the park and the Southwestern portion are not unnecessarily gated off all at once, closed to all.

Next blog post Wednesday, September 9th!  See you then!

** Check back for this post to be Updated later this week because I’ll try to add other links and sources for you to find out more about all of the above. **

* To read more about Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn’s roles in the redesign of Washington Square Park, scroll down to Categories on the right sidebar and click “Gerson-Quinn.”

Part II: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Sq Park May 28, 2009: ReportBack

Updated

It’s hard to know where to begin to describe last Thursday’s (May 28th) Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Square Park which marked the “official” ceremony celebrating the reopening of the long-under-construction NW Quadrant and Fountain Plaza. It was a well planned event with food and drinks and music and speeches by elected officials and other community and business association members. But … who knew there were Parks Department flags, trucks, suitcases, tents? Parks Department flags lined the entire Plaza around the Fountain. Clearly, NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wanted to make certain without a doubt that, at the end of the day, they were happy with what they accomplished – despite a muddled and often questionable “process” along the way.

I almost titled this blog entry: “Spin. Spin. Spin.” Because the overarching theme of each person’s speech was that everyone in the end worked together and the Fountain Plaza has been consistently packed since the Opening Day the week prior therefore the whole project is … a success! And not that it isn’t … (I think there are good things with the redesign and questionable things..) but there’s so much more to the story that the fact that there was such an intentional emphasis on this one repeated theme felt unnecessary and uncomfortable to me.

Let’s just be honest. At this point, can’t the Parks Department concede a point or two? But that that was not to be was apparent with my reading pre-ceremony of the Parks Department press release titled, “Community Celebrates Re-Opening of Washington Square Park.” Yes, there were community members there but it was really more about the elected officials citing how they and “the community” worked together to help smooth over any disgruntlement (apparently, according to one speaker, to reach “consensus”) and … basically… we were all the better for it.

But back to this notion that a packed Fountain Plaza equates that the “renovation” (i.e., redesign) of Washington Square Park is a success. Other than the gray day that appeared on the day of the ribbon cutting, the previous week had been quite been stunning weather-wiseWhy wouldn’t people want to be gathering on a plaza in Greenwich Village around a (famous) Fountain…? Is that so unusual? (We live in a city with 8 million people and who knows how many tourists coming through at one time…)

I sat there one day the week the Park opened with my computer (no WiFi … but I actually don’t think there should be WiFi in Parks although it would be nice at times and it certainly would make my life easier…) around the Fountain and I really enjoyed sitting there. Do I still have concerns about the design…? Yes.

Some comments made at the ceremony:

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe:

This is a special park and a special celebration today.

George Vellonakis spent a lot of time in the park. The project had to be explained again and again.

Along the way, there were some lawsuits. You don’t do anything in New York without a lawsuit.

The park is 20% greener now… we took a lot of the paving out.

Most of the mail we get isn’t positive. [then reads two positive letters received about the park]

NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn

All the yelling was worthwhile… made the park more beautiful, more usable.

Always designed with the community in mind.

We have to thank NYU who has been a great partner in this.

NY City Council Member Alan Gerson

In my lifetime this is the third renovation I’ve lived through. Striking the right balance is essential. Everyone who argued, everyone who screamed, everyone who took part… [all led to this moment].

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer

Adrian Benepe is a piece of work. … He’s done an amazing job as Parks Commissioner. With community collaboration, great things can happen.

Pennies In The Fountain

Pennies In The Fountain

Village Alliance (local Business Improvement District) President Honi Klein

7 1/2 years ago started planning for the [renovation of the] park.

I was here Tuesday – Opening day. Washington Square Park is iconic … known for everything and anything goes. On Tuesday, there were more people here than you could possibly imagine.

Washington Square Association President Anne-Marie Sumner

There are natural tensions between the Parks Department and the Community [but we have a] magnificent result. A painters’ paradise.

Community Board 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman

I think we reached the best conclusion for the space.

***************************************************
* Part I: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for Phase I Opening in Photos June 1, 2009

Since Parks are being scaled back left and right (according to a story last week in the New York Post) due to budgetary concerns, will Washington Square Park be next?

Photos: Cat

Part I: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Sq Park May 28, 2009: Photos

ThePlazaFromAfar052809

Part II: Report-Back on the May 28th Washington Square Park Ribbon Cutting Event

Photos: Cat
Except Davis/Vellonakis: Tim Newman

Washington Sq Park “Official” Opening Ceremony Thursday, May 28th 1:30 p.m. At the Fountain

Oh my… The moment we’ve all been waiting for… (Well, maybe just me…? but still…) Do you think Mayor Bloomberg will show up?

From NY City Council Member Alan Gerson:

DEAR NEIGHBOR:

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and I cordially invite you to join us and other folks in the area to celebrate the opening of Washington Square Park and the completion of Phase I of the renovation. We look forward to seeing you on Thursday, May 28th at 1:30 pm at the fountain.

