My Response to the Parks Commissioner! Regarding Washington Square Park.

February 13, 2009

Dear Commissioner Benepe:

Thank you for your January 30th response to my letter outlining my concerns around the work being done on the redesign of Washington Square Park and the lack of responsible oversight by the NY City Council and other elected officials.

While your letter contained some useful information, the situation still warrants additional scrutiny and oversight by both you and the City Council. Contrary to your assertion in your email that I have “misconceptions,” and in your reply to Council Member Tony Avella that I have “misrepresented the project,” what is going on at Washington Square Park is troubling on many levels. It is the re-design that is “misconceived,” not my statements about it. Further clarification follows:

Washington Square Park Plan: Extensive Review?

You state that “the renovation of Washington Square Park has probably undergone more review than almost any other Parks capital project in recent memory.”

First, the plan is not a “renovation” – which would signal repair, maintenance, ‘sprucing up’ – it is a dramatic re-visioning of this public space.

Second, While there were many meetings around the redesign plans, those plans were often misrepresented by representatives of the Parks Department, the designer and others. The community members, Community Board, and Landmarks Preservation Commission were frequently given incorrect or insufficient information, and so thereby lacked the necessary information to effectively evaluate the Parks Department’s plans for the park.

Third, “more review” is not meaningful if officials disregard the community sentiment (which I’ll address later in this letter).

Instead, with New York City in a budget crisis, the budget for Washington Square Park’s redesign now stands at $27 million and counting — an increased cost of $11 million over the $16 million budgeted. The Park could have been fixed up without chainsawing trees and bulldozing parts of the Park for a much smaller (and more fruitfully used) expenditure.

Public Space

Washington Square Park, as you know, is a dynamic public space with a history of being used for protest, performance, art. This park invites unique and spontaneous interactions between the people who visit and utilize the park. The park is not lacking for green space. The Parks Department had allowed the lawn – as well as the walkways and bathrooms — to fall into a state of disrepair. When maintained properly and brought back to a lush state, the Park contains more than enough “green space” for the “passive recreation activities” you suggest, like picnicking and relaxing. Each park – as you know – has its own distinct personality and cachet. In my opinion, these elements ought to be respected and nurtured.

You wrote: “The renovation will not result in the reduction of public space.” And yet, here are the actual figures:


* The interior plaza around the fountain — from outermost edge of fountain wall to innermost edge of any seating — was 27,650 square feet.

* The PROPOSED interior plaza is 20,662 square feet. – A LOSS OF 6,988 square feet.

* The entire (what is called the) exterior plaza (which includes and goes beyond the interior plaza) has been 51,223 square feet.

* The PROPOSED exterior plaza area is 39,419 square feet.
That’s an 11,804 square foot reduction, right in the official plans. How can you state “the renovation will not result in a reduction of public space?

In August 2007, the Washington Square Park Task Force – which, as you noted, is comprised of representatives for various elected officials, community members, and Community Board 2 Members – issued its report. Addressing the Fountain Plaza Interior area, it stated that the Task Force “did not have enough information from the Parks Department to draw a clear conclusion on the size of the inner circle of the fountain plaza in the Plan. Rough calculations made by Task Force members of the total square footage of the inner circle ranged from 88% to 77% of the current area.”

The “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” puts some mild monitoring on the Parks Department’s plans. Council Member Gerson and Council Speaker Quinn stipulated that the public space of the interior Fountain plaza would not be diminished by more than 10%. Clearly, there is a greater reduction than previously admitted. No further information has been provided by the Parks Department to allow anyone to ascertain what the exact reduction in space is. When I tried to get the information from the Parks Department’s press office, I was told it wouldn’t be a problem and then received no further information or return correspondence, despite following up on it several times.

As far as the entire exterior plaza, no further information has been given on the reduction in space (other than the numbers above, which had to be obtained via one of the lawsuit’s brought against the city in relation to its plan). The November 23rd, 2008 New York Times article “The Battle for Washington Square,” reports that the Parks Department will be reducing the public area around the plaza by 25 percent.

