Coming Monday: More Dialogue with NYC’s Parks Commissioner Re: Washington Sq Park and More on the Park’s Opening!

Check back Monday for more dialogue between WSP Blog and the NYC Parks Commissioner. Plus … more on the re-opening of Washington Square Park‘s long-under-construction (over a year) NorthWest Quadrant, including the Fountain and Plaza!

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…)

Letter to Elected Officials re: Washington Square Park For Review/On Plan Going Forward (12-18-08)

First, let me share with you my letter addressing my concerns about Washington Square Park thus far and going forward. See follow-up post with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe‘s response (1-30-09).

Subject: Washington Square Park – For your Review / Oversight

-via email and fax-

December 18th, 2008

TO: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Council Member Alan Gerson

CC: Council Member Bill de Blasio, Council Member Letitia James, Council Member Helen Foster, Council Member Helen Sears, Council Member Darlene Mealy, Council Member Charles Barron, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Council Member Tony Avella, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Comptroller William Thompson, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, State Senator Tom Duane, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

FM: Cathryn Swan

RE: WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK

—————————————————————————————————

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.

BUDGET

The initial budget was set at $16 million dollars for the entire project. However, at a presentation by the Parks Department at a meeting December 3rd convened by the Washington Square Park Task Force, it was revealed that the “budget” now stands at $27 million and rising. Phase I – which is currently being completed – was projected at $6 million and has now crept to $14 million with no explanation nor oversight. Phases II and III while now projected at $13 million combined will most likely double as well.

OVERSIGHT

The question I can’t help wondering is – who is minding the store? If the New York City Council does not oversee and protect New York City’s precious (and few) public spaces, who will? The Parks Department has demonstrated that it needs oversight and yet none is apparently forthcoming. When a budget for a City Council-approved project with designated City Council and “City funds” skyrockets and doubles, who reviews this? Who says, in the midst of a budget crisis, “Wait a minute.”

PUBLIC SPACE AT RISK

You might have read in the Times’ story that the public space surrounding the famous Washington Square Park Fountain is slated to be reduced by 25%. However, that is sadly not where the reduction in public space ends. There are six seating “alcoves” that people greatly appreciate in the park. As was revealed at the meeting, and only under intensive questioning, those are being obliterated in the new plan. (These have graced the northeastern, eastern and southeastern sides for almost 40 years, and are very well utilized.) In addition, the area where the chess tables are (southwest) is being greatly reduced, as well as the entrance to the park at the northeastern side which is another area that people use greatly for spontaneous performance and the like. I urge you to stop this destruction before it happens!

“GERSON-QUINN AGREEMENT”/WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK TASK FORCE

The offices of Christine Quinn and Alan Gerson assured me when I first got involved in the Washington Square Park issue that they had an “agreement” with Parks Commissioner Benepe. This agreement, while frankly quite tepid and unfortunately not addressing most of the key issues the Greenwich Village community and New Yorkers in general had with the Parks Department’s redesign, was allegedly to provide some oversight by their offices over what the Parks Department is doing at Washington Square Park. The body that is charged with overseeing this – the Washington Square Park Task Force – is largely comprised of Community Board 2 members, community members, and representatives from elected officials’ offices (all of whom are copied on this letter). The elected officials have not played more than a perfunctory role in the Task Force. The result is that the Task Force has been unable to uphold even the weak stipulations in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement or to advocate effectively for this public space in its dealings with the Parks Department.

How strong is this supposed agreement? At the meeting held December 3rd, when I asked Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro about a violation of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” he told me “there is no agreement.” This is outrageous, to refuse to abide by even these tepid mandates. It exemplifies the New York City Parks Department’s contempt for the people and the institutions set up to safeguard the public interest.

AN EXAMPLE OF A VIOLATION – THE FENCING (more…)

A Quiz On NYC’s Parks Commissioner

Updated: Answers at bottom!

On Saturday night 9/6, NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was honored by local group, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, along with others including NY City Council Member Rosie Mendez and No Impact Man Colin Beavan. Parks Commissioner Benepe’s name in the list of honorees drew particular scrutiny from parks/public space/environmental activists and advocacy groups.

Urban environmentalist and activist, Mitchel Cohen of the Brooklyn Greens and No Spray Coalition (fighting toxic pesticide spraying in NYC), took action. He designed a flyer and he, along with Village community activist and parks advocate, Elizabeth Adam, put them in the hands of those attending the event. (In Saturday’s pouring rain, I might add!). The flyer, the text of which I’ve posted below, asked some illuminating questions. Do you know the answers?

***How Much Do You Know About NYC’s Parks Commissioner?

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

WHY IS AN ECOLOGY CENTER HONORING ADRIAN BENEPE?

As Commissioner of NYC Parks Department, Adrian Benepe has presided over an unprecedented destruction of our parks on behalf of private business interests, from Washington Square to Randall’s Island, Union Square to Kaiser Field in Coney Island.

1. How many trees did Adrian Benepe’s NYC Parks Dept. chop down in East River Park?
a. None. We need to preserve our trees as an essential part of NYC’s urban environment.
b. 2. We had to remove two trees because they were already dead, but this didn’t affect the wildlife habitat there.
c. 18. Trees do absorb waters from high rains and floods, but we figured that NYC has plenty of trees and is elevated high enough above the flood plain.
d. 105. Yea, and if you guess this figure you probably also believe that there are crucial unanswered questions in the takedown of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

2. Why is Adrian Benepe ripping up natural grass and installing synthetic turf in many of NYC’s parks?
a. He believes that artificial turf represents progress.
b. He believes that it’s too difficult to maintain real grass the way God intended, especially with 70 percent budget cuts to the Parks Department.
c. He likes to watch the helicopters and trucks spray toxic pesticides that pool on the artificial turf, the better for children to play in.
d. He thinks that the 168 degrees temperatures the synthetic turf can reach and the toxins it gives off can be controlled by spraying water on the fields.

a child

3. On the left is a photo of a child whose feet were severely burned while playing on the Parks Department-installed rubber mats.
a. How hot can these mats get when the sun shines directly on them?
b. How many children are treated each year for similar burns?
c. Why didn’t Benepe have these materials tested before installing them in playgrounds, to avoid children getting burned?
d. What has been the City’s response to children being burned?

4. Which multi-millionaire provided funds (and how much?) to bulldoze Washington Square Park in order to have the new fountain named after him?

a. Laurence Tisch

b. David Rockefeller

c. Osama bin-Laden

d. George Bush

The above is just a small sampling of what’s happening to our parks. For much more information, contact the Brooklyn Greens at BrooklynGreens-owner -at- yahoogroups.com, and we’ll send you a list of people and organiza­tions in your neighborhood who are working to protect and improve our parks.

*************************************************************************
Text Above, Courtesy Mitchel Cohen, Brooklyn Greens

Photo: Courtesy Geoffrey Croft, NYC Park Advocates.

ANSWERS: (How many did you answer correctly?)

1. d.
2. b&d.
3. a-165 degrees Fahrenheit; b-at least 12; c-good question! d-Believe it or not, NYC plans to fine parents whose children want to play barefoot in the parks
4. a. $2.5 million