On the Fences around the Park… And Kids Will be … Kids?

Kids find a new use for the chain fence

Kids find a new use for the chain fence

Updated: When they redesigned Phase I (the NorthWest Quadrant and Fountain Plaza) of Washington Square Park, the NYC Parks Department opted to replace the well-liked piperail fence — which surrounded the Park at a welcoming 3 feet high — with a new 4 foot high, less inviting fence.

In the interior of the Park, the piperail was replaced with a post-and-chain fence. I don’t mind the interior fence that much (I think the exterior fence is more problematic) although it’s true the old fence you could just lean against leisurely. However, NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe explained to me in one of his letters that the fence was never meant to be sat on. Hmm. Nonetheless, I don’t think that they anticipated that the new fence would be used for this purpose (above). I would think people sitting on the fence would be preferable to them, uh, walking on it.

But I suppose as kids will find play spaces in areas we wouldn’t anticipate, perhaps the park will change in ways we can’t even imagine at this moment. So that people will feel they can reclaim the things that were perhaps lost or create new traditions and new uses that are their own within this public space, not engineered by our City government and private interests – NYU, the Tisch Family, a possible conservancy – with their own agendas.

Previous WSP Blog Entry: A Tale of Two Fences

** Yesterday’s post updated also! See below. **

A Tale of Two Fences…

Current (and long-time) WSP fence

Current (and long-time) WSP fence

Fence being installed

Fence being installed

So Commissioner Benepe says that this new 4 foot fence (currently being installed) does not have spears on top. The issue is relevant because Commissioner Benepe made an “agreement” in 2005 with City Council Member Alan Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn to install a new fence without spears and that kept the “inviting nature” of the Park.  Commissioner Benepe writes, in his letter to me: “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.” I’d argue that the fence has spears with “rounded balls” at the top of the spears.

Interestingly, Washington Square Park, previously, before the last redesign, had NO fence around it. It was with the 1970 design that a fence – the current 3 foot fence – got installed (correct me if I’m wrong on the time frame). Now, the Parks Department is installing a four foot fence. What will the height of the fence with the Park’s next redesign be?

Commissioner Benepe also missed my point. The community want the fence kept at the lowered height.  That would have been truly listening to the community (articulated during all that “review” Commissioner Benepe references) vs. imposing what Parks Commissioner Benepe and Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted.

I realize people couldn’t sit on top of a four foot fence – that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? The “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” stipulates (and, note:  part of my issue with the Washington Square Park Task Force is that they have not been paying close enough attention, ensuring that the agreement is enforced, by staying on top of these things) that the new fence “preserve the park’s sense of openness and its inviting character.”

Does this fence do that?

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Note: Since there is a Washington Square Park Task Force meeting this evening, I am going to hold off on responding to Parks Commissioner Benepe until Friday so I have the most up to date information.

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