NYC Parks Department Drops off Washington Square Park Phase II Blueprints at Community Board 2 Meeting; More Arborcide at Washington Square Park and by NYU

Well, yes, Community Board 2’s Parks Committee met Wednesday night, February 3rd, in the Village with a list of topics to discuss. On the agenda: Design of the Washington Square Park “comfort stations,” part of Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase III which will begin later this year or early next. There was, at last, a look at the plans for WSP Phase II construction, currently underway.

The Parks Department unveiled full Washington Square Park Phase II redesign plan blueprints, the first time anyone from the community had seen these despite the fact that the work began in the Fall of 2009. Clearly, these Phase II blueprints have existed for awhile — the fact that the Parks Department just now got around to bringing them before the Community Board is particularly vexing.

At the previous December meeting (a joint meeting of CB2 Parks Committee with the Washington Square Park Task Force), the Parks Department was unprepared and attendees were told that representatives would return at February’s meeting to give the Community Board full and final details on ongoing Phase II construction and design plans for Phase III.

Instead, the Parks Department dropped off some blueprints (which were nice to finally see, of course), placed them on a table and focused on presentations related to other parks.

No information was presented about the design of the Washington Square Park comfort stations/restrooms. (You might recall that the Greenwich Village community repeatedly insisted over the last five or so years that WSP’s failing rest rooms be addressed first in their redesign plans to which the New York City Parks Department smiled and nodded their heads while ignoring this request all along the way.)

At the meeting, other village neighborhood parks got the spotlight, including Bleecker Street Playground, Petrosino Park, and Minetta Playground. I miss the presence of Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman (who left his position at the beginning of this year after a 2 year term).

With Hoylman there, the spotlight shone a bit brighter on WSP – and park – issues. CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman, previously a Parks Department employee, is more likely to dismiss items when they might get a bit thorny, not holding the Parks Department accountable. I can’t say for certain that Hoylman, who works for Partnership for New York City (a pro-Bloomberg, pro-development entity), increased the Parks Department’s responsiveness but the process felt more open.

Arborcide by NYU and at WSP

For example: NYU devastatingly chopped down 6 trees along Thompson Street between Washington Square South and West 3rd Street recently during construction of their new Interfaith center at 58 Washington Square South. Their reason: to install an intricate heating system. Clearly, the design could have been configured otherwise.

In December, Bergman took a strong stand, with the rest of the board’s committee, when NYU officials came before them with these plans. The Parks Committee disapproved of this arborcidal concept and instructed NYU to find a new way to proceed. Yet, it was revealed on Wednesday that the Parks Department went ahead and gave the University the jurisdiction to send the trees to the chopping block.

Trees now gone. To those who objected when this news was brought to light, Bergman told them, quickly shutting down any discussion: it was done, yes, we objected, move on.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he is in favor of a MillionTrees, there may be some planting going on, but it seems for every one tree planted, another is axed. (See Union Square and Yankee Stadium Parkland, as well as Washington Square Park14 trees axed in Phase I, unclear # in Phase II to be destroyed.)

Another example: the two magnificent, non-uniform, non-aligned trees that graced the path from Garibaldi Statue alongside Teen Plaza to LaGuardia Place at WSP. I’m not certain the type tree they were but they had character, were clearly very old, and their branches drooped at bizarre angles, infusing immediate charm and an eclectic feeling.

When landscape designer George Vellonakis walked me through a tour of his plans for Phase II in May 2009, I asked specifically about those trees. As he had stated previously in public, he confirmed to me that those trees would remain. But, like most everything that shows a bit of non-conformity at the Park, as I walked through Wednesday night, I noted those trees are gone.

Parks Department Given Way Too Much Latitude

In the end, there was no presentation from the Parks Department on WSP. Bergman was vague about when they would return (March was fleetingly mentioned) and didn’t seem to recall the stated agenda items from December slated to be readdressed at this meeting.

It wouldn’t be hard for the city agency to detect that Bergman is quick to forgive – or more pointedly ignore –  failings on their part. He’s very adept at pointing out that CB2 role is advisory, instead of forging a more activist and assertive front. I’m not certain why, when the CB2 Chair was rotated at the beginning of this year, new committee chairpersons were not put into play.

Blueprints Dropped Off: Washington Square Park Phase II

The Parks Department dropped off diagrams displaying Washington Square Park Phase II which were placed on a table for viewing.

