Questions Around New Community Board 2 Resolution Addressing “Noise,” “Closures” and Skateboards at Washington Square Park

Updated Versionarch_fenced_off_washington_square_park1-300x225Last Thursday, Community Board 2 passed a resolution pertaining to Washington Square Park and issues surrounding skateboarders, noise levels and potential closures at the entrances to the park. The resolution was the result of topics (somewhat) discussed at CB2’s Parks committee meeting earlier in the month; these topics were never announced as agenda items in any form and so there was inadequate notification. The July Board meeting is known to be lighter in attendance; 37 of 50 board members were present. There are a lot of issues attached to this resolution, outlined below.

Incomplete Parks Committee Meeting Alert That Informed Resolution

The July monthly meeting announcement of the Parks Committee listed an agenda topic (one of three): “operational issues at Washington Square Park.” What might this be, you might ask? It sounds like something having to do with a pump malfunctioning at the fountain. (I stated this to the Board in a comment during the Public Comment portion of the meeting prior to the resolution being introduced.) But, no, this was about concrete issues, well known to the committee at the time of the announcement. This certainly could have been outlined as “issues concerning skateboarders, noise levels, and closures at entrances at Washington Square Park.” Were they hoping to hinder attendance?

Full Community Board Response, Questions & Concerns, to the Resolution

You can read the resolution here: RulesandGuidelines_WashingSqPark_0714.

Introduced and read by Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo, the resolution, he stated, was “important and timely,” put together because “in recent weeks … [there were] complaints we’d heard around Washington Square Park.” He said “We were moved to create a resolution … to recognize these concerns.”

Caccappolo said “skateboards shoot across the park like missiles,” there is “very loud drumming and horn playing and the acoustic music is being drowned out” and “there are no gates. Around the Arch it is very open. People go into the park in the middle of the night.”

Caccappolo finished reading the resolution and then CB2 Chair David Gruber jumped in quickly, saying, “Okay, let’s take a vote. All those in favor…”

Not so fast, Mr. Chair.

Executive Committee Member Keen Berger jumped in, as she had her hand raised to ask a question. Gruber said he didn’t see her despite the fact that she was sitting at the table with him (he didn’t really look). As it turned out, there were a number of Board members with questions.

The Board members asked some good questions; I welcomed their due diligence on this matter.

Berger wondered about procedures, letting people know about a meeting which would result in a resolution and the issue of gates at the Park. Caccappolo responded, “This is not about gates at the park.” What is it about then, Berger asked. Caccappolo responded, “We want Parks [Department] to start thinking about it. We needed to give them some direction. We will have a meeting [to address all this further] in the fall.”  He later said, “[All the] questions and concerns go to the same point. All the flack the Parks Department got … concerns over over-enforcement of the rules, citing musicians, kicking out artists. … They’ve been really cautious, overly cautious. Individuals are now taking over causing a less positive experience. They asked for some coverage to be a little more direct upon enforcement.”

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Richard Stewart mentioned that he is on the board of the Washington Square Association. He said, “I agree with the person earlier.*  … We thought it was a different meeting. So we didn’t come.” (Note: I’ve never seen or heard anyone from the Washington Square Association at a meeting at which Washington Square Park was discussed over the last five years, other than last year with regards to the private conservancy. * person earlier was this blogger.)

Stewart went on to say: “The Park is not enforcing any of the rules. PEP officers are not doing anything. I go out to talk to them all the time and they tell me to go away. … I’d like to offer a friendly amendment to enforce all the rules.”

Caccappolo said no to that, stating that he’s not certain that’s true and he did not accept that friendly amendment.

Another member of the Board asked, “What are the limitations? In the interest of trying to put a lid on amplified music, the police have said regarding the piano player – I don’t think he’s the worst offender – [they have been trying to] deal with him because of complaints. They said they couldn’t really do anything… limitations bumping up against first amendment.”

Caccappolo replied, “It’s a tricky one for them. … They also run into this issue of free expression and what people are allowed to do. People play drums not amplified, horns not amplified, or play recorded music to accompany their performances. PEP officers have been hesitant to give any summonses. Somebody* suggested that music exceeds a certain decibel level and they are trying to measure this.” He continued, “We didn’t want to wait on this. We have the rest of July and August [left]. We want to encourage them to balance this a bit more.”

