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.

************************************************
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.

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

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

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.

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

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

Mayor Bloomberg Implodes?

The most interesting thing about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign – you know, the one made possible by his directing the City Council to overturn voted-in term limits – is watching him implode a bit. If a person deep down knows they did something not on the up-and-up, even if they’re getting away with it, I think they battle against an inner critic despite seemingly bypassing the outer ones.

Our Mayor is very wealthy and has gotten away with so much because of it (buying two elections for starters) and he seems to have a sense of entitlement that is causing him to, uh, act out a bit.

Most of the press gives him a free pass much of the time, other elected officials rarely speak out, his “competition” (ending term limits was supposed to give us more “choice” but instead has just given us less) is small and dwindles every day (Anthony Weiner just declared himself officially out of the race), and groups that might, with any other administration, speak out against some of his policies are quieted by his “private” “philanthropy.”

Therefore, it becomes almost gratifying to watch him take on himself and his inner demons in public with some verbal blunders.

From today’s New York Times, “The Latest Stray Words of An Off-The-Cuff Mayor“:

When you’re worth $16 billion, it’s all relative.

On Monday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — who owns homes in Bermuda, Florida, Colorado and London; travels the globe on two private jets; and plans to spend $80 million of his own money on a re-election bid — said that President Obama “does not get paid that much.”

That is, if a $400,000-a-year salary, a $50,000 expense account and a $19,000 entertainment budget qualifies as not much.

It was the latest puzzling remark in a re-election campaign filled with colorful foot-in-mouth mayoral utterances.

Campaign aides to Mr. Bloomberg are seeking to portray him as a sympathetic chief executive in touch with ordinary New Yorkers (witness a parade of commercials featuring a tieless mayor talking about jobs).

Mr. Bloomberg, however, has not made it easy. Since deciding to seek a third term last fall, he has declared that “we love the rich.” Reaching for an economic barometer, he described dwindling crowds at Bergdorf Goodman, the luxury department store.

He has scolded a disabled blogger, Michael Harris, who uses a wheelchair, for accidentally turning on a tape recorder at a news conference. And, last week, he bitterly rebuked a reporter, Azi Paybarah, who asked about his decision to overturn the city’s term limits law, telling him, “You’re a disgrace.”

Given Mr. Bloomberg’s commanding lead in the polls — he remains at least 10 points ahead of any rival — the missteps suggest that the biggest obstacles to his re-election are his own, unpredictable words.

If I hadn’t started the Washington Square Park Blog, my other idea was to write a blog about Mayor Bloomberg. I think a well done blog chronically the real effects of his tenure could make a difference. Maybe somebody else out there wants to take that on?

Lawsuit on Term Limits Filed Today…

The New York Times reports that:

Elected officials, aspiring politicians, public interest groups and average citizens who voted to establish term limits in New York in the 1990s filed a federal lawsuit Monday morning challenging the constitutionality of a law signed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last week that extended the limits from a maximum of two terms in office to three.

The lawsuit charges that the mayor and the City Council seized upon the economic downturn as an excuse to undo the term limits law that had been twice affirmed by voters through referendum, and did so at an unprecedented pace.

The lawsuit plaintiffs include NY City Council Members Letitia James, Bill de Blasio, and Charles Barron, as well as Comptroller William Thompson. It is being litigated by Randy Mastro, formerly a deputy mayor in the Giuliani Administration, and Norman Siegel, well known as an advocate for free speech who is also running for public advocate.

From the complaint:

Allowing a self-interested mayor and City Council to dismiss the results of two recent referenda undermines the integrity of the voting process, effectively nullifies the constitutionally-protected right to vote, and perniciously chills political speech by sending the unavoidable message that the democratic exercises of initiatives and referenda can be disregarded by public officials.”

One of Mayor Bloomberg main arguments is, that if people don’t want him as Mayor for a third term, they can just vote him out. However, the lawsuit highlights how unlikely that is. For City Council Members, the complaint states: “in the past decade, only 2 of 107 incumbent council members lost a re-election bid.” Couple that statistic with our billionaire mayor’s intention to spend $80-$100 MILLION of his personal fortune (which, by the way, quadrupled while he has been Mayor) on his campaign and it’s not really a fair fight.