Very truly yours,
Alan J. Gerson
Council Member, District 1

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

Additional thoughts on “New” Washington Square follow in post below …

Landmarks Preservation Commission Approves Phase II of WSP Redesign; NYC Parks Department agrees to increase # of alcoves

What follows are some of the highlights from yesterday’s (April 14) Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, a continuation of the
March 17th public hearing
, scheduled to determine what the future holds for Phase II of Washington Square Park’s redesign by New York City’s Parks Department. So here goes…

* The number of seating alcoves in the Park

There’s actually some good news. Which is that the New York City Parks Department, responding to the calls from Council Member Alan Gerson, Community Board 2, and impassioned park goers to keep their hands off Washington Square Park‘s popular seating alcoves, increased the number in their plan from two to four. The Park currently has six. So, that’s … something.

The Parks Department, represented by Charles McKinney and designer George Vellonakis, started out stating that they were prepared to add one or two more alcoves to the originally proposed two. However, they preferred three. George Vellonakis said that ideally a fourth would be omitted because its location inside the Park lawn on the (south) east side “distracts the view and expansion of the lawn.” The other reasons given by Mr. Vellonakis for omitting that fourth alcove were possible damage to surrounding tree roots and that that area in the new design undergoes a “geometry change.”

At first, Robert Tierney, LPC chair, advocated for the 3 alcoves as he believed that was the Parks Department’s “preference.” The Parks Department stated that the fourth alcove would be very small and “intimate” but how small I’m not sure.

Thankfully, the heroine of the meeting, Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz, stood her ground and argued repeatedly for the fourth. She said, “There was a lot of controversy about the redesign – for many legitimate reasons. This park evolved with many layers of change and use which took it away from the original more pristine design. This park is not like Gramercy Park. The park evolved with the neighborhood.” She also said, “I’m not concerned if a piece of lawn is taken away. It’s about how the park is used and the weight of its importance and use outweighs the difficulty of it intruding on [tree] roots.”

It was Ms. Brandes Gratz’s persistence and unwavering that convinced the rest of the Commissioners of the importance of the four (vs. three) alcoves. The inclusion of these four adds to (and maintains) the Park’s charm and uniqueness and gives us a bit of a break from all the symmetry of Phase I.

* Increased seating? Depends what year within the Park’s history you base this on

The Parks Department claims that seating is being “increased by 37%.” George Vellonakis stated that there are currently 355 benches and there will be 487 benches in the newly designed version. (These numbers do not include benches being added into the new alcoves.) However, Park advocate Jonathan Greenberg walked with me around the park recently and he informed me that the Parks Department has been consistently removing benches over the years. (Why…? I don’t know.)

So, to truly determine what the increase would be, you’d have to calculate from an older number of existing benches from a previous year (1970 perhaps?).

In fact, if you walk around each alcove as well as the Northeast corner where the picnic tables are, you will see iron or metal ‘holders’ on the ground that indicate where the benches previously were located that have been removed. (I’m going to write a separate post on this.)

* The Stage – Garibaldi Plaza – Shrunken, Relocated, No Guardrail but Approved

The performance area – the newly named Garibaldi Plaza (previously “Teen Plaza”) – was very quickly discussed at the meeting and it’s unclear to me if any changes were made from the previous version shown. The stage is moving and shrinking and has no guardrails and basically no backstage, if it’s the same version last presented.

Again, Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz asked pointed questions such as “you moved the stage because…?” and “Is it better than the old stage?” and “Will you have a backstage?” To this last question, George Vellonakis said that the “[performance] groups will assemble in this pathway” and pointed to an area that I could not see from where I was. (I left Mr. Vellonakis a message to clarify and will update if I receive the answer.)

I think there may be a plan for a temporary railing to prevent the conductor or performers from, um, falling off the stage.

The Washington Square Music Festival testified at the last meeting calling for approval of the plan while simultaneously expressing their disapproval. Although this group only uses the area about five times a year, they are considered sort of the arbiter of the space, so their lukewarm “support” in a sense sealed the deal.

* The Vote – Plan Approved

Before the vote, another LPC Commissioner Christopher Moore referred to the testimony given at the March 17th hearing as “heartfelt and passionate” and intimated that that testimony should be respected. He also said he liked the addition of the fourth alcove because it added to the Park’s “idiosyncratic quality.”

The plan was approved unanimously with the intention that the lights, fence, and pathways will be restored in keeping with Phase I’s work, the stage will be moved and reconfigured, and that there will be four seating alcoves retained within the Park.

* The Past is Our Future

But, of course, it was the first set of Landmarks Preservation Commission hearings in May 2005 where the crucial decisions were made to approve the sweeping changes proposed by the Parks Department to reconfigure Washington Square Park.

It is widely alleged, that, at that time, the Commissioners were pressured by Mayor Bloomberg’s office to go along with an approval and information was leaked to the New York Times in advance that they were going to do so. An article appeared in the Times the morning of the critical vote signaling the Commission would be going along with the Parks Department’s plan.

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

* Video here of Q&A from the original Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing – May 10, 2005 by Matt Davis (who directed the work-in-progress documentary “SQUARE: Straightening Out Washington Square Park”). New York State Supreme Court Judge Emily Jane Goodman later ruled that “essential elements of the Parks Department’s plans … were not adequately revealed to Community Board 2 or the Landmarks Commission…”