Is that acceptable to the community? No. Are our public officials monitoring this? Not that I can see.

The fountain plaza’s reduction in size, along with the removal (currently planned) of four of the six seating alcoves and a reduction in space at the northeast corner and southwest corners (these are the ones you acknowledge), signify a significant reduction in “public” space – particularly the public gathering space for which Washington Square Park is renowned, any way you cut it.

Would the additional grassy areas compensate for the reduction of the central plaza, as you suggest? And exactly how high will the fences around those “green spaces” be which are supposed to add to and compensate for the reductions in what is now an open central plaza?

Seating Alcoves

At the Washington Square Park Task Force meeting I attended on February 4th, the seating alcoves were discussed at length. You state that two – of the present six – alcoves are now being “included” as a modification to the original plan – in response to the Washington Square Park Task Force. One of the alcoves across from the playground is being retained in its entirety. From the ‘before and after’ diagrams shown by Parks Department landscape designer George Vellonakis at the meeting, the second alcove faces an unacceptable and dramatic reduction in size.

These alcoves contribute to the uniqueness of the park; they are used by students, tourists, seniors, classes, and people who’d like to retire to a more private nook of the park while viewing what’s going on in the park.

George Vellonakis stated that the plan is going to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on February 17th with just the “two” alcoves despite the fact that back in July 2008, the Task Force expressed the sentiment for keeping all the alcoves. I hope you will listen to the overwhelming public sentiment and retain these important spaces, in their current configuration.

Northeast and Southwest corners

You claimed that I described the reduction in the chess area (Southwest corner) in “misleading terms.” Not so. Unfortunately, the size of reduction of this area is hard to determine. At the Parks Department presentation last week to the Washington Square Park Task Force, your department did not come prepared with figures, specs, renderings, or with a model – in other words, the Parks Department failed to present anything that would give a true presentation of the changes to the Park. Unfortunately, this has been the case throughout the entire project. The correct figures concerning the reduction in space should have been presented at the meeting. This was not done.

You state that the center of the chess area is “generally empty” right now. An area may seem “empty” but other things occur within that space, thereby giving people options for congregating and interacting without feeling confined. Why must the Parks Department consider all unused space to be “useless”?

The Northeast corner reduction also is problematic. On the diagram, this actually appears to entail quite a large reduction, not a “slight” one as you put it. But once again the Parks Department presented no figures, no specs. Why not? It was confirmed that all the picnic tables in the park are being removed. Why? Why can’t some picnic tables remain in the park? Why can’t there be areas for picnic tables?

These changes amount to dramatic alterations of what has been a most successful public space – something you seem unwilling to acknowledge or respect.

Garibaldi Plaza (Formerly “Teen Plaza”) Performance Area/Space

The Task Force has submitted notes on what they would like to see at Garibaldi Plaza to meet the needs of the Washington Square Music Festival and other “ad hoc” use. The Washington Square Music Festival is apparently willing to work with the lower stage if the size of the stage can be increased. Because of the way the area is currently constructed, the musicians and performers are able to use the “Teen Plaza” area as a ‘back stage’/holding area. Without consulting the Music Festival, the Parks Department decided to reduce the stage and not accommodate this additional need. And, yes, under community pressure the Parks Department agreed to raise the stage from the originally planned 22″ to 28″ although the previous stage was well-liked and well-functioning at 36″ Lowering the stage height limits the number of people who can properly hear the music played from the stage.

There is a major reconfiguring of this entire area in Phase II of the Park’s redesign. Hopefully, the full information will be presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the 17th. The community should get the same degree of respect and level of information. At this moment, it is woefully underserved.


You state that the fence does not have “spears” but instead has “rounded balls.” Please! The fence is composed of spears with small balled ends soldered on top to reduce the number of accidental injuries. However, more important an ‘argument’ than spears vs. balls is the exact wording in the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” which states that the exterior fence of the park should “preserve the park’s sense of openness and its inviting character” and that it should “consist of a decorative ‘delicate’ design.” The new fence does not do that – just the opposite!

