Some news! NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe responded to a letter I sent on December 18th to City Council Member Alan Gerson and Speaker Christine Quinn – with a copy to him – outlining some of my concerns with the Washington Square Park Task Force as well as elements of the park’s redesign going forward.
This is Part I of a two part series. Part II will be my response. (But I have been known to write three to eight part series on Washington Square Park issues, so regular readers know that I can be a bit expansive on the topic!)
Some of the information contained in Commissioner Benepe’s letter is informative. But Washington Square Park’s redesign still needs additional oversight, transparency, and more attention to detail and review. The Parks Commissioner has his own “misconceptions” and doesn’t address some of the substantive issues in my original letter. Nonetheless, I appreciate his response. Please feel free to write in with any of your thoughts on this.
Copied on my original letter were other elected officials who comprise the Washington Square Park Task Force (along with Community Board 2 Members and community members), including City Council Member Rosie Mendez, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, State Senator Tom Duane, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, as well as other elected officials such as our Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Comptroller William Thompson, Council Member Tony Avella, Council Member Bill de Blasio, Council Member Letitia James, Council Member Helen Foster, and more.
Letter from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe
January 30, 2009
Dear Ms. Swan:
Thank you for sending me a copy of the email you sent to various elected officials regarding the renovation of Washington Square Park.
I am sorry to read the misconceptions included in your email. The renovation of Washington Square Park has probably undergone more review than almost any other Parks capital project in recent memory. The Washington Square Park Task Force, which includes representation from elected officials, Community Board 2 members and community members, has added an additional layer of oversight and provided useful feedback that has influenced us to change certain design elements.
In light of the discussion about the seating alcoves at the last Task Force meeting, we have decided to revise the plans for Phase II to include two alcoves, including the one opposite the playground. In addition, in response to prior requests from Community Board 2 and the Task Force, we have increased the size of the large dog run and the height of the stage.
The renovation will not result in the reduction of public space. Rather, the renovation will reduce the amount of hardscape used by pedestrians walking through the park and increase the amount of green space, making underutilized areas of the park welcoming, active and vibrant. Not only will this be a significant benefit for park users, but also an environmental benefit. Less asphalt and concrete means less rainwater runoff and therefore less strain on our overburdened drainage system, healthier trees and plants that will grow larger with a longer lifespan, more space for passive recreation activities such as picnicking or relaxing on the lawns and overall a more beautiful and usable park. Furthermore, there will be many areas where performances and other special events can be held, including the central plaza, the Holley Plaza, the Garibaldi Plaza, where the stage can be utilized, and the lawns.
Similarly, you describe the chess area in misleading terms. While the overall size of the plaza is being reduced somewhat, the most critical area of the chess plaza is the chess tables, not the center which is generally empty. The renovation will include the same number of tables, but they will be new, better designed and more welcoming to more chess players – and they will be accessible to people with disabilities. There will be plenty of space for onlookers to stand and watch the games. As with the rest of the park, the renovation of the chess area will likely result in greater use, not less.
While the northeast plaza is being reduced slightly, it will still serve as a gathering place for park users since it will contain 14 benches. By the way, the southeast plaza is being enlarged and will contain eight benches.
Despite claims by critics of the project that the first phase would result in the removal of 32 trees, only 12 trees, many of them in declining health, have been removed, and 43 new trees were planted, four more than originally planned.
We have gone to great lengths to implement the sections applicable to Parks in the October 6, 2005 letter from Council Member Alan Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, despite the fact that it is not a legally binding document. These points include the height and design of the fence, the size of the fountain plaza, the inclusion of a stage in the design, the inclusion of the mounds in a new play area and the design process for the large playground. Despite your assertion, the top of the fence has rounded balls, not “spears,” as you put it. In any case, it was never intended that people would sit on top of the fence.
The renovation of Washington Square Park will guarantee that community residents, tourists, students and all New Yorkers will have the opportunity to enjoy the park as much as people have for the past 150 years – if not more so. I truly believe that you also will enjoy the renovated park when it is completed and that you will find that your fears were unwarranted.
If you have any further questions or concerns, please call Rebecca Ferguson, the Washington Square Park Administrator, at 212-408-0297.
Please feel free to post this letter on your blog.
My original letter follows:
From: Cathryn Swan
Sent: Thursday, December 18, 2008 3:33 PM
Subject: Washington Square Park – For your Review / Oversight
I am writing to you with regards to Washington Square Park, the subject of a recent Sunday New York Times City Section cover story, “The Battle for Washington Square” (11-23-08), after being left under the radar for way too long. Washington Square Park is in the midst of an extensive redesign by the New York City Parks Department. Currently completing Phase I of this redesign, the City is now about to begin Phases II and III. I am writing to ask you to please assert some necessary oversight over this project, for reasons I outline below.