Evident from the plans:

*There will be 19 chess tables. I can’t recall the previous number (does anyone offhand?) but it looked like an increase although the Parks Department had initially said the number would remain the same. That SW corner becomes reduced in size – becoming another conformed, aligned “Plaza,” like the other three that grace the corners of the Park’s quadrants.

*Nine NYPD security cameras and devices, four within the Park, installed on poles. “2 cameras will be installed on new poles that currently do not have security devices installed.” I gather the other five will be along the perimeter of the Park.

*As we knew, four of the six seating alcoves will be preserved. Three are supposed to remain as they were, one reduced in size.

*As previously outlined, the two dog runs will be relocated along Washington Square South. (Designer Vellonakis previously has stated that no trees would be disturbed there. We’ll see…)

*Garibaldi is being moved from his position facing West to a position a bit further North, facing South.

As for Phase III design plans, it seems that they will be unveiled by the Parks Department at the Parks Committee meeting in March – at least that’s what was implied. Whether the Parks Department will keep to their word, we shall see. We’ll also see whether Community Board 2’s Parks Committee holds them to it.

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For a look at the Phase II diagrams and a report about the meeting from Curbed, go here.

My previous WSP Blog post on Phase II plans.

New York Press: The father-son dynamics of (GreenMarket founder) Barry and (Parks Commissioner) Adrian Benepe face off over Union Square

Union Square GreenMarket

Union Square GreenMarket

New York Press’ cover story this week provides a revealing look into what’s going on behind-the-scenes at Union Square with an article by Kimberly Thorpe entitled, “Does Father Know Best? New York City’s parks commissioner squares off against his father over the future of Union Square.” It’s a very much revealing piece about Parks Commissioner Benepe and his father Barry, a well known figure in the city who is an “80-year-old urban planner and founder of the Union Square Greenmarket.”

The plans at Union Square, among other controversial items (i.e., installation of a restaurant in public space and destruction of 14 mature trees), call for a lined row of trees in front of the Pavilion on the northern end of the Park. The senior Benepe is quite concerned about this ruining the potential for this area as a public gathering space. He writes in an email (one of several printed in the article) to his son: “Why did you not put the trees on the outer perimeter of the square? You would have gotten far more trees and left the square itself unencumbered for public gatherings as all great squares in the world are. You would have tree shaded sidewalks for cafes where they should be, surrounding the park, not in the park.”

Some background from the article:

The task of executing the Bloomberg initiative by improving the multitude of parks and public spaces has fallen to Adrian Benepe, who had been appointed commissioner by the mayor in January 2002—and who has since been criticized by park activists for his willingness to let private enterprise dictate the direction of his plans. Most recently, under fire from neighborhood leaders who took him to court and lost, Benepe pushed through a $16 million renovation of Washington Square Park. In that somewhat dubious project, the main goal was to move the historic fountain there over by roughly 20 feet, just so the famous landmark would better align with the Washington Square arch.

Still, Adrian Benepe has moved forward in the face of criticism and even lawsuits, often belittling those who stand in the city’s path.

“People have the luxury to care about, worry about and get vociferous about parks these days,” he told Governing 21 magazine in March. “There’s time to worry about small things, so it can be a matter of great debate whether you plant petunias or tulips.”

Adrian Benepe refused requests to be interviewed for the NY Press article. But, talk about being snarky and dismissive while ignoring the very heart of what the issues are. “Parks activists” would wish that the arguments were about planting petunias vs. tulips. The issues are – across the city, including Union Square Park and Washington Square Park – of privatization, reduction in public space, abuse of history, mass destruction of mature trees, abuse of public trust, lies from public officials, etc.

Then there is also the issue of that pesky restaurant that the Union Square Partnership (the local BID, business improvement district, led by restauranteur Danny Meyer) wishes to place in the historic Pavilion. Senior Benepe believes that — despite the court ruling to stop work on any restaurant (which after talking it up all over town, Parks Commissioner Benepe told the court that the restaurant was never a done deal) — work on the restaurant has been continuing. Barry Benepe states, “Everything is really restaurant driven, even though they want to pretend it’s not.”

Barry Benepe’s belief is that “the success of the park depended less on his son’s vision (WSPB note: vision?) and more on making each part of it work together—and restoring it to its once-regular role as a central meeting place for rallies, as it had been in the 19th century.” He states that “the current design for the plaza is arbitrary and comical.”

