Latest problem at Washington Square: After Rainfall, Flood-like Conditions Impede Pathways — Rocky year for City’s Parks Department

One of the flooded pathways leading to Fountain Plaza

Updated 8:25 a.m. — It’s been a rocky road for the New York City Parks Department at Washington Square Park this year.

Phase II of the controversial redesign of the landmark park was nine months behind schedule – and that was just Phase IIA which opened in June. (Phase IIB – Chess plaza and Southwestern end – still not complete.) The repeated arborcide of trees around the Fountain has not been properly addressed and it’s doubtful there’s a new strategy in place to save future young trees from meeting the same fate of their predecessors. Bloomberg’s folly: The famous fountain, moved from its original location 22 feet east to align with the Arch, after just two years, started falling apart and is still experiencing problems. And now, after rainfall (photos depict scene Friday night), water is building up and not dispersing properly, impeding pathways and causing lake-like conditions near the Fountain Plaza. What’s next? (For why this is happening, keep reading.)

People attempting to navigate the terrain

Lake-like conditions

Drowning Tree

The primary problem is that the Parks Department operating model, as envisioned by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe (appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg), is not sustainable. The agency recklessly spends endless millions out of the “capital projects” budget to create new and spiffy parks without then paying attention as to how to sustain any of them properly. And there’s continually no oversight by the City Council or Community Board.

At Washington Square, the Parks Department callously insisted on tinkering with – and endlessly rearranging – a successful and well liked design. A budget was approved for three phases of construction for $16 Million. It was clear at the onset that the costs would more than double — which is indeed what has happened. The cost is now projected at $30-$35 Million + counting.

This is the New York City Parks Department – care of trees, fountains, water drainage should be City Parks 101. The Parks Department has had a 66% reduction in its work force over the last 20-30 years. Instead of addressing issues related to that, the Parks Commissioner would rather focus on privatizing all the public parks.

The agency persists in expansion-with-no-foreseeable-plan-in-place-for-maintenance-for-the-future. As City Hall News wrote, in a piece entitled “Money Trees,” this [begs] “the question of how much longer the department can keep up its balancing act.”

As we see at Washington Square, not much longer.

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New York Daily News Op-Ed: Why your parks look like this: Because City Hall is slamming them with budget cuts July 3rd, 2011

Photos: Cathryn

Central Park Bethesda Fountain Off Limits Now to Performance; Designated “Quiet Zone” Where Musicians are Issued Summonses and Risk Arrest

Central Park Bethesda Fountain

The New York Post reported May 29th on the decision to designate Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain a “Quiet Zone,” putting an end to music performances there and issuing summons to those who defy this. The organization pulling the strings behind this decision is the Central Park Conservancy, the private entity entrusted with the care of this 843 acre public park. This is what happens when a private corporation runs a public park. This clearly has also been condoned by the city’s Parks Department under Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Both Bloomberg and Benepe are big proponents of privatization. (The Mayor also lives near by). A spokesperson from the Conservancy told the Post, “The fountain is a place for quiet reflection.”

From the article at The New York Post:

City officials began blitzing street musicians with nuisance summonses and posted a “Quiet Zone” sign last week at the beloved Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, where virtuoso performers have been making beautiful music together for over a century.

On weekends, baritone John Boyd, 48, would belt out spirituals backed by a choir including six of his nine children and fellow classical buskers. But two months ago, Parks police descended on the Bethesda Terrace arcade with a message: Muzzle the music.

Last week, they posted a Quiet Zone sign banning Boyd and other serious musicians from playing in the arcade where world-class performers offer their talents for free to ordinary New Yorkers. …

After being hit with five summonses totaling $2,300, the former choir director from Detroit was arrested by Parks cops Wednesday and hauled in handcuffs to the Central Park police station.

“I have a right to free speech,” said Boyd. “When I sing, it is expressing what I believe in. I told them, ‘You are not chasing me away.’ ”

On Friday, passer-by Rhonda Liss, 63, of Yonkers, asked Boyd if she could join him in an impromptu duet.

“You have such a beautiful voice,” said Liss, a onetime Met opera singer and “Phantom of the Opera” cast member in Toronto. The pair tossed off a jazzy rendition of “My Favorite Things.”

“Is this what they want to arrest people for — singing joy to the people?” she asked incredulously.

When asked about the music crackdown, a spokesman for the Central Park Conservancy, the cash-flush nonprofit that runs the park for the city, said: “The fountain is a place for quiet reflection.”

Interesting thread of comments at the Post site. One commenter says, “Bloomberg should be hauled in front of a court for the crime of destroying the soul of New York City.”

Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks

Last year there were numerous creative actions by Save Union Square/Union Square Not For Sale aiming to stop the placement of a private restaurant within Union Square Park‘s north end pavilion. The pavilion had long been closed. It was the focal point of the first Labor Day parade and other historic events, and later used extensively for musical, children and community activities.