Susanna Aaron, a key figure on the Parks Committee, said, “I think that two of these issues – entrances to the park and music – are very sensitive issues to our community. The resolution doesn’t say anything conclusive about it — that would require a lot more discussion. The resolution raises that further discussion is required.

Caccappolo replied: “That’s it.”

The Nitty Gritty

CB2 Board member Carter Booth who has shown himself to ask good questions at key moments regarding Washington Square (he was very good on the conservancy issue and voted against it) said, “We also as a Board have existing resolutions for the park not to have gates and to also allow musicians to perform. I think we have to be very careful how we request this [so they understand] it is not a line in the sand. It is a very grey area.” He encouraged to ask Parks Department for feedback and other approaches and come back to the Board.

Katy Bordonaro said, “The resolution did not pass unanimously. Can you tell us about the vote?” Caccappolo replied that, yes, the vote was 8-1 and the person who voted against it was Sharon Woolums.

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Caccappolo said that Woolums couldn’t be at this meeting and had given him some comments to read. With regards to the line in the resolution that says the renovation was “well-received,” [it states: “The restoration of Washington Square Park has been well-received by the community, resulting in increased use and an attendance in the park], he said, Sharon “didn’t agree with that. She said the benches conduct heat and freeze like icebergs in the winter. Other aspects such as lack of shade. She was fine with the common sense laws about one person dominating the noise … and enforcing laws about skateboarding. The thing she felt most concerned about was the definite need for community input about access to the park at night. She didn’t want to raise the topic until there was much more definite agreement.”

Keen Berger said, “I am going to vote against this — I don’t see why we need to pass a resolution. A resolution seems unnecessary at this point. The Parks Department can do this with just your input.” (True.)

Former Parks Committee Chair and sometime controversial figure Tobi Bergman, a regular member of the Parks Committee, said, “This resolution is a baby step. Parks are places of expression, democracy, openness. At parks that are very popular, people [sometimes] do things that just won’t work. Sharon Woolums was very upset about loud music in the park. When you do start to enforce, the PEP officers are not that good at it. They go after the wrong people. We’ve had that problem before at Washington Square Park. You might have 3 huge dogs running in the park and they go after the old lady with a poodle in her lap off-leash. We are trying to initiate a discussion with Parks [saying] Please start thinking about this and come to us with solutions to problems. If you don’t have a resolution, they are afraid to do anything.”

“Public-Private” Comes Up

At one point, new Board member Sandy Russo asked Caccappolo, “Do you see any problem with [Sarah] Neilson being both public and private person as it relates to the park?” (Sarah Neilson is also “Executive Director” of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, holding a “dual role” of this “little friends’ group” which has no oversight or management role at the park – but their documents say they had planned to.)  Caccappolo jumps in quickly: “No.” Gruber steps in to comment also, “We really hashed that out over time.” He stated this very confidently. Oh yes… Mr. Chair, over time. ONE meeting. As someone said to me afterwards, reflecting on the Chair’s comment, “It seems to me the conservancy is in a ‘let’s see what they do’ stage and ripe for further discussion. It’s not that clear cut.”

By the way, Sandy Russo is one of the new Board members who joined a few months ago. I received another comment from someone at the meeting who questioned the decision to just shut down her question. (She tried to insert another comment later about why she voted against the resolution and they didn’t allow it.)

Gruber and Caccappolo also conveniently chose to ignore all the things that were later revealed: the collusion by the conservancy with the Parks Department to misrepresent themselves and their plans to the public. That is why things like this resolution have to be viewed through a very careful lens.

 The Vote

There were 37 members present of a 50 member board at this July 24 meeting. 7 Board members voted against the resolution. They were: Keen Berger, Shirley Smith, Richard Stewart, Alexander Meadows, Doris Diether, Sandy Russo, Tom Conner

 The Problem with the Parks Committee Resolution As it Relates to Washington Square Park

The Parks Committee did not conduct the proper manner of due diligence. Too much behind-the-scenes maneuvering with the city’s Parks Department. It is hard to imagine that the initial agenda item (“operational issues”) was not intentionally vague to obscure the issues.