Mayor Bloomberg, City of New York, the City Council, and Speaker Christine Quinn, among others, are listed as defendants in the suit. You can download a PDF of the suit at the New York Times link above.

Street Artists Protest Gerson-sponsored Vending Bills Friday, November 14th at City Hall

The “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” that NY City Council Member Alan Gerson (Washington Square Park is in his district) and Speaker Christine Quinn (Quinn covers the neighboring Village district) brokered was weak and gained little for the community they both represent.

At City Hall, a few weeks ago during the term limits hearings, Alan Gerson would never state his position on the matter. Yet, it came as no surprise to anyone that the day of the crucial vote he fell in line with Mayor Bloomberg, Speaker Quinn, and voted for the legislation which would extend his own term.

So now Alan Gerson is on the attack of New York City’s street artists.

Info from Robert Lederman, President of A.R.T.I.S.T.:

400 Street Artists Will Protest at City Council Hearing on Vending

Press Conference and Protest: Friday, November 14, 9 AM City Hall (East Gate)

On Friday, November 14th, the NY City Council Committee on Consumer Affairs will hold a hearing on 8 of 21 pending laws concerning vending and street artists pushed for by City Council Member Alan Gerson.

If passed, these laws will make it virtually impossible for anyone to legally sell art on the street. More than 400 street artists will protest outside at 9 AM and then testify inside at the hearing at 10 AM.

Other City Council members to contact to register your opposition to these bills:

* Lacey Clarke, Legislative Counsel Committee on Consumer Affairs New York City Council Phone #: 212.788.7006

* Leroy Comrie, Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman
District Office Phone 718-776-3700
Legislative Office Phone 212-788-7084

Contact: Robert Lederman, President of A.R.T.I.S.T.: artistpres -at- gmail.com

You can get detailed info on all of the newly proposed vending laws at the ARTIST website.

Note: It was impossible to find a good photo of Alan Gerson on Flickr so I resorted to this one. No disrespect meant to Council Member Gerson.

NYU President John Sexton speaks at Term Limit Hearings in ‘Up is Down’ Testimony

-updated-

New York University has dramatically expanded its real estate tentacles and University purple flags throughout New York City over the last seven years under Mayor Bloomberg. Many believe that the University, which holds most (if not all) of the real estate surrounding Washington Square Park, pulled strings behind-the-scenes with the Bloomberg Administration to impose the dramatic redesign of this park over the wishes of the community.

So, it should come as no surprise where NYU President John Sexton would fall on term limits, and the extension of Mayor Bloomberg’s reign.

More Bloomberg. More NYU.

When Mr. Sexton appeared before the New York City Council during the public hearing the same day I did, I was surprised to see him there. And yet, would I have expected a University president to give such an uninspiring and unthoughtful testimony as to why term limits should be extended, thereby overturning a public vote via legislation? No.

The NYU President appeared a few panels following mine on Friday, October 17th, at City Hall in the City Council Chambers. (There were typically panels grouped together of 4-7 people.) During the two hearings, most of the well known politicians and corporate CEOs appeared early on, given preference in the order of the day. But there he was later in the afternoon.

I had a hard time following Sexton’s testimony. It was very up is down. He never spoke about how NYU, which is the #2 or #3 real estate holder in the city, has benefited from Mayor Bloomberg’s reign. However, it was underlying in his testimony which otherwise offered little logic or reason.

Mr. Sexton urged the NY City Council body to vote in favor of Bloomberg’s bill to give himself and City Council members a third term citing it as an “act of bravery.” He stated that each City Council member needed to say to his or herself:”Because this is right, I am doing this.”

A City Council Member asked Mr. Sexton about “cynicism” from the public if the City Council overturned the will of the people — who voted in two public referendums to implement two term limits on our elected officials. Sexton replied that he IS “concerned about the growth of cynicism and that we are becoming a society of distrust.” At the same time, he “opposes term limits” and feels additional time “gives leaders time to solve complex problems.” He said something about people needing “stability in their lives.” (Which caused me to have some cynicism thinking that the NYU Prez knows that stability in the University’s real estate interests will come from Mr. Bloomberg.)