That is one example of where the Washington Square Park Task Force and our elected officials should be better monitoring these aspects. Hence, my appeal to the City Council. The old fence was a nice feature; people could lean or sit on the fence anywhere in the park; but now, with the four foot high fence at the exterior of the park and the post and chain fence in the interior, that is no longer possible, and the open, welcoming character of the park is destroyed.

Trees at the Park

You say that 12 trees were “removed” for reasons of “declining health” (my count is 14). In April of last year I spoke with you at Morningside Park and asked about the trees at Washington Square Park. You told me the trees being removed were “all dead.” I knew that this was not accurate at the time and told you that there were only “four dying trees” which you then agreed was the accurate amount.

The truth is that 6-8 of the trees removed lined the fountain and were not in “declining health” or “dead” — they were just ‘in the way’ of the Parks Department’s plan to unnecessarily move the fountain to align with the Arch. Although “new trees” – saplings – will be or have already been planted, they can never be equal to 40-80 year old mature trees, which we should work to preserve.

Gerson-Quinn “Letter”/Agreement

You remark that the October 6, 2005 letter from Council Member Alan Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn is “not a legally binding document.” Nonetheless, you have gone “to great lengths to implement the sections applicable to Parks.” Yet Council Member Gerson and Council Speaker Quinn clearly believed you had reached an agreement. In fact as they stated in their letter, they were “delighted” that they had “reached an understanding” with you “resolving the outstanding major issues pertaining to the renovation of Washington Square Park.”

The “outstanding major issues” were articulated by the community (and not necessarily in the “Gerson-Quinn” letter), but the Parks Department ignored them:

a) leave the central fountain plaza sunken; b) do not shift the fountain so that it is now off-center, though aligned with the Arch at Fifth Avenue; c) do not cut down healthy trees; d) do not sell off the fountain naming rights to the Tisch Family, or to anyone; e) leave the dog runs where they were; f) leave the fence at its existing 3 foot height; g) keep all or the majority of the seating alcoves; h) keep the height of the stage and provide better accessibility to it for wheel chairs.

And more. None of these were accommodated.

It makes me wonder: If the public’s input is not respected and the Gerson-Quinn letter is begrudgingly implemented at times, at your whim, who is the Parks Department accountable to?

Shouldn’t input from our representatives and the community at large be taken significantly into consideration?

Shouldn’t the Community Board (which later repealed its approval of the plan) have been told that this was, in your view, a “Non-Binding (Non) Agreement,” and that even most of its very mild revisions to the Parks Department’s plan, such as keeping the fence in character with the park, consulting the Washington Square Music Festival on design of the stage, making the bathroom renovation a “priority item,” making “reasonable efforts to salvage all healthy trees,” etc. were non-binding and would not be implemented?


I ask you Commissioner Benepe – and the other elected officials – to please review the points in my letter and see if there are places where we can come to agreement

the public gathering space around the fountain being increased in size; retaining all of the seating alcoves; preserving the park’s remaining trees; reviewing and changing the fencing (interior and exterior); making the Garibaldi Plaza workable for the community and performing community’s needs; restoring the height of the stage to its full 3 feet; no Conservancy at this park; expanding the “plazas” to not have to be “uniform” but instead to fit the social character of this park.

Each park is different. You know this. Let’s honor the changes to Washington Square Park made in 1970 and the spirit of the last century, as well as the previous one. Right now, the Park Department’s design is much too formal and disrespectful of that history and today’s needs. Perhaps there is a way to save money in the city budget at the same time while bridging some of the previous discord between the New York City Parks Department and the public.

Thank you for your response and attention. Please feel free to contact me at any time.


Cathryn Swan


Photo # 3 & 4: Cat (# 4 – addition of caption/red snazzy lettering: Curbed!)

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