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.
The initial budget was set at $16 million dollars for the entire project. However, at a presentation by the Parks Department at a meeting December 3rd convened by the Washington Square Park Task Force, it was revealed that the “budget” now stands at $27 million and rising. Phase I – which is currently being completed – was projected at $6 million and has now crept to $14 million with no explanation nor oversight. Phases II and III while now projected at $13 million combined will most likely double as well.
The question I can’t help wondering is – who is minding the store? If the New York City Council does not oversee and protect New York City’s precious (and few) public spaces, who will? The Parks Department has demonstrated that it needs oversight and yet none is apparently forthcoming. When a budget for a City Council-approved project with designated City Council and “City funds” skyrockets and doubles, who reviews this? Who says, in the midst of a budget crisis, “Wait a minute.”
PUBLIC SPACE AT RISK
You might have read in the Times’ story that the public space surrounding the famous Washington Square Park Fountain is slated to be reduced by 25%. However, that is sadly not where the reduction in public space ends. There are six seating “alcoves” that people greatly appreciate in the park. As was revealed at the meeting, and only under intensive questioning, those are being obliterated in the new plan. (These have graced the northeastern, eastern and southeastern sides for almost 40 years, and are very well utilized.) In addition, the area where the chess tables are (southwest) is being greatly reduced, as well as the entrance to the park at the northeastern side which is another area that people use greatly for spontaneous performance and the like. I urge you to stop this destruction before it happens!
“GERSON-QUINN AGREEMENT”/WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK TASK FORCE
The offices of Christine Quinn and Alan Gerson assured me when I first got involved in the Washington Square Park issue that they had an “agreement” with Parks Commissioner Benepe. This agreement, while frankly quite tepid and unfortunately not addressing most of the key issues the Greenwich Village community and New Yorkers in general had with the Parks Department’s redesign, was allegedly to provide some oversight by their offices over what the Parks Department is doing at Washington Square Park. The body that is charged with overseeing this – the Washington Square Park Task Force – is largely comprised of Community Board 2 members, community members, and representatives from elected officials’ offices (all of whom are copied on this letter). The elected officials have not played more than a perfunctory role in the Task Force. The result is that the Task Force has been unable to uphold even the weak stipulations in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement or to advocate effectively for this public space in its dealings with the Parks Department.
How strong is this supposed agreement? At the meeting held December 3rd, when I asked Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro about a violation of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” he told me “there is no agreement.” This is outrageous, to refuse to abide by even these tepid mandates. It exemplifies the New York City Parks Department’s contempt for the people and the institutions set up to safeguard the public interest.
AN EXAMPLE OF A VIOLATION – THE FENCING
The question Manhattan Parks Commissioner Castro was answering was about the fencing being installed presently in the Northwest Quadrant of the Park. The new fencing being installed at 4 feet high already defies community sentiment that the fence be left at 3 feet, as is. The “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” stipulates that the new fence “will not include any spears or points” on top. However, what does the new fencing contain? Decorative spears! which prevents people from sitting on the fences as they currently do, and which makes the park unique. This is one tiny example of the egregious liberties the landscape designer and Parks Department are taking, at the public’s expense.
ABUSE OF THE PUBLIC TRUST
The problems with the Parks Department in relation to Washington Square Park pre-date the present period. While Commissioner Benepe will often state that local Community Board 2 approved the Parks Department’s plans, the Community Board ultimately rescinded its approval when it saw that the Parks Department was not being forthcoming with information about its plans. The Parks Department presented flawed information to both the local Community Board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to deceive these public institutions and win approval for what would amount to bulldozing large sections of this park.
WHAT IS NEEDED?
I started writing a blog about Washington Square Park and parks/public space/city issues in late February. I felt that the true story of what had transpired at this remarkable public space – the Parks Department’s deceptions and the community’s wishes and lack of a true say in the process – had not been told. While the Times’ story did a decent job in presenting the overall picture, it lacked much detail and isolated the story down to a few characters when it was about the larger community. To this day, the Parks Department continues the same process of disrespect, manipulation and non-transparency in its actions.
Things that need to be addressed include:
* Save the park’s trees (at least 14 mature trees have been chopped down in Phase I alone) – the Parks Department needs to incorporate existing trees into its design;
* Preserve the public space around the Fountain — add back any reduction in space ;
* Preserve the Seating Alcoves along the Northeastern, Eastern and Southeastern sides ;
* Review the fencing being placed around the park – consider lowering the height (the existing 3 foot high fence was the perfect height for a fence at this park) and cancel the fence with “decorative spears” (as this violates the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement”) ;
* Cancel the reduction in public space at the Northeast and Southwest (chess area) quadrants ;
* Review height of stage of performance area (currently “Teen Plaza”) to address needs of Washington Square Music Festival — which has requested a 36″ height for the stage — and other performers/events;
* The fountain name being sold off to a private bidder and now scheduled to be called Tisch Fountain — there are so many renowned people associated with Washington Sq Park that deserve this distinction;
* Confirm No Private Conservancy
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I would like to call on the New York City Council to take a new look at what’s happening at Washington Square Park. Please review the budget and the design plans put forth by our city’s Parks Department.
Washington Square Park is too important a park and too vital a public space in a city of limited public spaces to be left to chance and the whim of one Parks Department landscape designer. I would be glad to work with the City Council on this matter but it is important that you act now – we only have two months to prevent further desecration of this wonderful public park.
TO: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Council Member Alan Gerson
CC: Council Member Bill de Blasio, Council Member Letitia James, Council Member Helen Foster, Council Member Helen Sears, Council Member Darlene Mealy, Council Member Charles Barron, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Council Member Tony Avella, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Comptroller William Thompson, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, State Senator Tom Duane, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe