Updated 5:49 p.m.Why do I still think of NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver as ‘new’? He has held the position for three years now hired by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Previous Bloomberg Administration Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was in the job for ten years and did so much that attracted news, mostly because the city agency under his lead often went against community wishes and so many outrageous things occurred.
When Commissioner Silver arrived, he lauded as one of his tenets community involvement and discussion. But is he following through on that? Residents around Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, with a redesign of sections of that park on the table, are feeling they are being exposed to similar heavy-handedness as Bloomberg Administration tactics around the redesign of Washington Square Park: as in lots of meetings but not really being listened to.
One long-time Fort Greene community member Enid Braun remarked, “It reminds me of in terms of stupid use of money to the whole thing where they moved the fountain in Washington Square Park to be symmetrical with the Arch. Just a ridiculous use of money.”
You may recall who handled the meetings around Washington Square Park and its contentious redesign plans: Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro and recently appointed as park administrator, George Vellonakis; it was presented as Vellonakis’s design, as an unlicensed architect, including moving the fountain 22 feet east to “align” with Arch, changing its historic location since 1871.
Many trees are slated to die with the proposed plan at Fort Greene Park which Commissioner Silver himself is very much involved in promoting (Adrian Benepe stayed pretty much in the background on Washington Square).
When will architects and designers work existing healthy living trees into their plans? Shouldn’t that be part of sustainability and just good practice? At Washington Square they axed seven 40-year old healthy trees around the fountain due to the moving of water lines to “align” fountain and Arch (oh, and also partly for tourist sight lines, so they could take better pictures of the Arch, according to Vellonakis). We know how that turned out – repeatedly dying trees due to the design itself (they are still dying).
From Parks Commish “Spin” Class For Workers After Disastrous Ft.Greene Pk Redesign Community Meeting via A Walk in the Park Blog:
Some residents are upset over the [Fort Greene Park] proposal. The plan would eliminate a rounded stone retaining wall and open up the park to the street, creating a plaza like entrance at the busy corner of Myrtle Ave. and St. Edwards Place in the northern section of the park.
The plan would also eliminate many trees, and The Mounds a popular children’s feature in the park and pave the way for commercial activities in that area of the park residents fear.
Critics have called the Parks Department Mayoral funded $7 Million redesign proposal, “engineered gentrification.”
The city argues that the plan would open up site lines to the park’s historic Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, provide additional seating, and open pathways.
Rebuffed by strong community opposition a month earlier at a Parks’ Community Input Meeting, an “angry” Silver presided over a more than two hour lecture for park employees at the Queens theater on, at least in part, how to “spin” public opposition to unpopular projects.
Apparently over 200 Parks Department employees mostly from the Capital Projects Division were mandated to attend a talk “Public Engagement 101: Tips to enhance your public meeting experience” in Queens in March. I am amazed that there are 200 employees in the Capital Division.
Spin, Spin, Spin vs. “You have to listen to the people who live in the community“
The move came after a disastrous Ft. Greene Park community meeting on February 16th held to discuss the park’s controversial redesign where the commissioner got an earful.
“You have to listen to the people who lives in the area, in the community,” a resident of public housing across from the park said.
“You can’t just come here and do what you to do here. Let us be the spokesperson for what we want done here. Money was given to Fort Greene Park. So let the people in this community decide what’s best for in the park,” she said.
“We actually had a presentation telling us we needed to learn how to spin things better,” said a Capital Division park staffer who attended the class and requested anonymity out of fear of retribution.
“He specifically pointed out that the problem was that the designer didn’t present it properly, they didn’t spin it properly. That’s why there was a problem with the community.”
Commissioner Silver Focus on Lowering Park Fences
“Commissioners can become so single-minded and Silver’s single mindedness is in lowering all these damn fences, ” said the long time staffer who also requested anonymity.
“And some people don’t want to lower their fences.
“I think on some of the Parks Without Borders I think he may be forcing the issue more than is necessary,” the worker continued.
“I think he’s been kind of heavy handed with some of these communities though who didn’t want their fences lowered and kind of insists, ‘you don’t know what you are missing. ‘”
At Washington Square Park, the fences went from three feet high around the park as part of the beloved 1970 design, very much a result of community involvement – which featured them in a very unimposing, low key way – to what we have now, close to five feet high, something park users repeatedly expressed their disapproval of within the plan, and were not listened to.
“I’m always opened to design we have it in all of our parks,” Silver said.
“We’ll just sit down and talk about the changes and make sure that everyone likes the design. We don’t do top down planning, that’s not the history of parks’ Community Parks Initiative, the anchor parks, its all collaborative and nothing is going to be different in Fort Green Park. So we’re going to listen,” he said.
“Having community meetings is not the same as having support for the plan,” said Enid Braun, a long time resident of the area. …
“We keep being told this design is for your own good. They have no intention of changing the design.”
At Washington Square Park, some modifications were ultimately made due to community pressure — the fence was reduced ever so slightly, while still too high; the Mounds were put back in the plan – although they are not really like the original Mounds; the seating alcoves, which were supposed to be eliminated, were returned reduced in size, and a few other things — but never enough and the entire process involving the community was lacking. It stood in stark contrast to the previous redesign of the park – the much appreciated 1970 design – in which the community acted as collaborators. We will see if community inclusion at Fort Greene Park ultimately leads to their park being what they want it to look and be like.
A note: The other thing Washington Square and Fort Greene Park have in common is Stanford White, designer of the Arch, who also designed two structures at Fort Greene Park, including the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument (it was the last thing he designed; he did not live to see it – he was shot and died soon after).
Image: NYC Parks Department via A Walk in the Park Blog