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

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.

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

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

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

Task Force Linkage to Community Board 2

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

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 They ultimately rescinded their approvalalbeit on the third try.

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

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

What would a Functioning Body look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

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

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

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

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

The WSPTF is run presently under the aegis of Community Board 2 but it is also comprised of members of the public, the Community Board, and representatives of elected officials.

The elected officials represented on the Task Force are: Congressman Jerold Nadler, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Council Member Alan Gerson, State Senator Tom Duane, and Assembly Member Deborah Glick.

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

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

Goals of the Washington Square Park Task Force:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Maintain as many of the trees as possible.

8. Create conditions which allow funding of bathroom renovation.

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

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

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

Part II will explore this next.