The article goes into the Benepe family history – Adrian Benepe was one of five children from two wives and his father was not very involved in his life in his childhood years – and Adrian Benepe’s rise to Parks Commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg.

Barry Benepe’s wish is to influence his son’s view on Union Square Park and its potential to be one of the great public spaces. He writes in an email dated June 17th: “Generally, the entire square must be conceived as a room into which pedestrians and cyclists enter with joy and anticipation and through which vehicles pass slowly and carefully, a handsome and beautiful room open to the sky inspiring delight and wonder. …It is important that the park be the major landscape statement in the heart of this public place and that its design not be muddied by attempting to extend the park into the square.”

It does not surprise me, that, despite a solid back-and-forth up to this point, it was at this juncture that his son, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, stopped responding.

Union Square Park Pre-and-Post Tree Destruction

union sq pre-tree destruction may 08

union square post-tree destruction may 08

The photo to the left illustrates the luscious trees that existed at Union Square Park just a week ago. The photo below portrays the area as it looks now.

NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has issued strong statements in the past about “serial tree killers” in our city who destroy trees for no reason and how it is a crime with a $5,000 fine. But I’d have to say that he ranks up there as one. The tree destruction under his Parks Department, at the direction of Mayor Bloomberg, often in the interest of privatization, is outrageous and criminal.

What’s important to be aware of is that the Parks Department plays public relations word games in dealing with communities. They’ll state… but look we’re going to increase the playground to THREE TIMES the size!

First, did the playground really need to be tripled? Would doubled have worked if it meant saving these mature, healthy trees that are integral to the park?

Also, it’s important to be aware that this redesign plan is being put forth by the local Business Improvement District, Union Square Partnership, with influential restauranteur Danny Meyer as co-chair. There is a decrease in the public space for free speech, for the GreenMarket, for the artists, for everyone to utilize. And don’t be surprised if the restaurant idea for the historic Pavilion creeps back into the picture now that they are working on a fresh canvas.

Next up amongst Parks Commissioner Benepe’s standard responses is … but we’re planting MORE trees!

As if most of us will be alive in 80 years to see the new baby saplings reach the magnificence of the ones they’ve destroyed. We live in an urban environment. Much has been discussed about the importance of trees. Parks Commissioner Benepe and CEO Mayor Michael Bloomberg are businessmen through and through. Neither one of them should be in charge of our city’s trees. But perhaps what I find most offensive is that they get a free pass on this and the media spouts back their p.r. about “MillionTreesNYC” so that is all that most people know about.
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Read this too: “Crimes Against Nature: The NYC Parks Department” for further background.

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Photos: Jessica Alfieri

More old trees cut down at Union Square Park

Timber !  at Union Square May 08This amazing tree, a Siberian Elm, was cut down at Union Square Park last week. I would say that this tree was most likely between 80 and 100 years old.

It would seem fitting that the media, which is always capturing Mayor Bloomberg and NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe at their “tree-planting” photo ops, would capture the sadness – and the reality – that is embodied in this shot.

14 trees are being axed at Union Square Park. 14 trees have been chain sawed at Washington Square Park – thus far. (In both instances, just because they were in the way of their grand and unnecessary redesign plans.) I’ve documented the tree destruction under Mayor Bloomberg that has occurred throughout our city’s parks.

When will the New York City Parks Department start treating the trees in our urban environment with the respect and care they deserve? The trees are part of these parks – their history and environment. They are not just expendable.

I will run additional photos to show just how barren Union Square Park looks now tomorrow.

Thank you to Jessica Alfieri for documenting what’s been going on there.

Three More Trees Felled at Washington Sq Park This Morning; NYC Parks Department Budget Hearing Thursday; Upcoming Film Screening

Washington Sq Park trees chopped down 05-21-08

Mark Your Calendars: On Sunday, June 1st at 7 p.m., Matt Davis, who supplied this photo of the trees in the process of being destroyed and has shared much of his knowledge, will screen his documentary “SQUARE: Straightening Out Washington Square Park.” In it, he chronicles the City’s redesign plans over a four year period — how the dramatic “renovation” of Washington Square Park got pushed through, and past, an outraged community. The film, with musical guests, will be shown at the Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery at Bleecker. More details to follow.

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Three more stately old trees were felled at Washington Square Park this morning. When will it end?

