Connect the Dots: A guide to the NYC Parks Department –Washington Sq Park and Union Sq Park "Redesigns"

Washington Square Park and Union Square Park are both in the midst of redesigns by New York City. There are some striking similarities in how these controversial plans of two historic parks initially got pushed through despite community disapproval and widespread negative public opinion.

A Primer on how the New York City Parks Department — headed by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg — works:

  • Community requests some repairs of Park

At Washington Square Park, the background is a bit murkier as far as who initiated the discussion with the Parks Department but most everyone agreed that the Parks Department had let the Park fall into disrepair and it needed some basic fixing (roads repaired and cracks in paths paved) and a tune-up.

At Union Square Park, in 2002, City Council Member Margarita Lopez was able to allocate $1.9 million from City funds expressly for the improvement of two playgrounds on both sides of the pavilion (on the north end).

  • Local Community Board Votes

At Washington Square Park, in 2005, Community Board 2 in Manhattan initially approved the city’s “renovation” plans — a flawed vote since essential information was withheld by the Parks Department about the redesign elements. (Community Board 2 later rescinded its approval in 2007.)

At Union Square Park, Community Board 5 (also, Manhattan) “approved a new design for the north end of the square with the stipulation that the city would contemplate the pavilion housing ‘cultural institutions (and) community groups … in addition to restauranteurs.” (Metro, March 21st, 2008)

Note: Community Boards votes are largely “advisory” and are not binding in any way. However, they are utilized in the court of public opinion and it is considered important for City Agencies to gain their approval. City Council Members like to point to their approval – when it suits them.

  • Crucial Information Withheld and Subsequently Discovered; Parks Department Dishonest With the Public

After numerous rounds of meetings with the NYC Parks Department about Washington Square Park’s “renovation,” the community discovered that the presentations omitted key information: that there was a major reduction in the amount of public space based on the redesign plan; that the Tisch Family had been given naming rights to the historic fountain; etc.

At Union Square Park, despite city assurances that they were considering the Community Board’s wishes for community groups to utilize the pavilion, it was discovered recently that the city had “already applied for building permits to put a restaurant in the pavilion.” C.B. 5 member Kevin Finnegan was quoted as saying “The building plans are for a restaurant — it has a kitchen and seating for 120 people.”
(Metro, March 21st, 2008)

  • Historic Elements of Park Treated with Contempt by Bloomberg Administration

The aspects that make Washington Square Park historically a free speech gathering place and a great overall public space were treated with disdain by the Bloomberg Administration. Their plan is to cut away public space to control public gatherings and un-permitted performances. They are ruining the historic nature of the park, dismantling the large circular Fountain, which also serves as a public rallying venue, rebuilding it in a smaller version eight yards away with vast reduction of the ad-hoc seating and renaming it (a plaque on each side) for the billionaire Tisch Family.

The Union Square Park Pavilion’s history is primarily known as the space where numerous political demonstrations occurred. The first Labor Day Parade in 1882 ended up at the northern end of Union Square at the Pavilion.

  • Budget Swells ; Corporate Entities Enter Picture

At Washington Square Park, repairs could have been accomplished with the $6 million the Parks Department allegedly had on hand for Washington Square Park but instead a $16 million budget was put into play with financing by the Tisch Family ($2.5 million) and NYU ($1 million). Current “designer” of the redesign, George Vellonakis, is on the record as stating that half of the money will come from private donors. Thus far, no others have been named but the budget for Phase I alone has skyrocketed from $6 million to $13 million.

The $1.9 million that Council Member Lopez secured for Union Square Park has never been spent. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg himself (and greeted by hecklers) “announced the city would kick in $8 million* to fund a new $14 million renovation of the entire north end.” It was announced that “the balance (was) being paid by the Union Square Partnership, the area’s business improvement district, which currently helps take care of the park.” (Metro, January 25th, 2007) *The City’s contribution is now $11.75 million and the entire project is projected at $20 million. In addition, an “anonymous donor” has given $5 million towards the project, contingent on a restaurant being in the pavilion. (New York Times, January 28, 2007) The Parks Department of course insisted initially that there was no such stipulation but the truth has since been revealed.

  • Reduction of Historic Public Space

Presently, Washington Square Park is scheduled to lose 23 percent of public space around the historic fountain.

Union Square Park will see a widening of the street at 16th, and a reduction of the space allocated to the famous GreenMarket (The GreenMarket was interestingly enough founded by Parks Commissioner Benepe’s father, Barry) – largely responsible for helping revive the area and neighborhood – as well as reduction of green space around Pavilion and chopping down of numerous trees (see next item).

  • Trees Seen as Expendable for Corporate Interests

In Phase I ALONE of the Washington Square Park redesign, up to 16 trees in the Northwest Quadrant have been deemed ‘in the way’ of the city’s plans. Thus far, 11 have been axed. There is no word on what tree destruction will happen during Phase II.

At Union Square Park, 14 trees are inexplicably headed for the chopping block to expand the restaurant space at the Pavilion.

Note: We’d like to reflect for a moment on the fact that these plans are coming from our City’s “Parks” Department. Hopefully, you’ve taken that in…

  • Conflicts of Interest

Controversial designer of the “aligned” version of Washington Square Park, George Vellonakis, is allegedly on the board of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation which strangely enough took no position on the redesign of this landmarked historic Park, while seemingly taking strong positions on every other issue of redesign in the Village.

At Union Square Park, Restauranteur Danny Meyer — who is likely to helm the proposed restaurant at Union Square Park — is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (a BID – business improvement district organization) which is putting up a large part of the money to redesign the north end of the Pavilion.

***

There are many other aspects to Washington Square Park’s muddied approval “process” that we will go into at another time (“The Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Arts Commission approvals, etc.) but they don’t apply to what happened – thus far – at Union Square Park. There are enough similarities and alarming details outlined above without adding anything else at the moment.

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