During my testimony prior to his, I mentioned the costly and unnecessary redesign of Washington Square Park and the issue of “privitization and reduction of our public spaces under the Bloomberg Administration.” (If I had realized Mr. Sexton was there, I would have added NYU in somewhere.)

Brooklyn City Council Member Bill de Blasio, when speaking during the term limits vote a few days later, said something that could have applied to Mr. Sexton. Council Member de Blasio said, “George Orwell would have loved arguments used by the Speaker and the Mayor… [They say] by taking away people’s right to vote, we are giving them more choice.”

John Sexton’s argument to the City Council was that by taking away people’s right to vote, the New York City Council is displaying “bravery.” By giving themselves a third term against the expressed will of the people, by caving to the wishes of a Billionaire Mayor who purposefully waited too long to put the issue to the public, by not standing up to this Mayor, the Council Members are displaying “bravery.”

I can only imagine what advice he gives graduating NYU Seniors.

Bloomberg heckled as he leaves City Hall – “chased” by protesters

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

Interesting the reports that as Mayor Bloomberg left City Hall yesterday after the vote, he was surrounded, even “chased,” by “protesters.” I would have been interested in witnessing that. I’m fairly certain our billionaire Mayor has not encountered this much to date. People are so convinced that he has a “high” approval rating, “protesters” have mostly left him alone. But, alas, this may all change. The Mayor may finally see that there are repercussions for his manipulative actions.

Metro reports:

After yesterday’s vote to extend term limits, Mayor Bloomberg issued a statement praising the City Council for giving “the people of New York a fuller choice” in the 2009 election.

But as he left City Hall a group of protesters chased him shouting, “Sellout!

“I had not seen that before,” said civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, who’s part of one legal team weighing court challenges to yesterday’s vote. “That’s just the beginning.”

In the Daily News (at the top of the paper’s two pages of coverage was a banner which read: “Mike Gets His Way“), it was reported that the Mayor was scheduled to talk to the press about the outcome of the vote on City Hall steps but had to abort those plans as “detectives hustled him into his SUV when angry demonstrators yelled, ‘Bloomberg hates New York!'”

And in last night’s online article in the New York Post, the writers also stated that the Mayor was “chased” by protesters as he went to his SUV and that his face turned “red” as he climbed into the vehicle. Today’s version is just a bit different, stating, “On his way out of City Hall last night, Bloomberg was swarmed by a throng of protesters shouting, “Democracy for sale!” and “Bloomberg hates New York!

I’d surmise he should expect more of that.

While employees in a corporation … for example … Bloomberg, L.P.? … cannot publicly criticize and deride their bosses (and keep their jobs), citizens in a democracy can still protest the disturbing and unethical actions of their elected officials. Even ones who have bought their way into office.

New York Times is live blogging from the term limits hearing… Also NY1 is carrying hearing live.

New York Times is live blogging from the term limits hearing today at City Hall. It’s well done and somewhat entertaining. Apparently, Mayor Bloomberg got 50 of his supporters in there early and it’s unclear if they were paid to attend.

Council Member Charles Barron took on the Mayor’s reputation (at last someone did):

“It was under Mayor Bloomberg — under his watch, that Wall Street collapsed,” Mr. Barron continued, adding, “If he’s so sharp, a big-time businessman, why didn’t he foresee this?” he asked of the crisis. “Not only did he not foresee it, what he did was come in and cut this budget. He’s closed down seniors’ centers and youth centers. He robbed the poor and gave to the rich. And you’re going to push Bloomberg on us.”

You can read up-to-the-minute information here.

They will be signing people up to speak until 8 p.m. tonite (but will go later than that if necessary) and it starts again at 10 a.m. tomorrow. (Getting there earlier before the Bloomberg “supporters” arrive is probably a good idea.) If you’ve never testified before the City Council, it can be a little daunting but it’s such a magnificent building and sort of fun to do.

Updated: NY1 is carrying the hearings live til 7 p.m. !  I just discovered this.