The total number of trees at Washington Square Park which have met the fate of the men with the chain saws is now fourteen.

I highly doubt – despite what NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe would say – that these trees were “dying” or “dead.” They were likely in the way of the City’s redesign plan.

Beautiful mature 80 year old trees are chopped down one morning by a man with an ax directed by the misguided whimsy of a city government to redesign a highly functioning public space to better fit in with our CEO Mayor’s “vision” for our city. There’s something criminal and outrageous about that.

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The New York City Parks Department Budget Hearing is coming up before New York City Council tomorrow Thursday, May 22nd. If you can swing by, please come to City Hall and advocate for our Parks/public spaces. Perhaps if the Parks Department was better funded, we wouldn’t be seeing so many of their privatization games (for example, Washington Square Park Fountain sold off to the Tisch Family with naming rights for $2.5 million).

Important data: City Parks take up 14% of City land and yet the Parks Department receives less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the City budget. Parks workers have been cut by 66% over the last twenty years.

Come to City Hall Council Chambers — 1:30-3 p.m. Parks Department Presentation (a chance to see Commissioner Benepe in action); 3 p.m. Public Comment.


Union Square Park Healthy & Mature Trees Coming Down… by Order of NYC Parks Department

unionsquareconstruction051908Received word from another blogger, Jessica Alfieri (who took the picture above), that the fourteen to fifteen healthy, mature trees at Union Square Park are getting the ax. These amazing trees have been part of this park for many years. She writes that one of the “big ones” came down last week (one of the great Siberian Elms I presume) and “six or seven little ones” came down yesterday. Those trees were to the left of the Pavilion in the foreground of the photo. There are still a few standing (not for long tho’).

Shouldn’t we be protecting our trees somehow … from our own government’s follies?

Saturday, May 17th was “It’s My Park Day” in NYC hosted by the NYC Parks Department at parks across our city. It typically involves planting of things and clean up. (I always refer to it as It’s Our Park Day.) I was involved with a Park Day Eco*Fair which had many components to it (activist groups, Freecycle FreeMeet, urban gardening, music, and more) at J.J. Byrne Park in Park Slope on Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue.

A woman who then identified herself as a landscape architect came by the Recycle This! table where I was standing. Displayed were some of the flyers about what’s happening at Washington Square Park as well as a flyer about public space/privatization/tree destruction under Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC Parks Department. This woman was avidly perusing the flyer. She looked up and said, “I have to question what you’ve written here about the trees coming down and privatization.” She continued, “I am a landscape architect and I’ve done work for the Parks Department and we’re not allowed to touch the trees. We are instructed to work with what’s there.” I told her I wished that that was how the New York City Parks Department had been proceeding but it’s not so.

(The flyer she was examining outlines the tree destruction at Union Square Park, Washington Square Park, Yankee Stadium/Macombs and Mullaly Parks, East River Park, Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir and Randall’s Island.)

I explained to her what was happening at Union Square Park as the most recent example – about the court order that ultimately allowed the removal of the trees, per the city’s instructions, to make room for an expanded playground and potential restaurant. She seemed very surprised. I wonder if the Brooklyn Parks Department (which this woman had worked with) is much more sensitive to preserving trees? It would be interesting to know.

This would make a great City Council initiative — legislation that the Parks Department must work with the existing trees – work them into their design plans – and only as a very very last resort remove any when doing reconstruction, redesign or the like.

** To see a photo of the healthy trees at Union Square Park that are being chopped down presently, click here. **

How do you define hypocrisy, Mayor Bloomberg? 14 Union Square Trees Scheduled to Come Down



This photo of a “MillionTreesNYC” very green promotional set-up was taken on April 28th on Union Square Plaza at the South End. “MillionTreesNYC” is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental plans to add a million trees in New York City by year 2030. I view it as mostly p.r.

Time Magazine was so taken by Mayor Bloomberg‘s efforts that they named him one of the most influential people in the world in their last issue and took a picture of our CEO Mayor outside City Hall – in a tree!

However, in a matter of days, at the North end of Union Square Park, fourteen mature trees will be chopped down under the direction of Mayor Bloomberg and NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

My belief was that the trees had been spared by the latest court decision but unfortunately I was incorrect.