Three people who attended the Parks Committee meeting said that the committee had stated they would hold off on a resolution until after the summer. Yet, here, a resolution was presented to the full board, drafted only a few days before the full Board meeting.

-Skateboarders

Everyone agrees there are issues with the skateboarders taking over and creating at times a dangerous situation. But maybe the skateboarders have something to say and could be included in the discussion. The (former) Mounds at one point were used by skateboarders. The Teen Plaza no longer exists for teens and the “Mounds” are now a baby/small children and adult only area. There is no signage by Garibaldi about “no skateboarding. Apparently some of the skateboarders think they are only not allowed to skate around the Fountain Plaza (tho’ some still do) but they can skateboard by Garibaldi. Some of them are reckless for sure. Maybe there is some negotiation with them or they could get an hour somewhere. I’m not saying this would work but really if you are going to pass a resolution, all the potential ‘stakeholders’ should be aware of it.

(Not the musicians people have 'issues' with)
(Not the musicians people have ‘issues’ with)

-Music

Some musicians were at the early July meeting but not as many as would likely have come out to speak if the topic had been clearly specified on the agenda. The issue becomes about decibels because while amplification is not allowed, some music and instruments get very loud without any electric amplification and “drown out” other music and peace in vast areas of the park.

Those in attendance at the early July meeting did not feel the discussion was of substance or offered solutions (clearly, Park Administrator Sarah Neilson and the Parks Department must have thought about this – she had brought up the issue at an October 2013 meeting of the Parks Committee).

Days after the meeting, Neilson told park users that the PEP officers were being trained to use decibel meters. This was never mentioned at the July meeting.

-Closures/Gates

The gate issue is a big issue and was also discussed at the October 2013 meeting (link to be added). One of the issues argued and ‘won’ during the park’s redesign fight was that there would be no gates at the Park, as Carter Booth mentioned. This is an issue that people very much remember. Rich Caccappolo assured everyone that another meeting would take place where options would be fully discussed in the fall.

One more thought on this – until 1970, the park had no fence. If some people are sleeping in the park at night (not the only ‘issue’ but apparently one of them), is that so terrible? It’s a park. Have we come too far to be even a little accepting? Does the park need to be fully closed in?

The Resolution As Submitted to the Manhattan Parks Commissioner

There was much talk that this was to get the city’s Parks Department “thinking” … “prepared” … it was “baby steps” … “initiating a discussion.” There were concerns about a resolution because it can become a slippery slope, something I expressed in my comments, and also the way the meeting was advertised, there was not a full community discussion around the issues of this resolution. They say this will be readdressed. Fine. The resolution was so the agency would come back to the Board with ideas, approached to solve some problems.

And yet, when the resolution was sent the next day to Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro (Castro played a key role in manipulating and hiding information to the public around the private conservancy), signed by Chair David Gruber and Rich Caccappolo, it had an added sentence at the end of it, language which was not what the Board signed off on. It reads:

“Please advise us of any decision or action taken in response to this resolution.”

Decision? Action? This is a lot different than “baby steps” and “thinking” about something.

I wrote to both Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber and Parks Committee Chair Rich Caccappolo when I saw the submitted resolution and stated that this final line was not in the original resolution and went against the “spirit” of the discussion and what the Board voted for. I urged them to change it to reflect that. To date, neither Gruber nor Caccappolo has responded.
skateboarding_washington_square_park

Therefore it is resolved, that CB2 requests:

1. that the Parks Department propose physical and operational means of controlling these disturbing activities, including stronger and more consistent enforcement of existing park rules, while working with CB2 and park users to develop approaches tailored to the special needs of the park,

2. that the Parks Department review its current policies and consider changes that would limit noise and disturbance in the park.

3. that the Parks Department work with CB2, the local police department, and other interested community members, to address the need for improved enforcement of park hours, including installation of ways to close the entrances that are more secure, effective and attractive.

 Please advise us of any decision or action taken in response to this resolution.

Photos: Cathryn