The model for all things successful about a city park concession often leads people to point to Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. But is that such a good model to follow?

WNYC.com set out to find out with the piece, “Shake Shack $$$: Bad for City Parks?. It reveals what the “executive directors” of conservancies at some of the tonier parks get paid (Friends of the High Line head Robert Hammond takes home $280,000 a year) and how the popular Shake Shack, as a concessionaire in Madison Square Park, has paid a smaller amount of its $4.9 million a year revenues to the city than most.

City park concessions typically return up to 20% of their revenues back to the city. Meyer’s deal allows him to pay only 12%. In addition, Meyer caters private events at the park from which his company makes up to $15,000 an hour, according to the WNYC piece by Arun Venogopal which references Patrick Arden’s well-researched article “The High Cost of Free Parks.”

Due to the Bloomberg Administration’s over-reliance on private funding in city parks and the administration’s overarching belief that this can take the place of proper funding allocated from the city budget, the Parks Department is in sad shape. This is greatly affecting parks in poorer areas, which don’t have the good fortune of being in high value destinations for real estate and commerce.

Some alarming information follows:

In 1960 parks maintenance and operations claimed 1.4 percent of city funds. Mayor Bloomberg’s new $63.6 billion budget would send parks’ percentage to a record low of 0.37 percent, or $239 million. (Chicago spent almost $150 million more last year on 21,000 fewer acres.)

WSP Blog Note: Really…? Do we want Chicago outpacing us?

The mayor’s cut would drop the full-time workforce below 3,000, less than half the number employed by the Parks Department in 1970. “No other city agency has lost a greater percentage of its workforce over the last 40 years,” says [Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates]. “Private money will never make that up.”

[Patrick] Arden and parks advocates say the “Golden Age for Parks” that Adrian Benepe claims is more like a Gilded Age, “with wide — and growing — disparities between lavish, showplace parks for the haves and cast-off parcels for the have-nots. For every Madison Square, Bryant Park or High Line, there are hundreds of parks that depend solely on the city, and many suffer from scandalous neglect.”

(more…)

Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park — Home to Two Stanford White-designed structures

I went by Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn over the weekend. The Urban Park Rangers in the Fort Greene Park Visitors Center told me a bit of the park’s history. They informed me that Stanford White, principal of McKim, Mead & White (noted NYC architects in the early 20th century) and renowned architect of the Washington Square Park Arch (and Judson Church, among others), was also the designer of the park’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument (pictured) and the Visitor Center/Rest Rooms, a building the American Institute of Architecture apparently refers to as “the most elegant outhouse in the world.”

Fort Greene Park is quite a treasure and a well-utilized park. Nothing too bohemian or out of the ordinary happens there but it has its purpose as a place you go to just … be. (Or play basketball or tennis!) It’s pure park vs. a more “public space” like Washington Square where things … happen in public. (No performances or protest appear to occur regularly at Fort Greene Park.) And while Washington Square Park is just (under) 10 acres, Fort Greene Park is a bit over 30.

The only unfortunate thing about Fort Greene Park is that it appears entirely ruled by the private Fort Greene Conservancy, to the point where you’d (almost) never know it was part of the New York City Park System!

Some background on the Park from the Parks Department: During the battle of Long Island, in the late 1700’s, “the British held thousands of captives on prison ships anchored in the East River. Over 11,500 men and women died of overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation, and disease aboard the ships, and their bodies were hastily buried along the shore. These brave patriots represented all thirteen colonies and at least thirteen different nationalities. In 1808 the remains of the prison ship martyrs were buried in a tomb on Jackson Street (now Hudson Avenue), near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Brooklyn fort was renamed for General [Nathanael] Greene and rebuilt for the War of 1812. When the threat of war passed, locals enjoyed visiting the grounds of the old fort for recreation and relaxation. The City of Brooklyn designated the site for use as a public park in 1845, and [Brooklyn Daily Eagle] newspaper editor Walt Whitman rallied popular support for the project. In 1847 the legislature approved an act to secure land for Washington Park on the site of the old fort.”

The Monument for the prison ship martyrs (there is a crypt underneath with their bodies), erected in 1908, was the last building Stanford White designed. He did not live to see it built. He was shot to death in 1906 by his (ex) young mistresses’ husband on the roof of Madison Square Garden, a building he also designed (a previous version, not the one standing now).

Fort Greene Park was first named Washington Park; the original master plan was designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (architects behind Central Park and Prospect Park among many notable works) in 1864.

Photos: Cat

Squirrels Against Privatization of our Parks

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Photo: Miriam West, one of the wonderful street artist vendors at Union Square Park