According to Parks Commissioner Benepe and the Union Square Partnership(the business improvement district which has tremendous influence over Union Square Park), in order to construct an expanded playground and possibly a restaurant, the City — rather than save the mature trees and incorporate them into the design plan — has decided to level them. If you ask Parks Commissioner Benepe, as I have, he will undoubtedly say … we’re planting more. (Saplings – baby trees, by the way.) But that is not the answer.

At Washington Square Park, eleven mature trees have been felled thus far under the City’s redesign “plans” which aim to “align” the famous Fountain with the historic Arch. At Randall’s Island, thousands have been slaughtered in the interest of privatizing that space. Mulally and Macombs Parks in the Bronx were sacrificed by the Parks Department and the City to make way for a new Yankee Stadium: 400 trees were axed in the process. East River Park‘s “reconstruction” included the destruction of 105 trees. At Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn-Queens border, Parks Commissioner Benepe hopes to chop down thousands of trees to put in artificial turf.

The protection of our urban environment should be coming FROM the Parks Department.

The Union Square Trees are next on the Bloomberg Administration’s chopping block. How do we stop these trees from being unnecessarily destroyed?

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hy*poc*ri*sy: n 1: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not

(Source: Webster’s Dictionary)

To NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe: This tree at Union Square Park is not “dying”

Magnificent Tree at Union Sq Park City wants to cut downThis magnificent tree on the North side at Union Square Park is a Siberian Elm and one of the trees that NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe wants to chop down to put forth his and Mayor Bloomberg’s redesign of that Park.

Last week, ONE DAY after Commissioner Benepe asserted to me that 14 trees at Union Square would have to come down no matter what because they are dying,” the City presented in Court legal documents which state of the five “mature” Siberian Elms: “it is likely that two of those five would be removed in the near future for public safety reasons.” Likely. Not definitively. Two trees. Not all.

These documents reflect the City’s opposition to stopping work on the Pavilion at the North end and were entered into the court record as part of the lawsuit brought forth by community groups.

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration wishes to privatize the historic Pavilion and place a restaurant there.

To clarify, there was a restaurant at Union Square previously but it was located in the “sunken terrace” next to, not in the Pavilion. The Pavilion has always been allocated for Community use and historically as a location for activism and protest marches in the City. Presently, there is a temporary restraining order in effect and preliminary injunction on the cutting down of trees and a stop work order on the Pavilion site.

Will Parks Commissioner Benepe and Mayor Bloomberg ever reverse course and work with the truth and with communities?

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Photo: Geoffrey Croft, NYC Park Advocates

Time Magazine Believes Mayor Bloomberg’s Tree Hype

Does all the media believe Mayor Bloomberg’s “I’m a tree hugger” spin?

According to Thursday’s (5-1) New York Post, Time Magazine will include Mayor Bloomberg in their 100 Most Influential People In the World issue coming out May 2nd. Time asked Mayor Bloomberg to pose on a tree branch outside of City Hall (which he was more than happy to do clearly, via a cherry picker which lifted him up to that branch) to “illustrate his commitment to environmental issues.” What’s more… Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote the accompanying piece! It’s a bit troubling when the “experts” don’t look beyond the p.r. to get the real story.

For a refresher on the destruction of our City’s trees under Mayor Bloomberg and NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, click here.

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Coming up — Part II of my conversation with Parks Commissioner Benepe: what he thinks about community input, and some confusion on his part about the fact that neither district Community Board has “approved” his plans for the redesigns of Washington Square Park and Union Square Park, more.

Corrected NY1.com story: “Judge extends injunction against Union Square restaurant”

NY1.com corrected their initial story from yesterday (Monday, April 28th) which gave an incorrect version of what happened in court that morning.

The expanded story, “Judge extends injunction against Union Square restaurant” states:

“Last week, a state judge ordered a temporary stop to construction at the park after a community group filed suit against the city in an effort to block the conversion of an old pavilion in the park into a restaurant. Monday, the judge ruled to extend the injunction, while allowing construction on other parts of the park to move forward.”

The “other parts of the park” which will be moving forward include the playground which is the main aspect of the renovation of Union Square Park that the community wanted. Opposition by community groups is directed towards the NYC Parks Department’s “plan” to add a private, expanded restaurant, further privatizing the Park, and the chopping down of 14 mature trees.

The story continues: “The judge did not say when she would rule on the restaurant. But she did issue a temporary restraining order preventing construction workers from cutting down trees or doing any restoration work on a pavilion at the north end of the park.”