Revealed: Eminent Attorney Michael Ratner Anonymously Funded Lawsuits Aiming to Halt Washington Square Park’s Redesign | Ratner Died in May

Human Rights Lawyer Michael Ratner Tried to Defend Washington Square Park from city's ill-advised plans for redesign
Human Rights Attorney Michael Ratner Also Tried to Defend Washington Sq Park from city’s Ill-Advised Plans

After Michael Ratner, “one of America’s foremost human rights lawyers” and a Greenwich Village resident, died in May, a well-kept secret was revealed: Ratner had funded lawsuits that aimed to stop the Bloomberg Administration’s controversial and contentious redesign plans for Washington Square Park in the mid-2000s.

Community Board 2 Member Arthur Schwartz, also a lawyer, revealed the information in a recent column at the Westview News, stating: “Michael lived on Washington Place, and loved Washington Square Park. And I can now reveal that he was the financier of a lawsuit over the final plan for the park.”

There had been curiosity and intrigue over the years amidst other activists as to who paid for the suits.

Michael lived on Washington Place, and loved Washington Square Park. And I can now reveal that he was the financier of a lawsuit over the final plan for the park.”

The long, winding and dubious “process” that led to the park redesign has a murky back story – basically all the actions of the Bloomberg Administration were anti-democratic. But activists for the park kept on swinging hoping for a home run to change the course of the dramatic plans to their beloved park — the design the Parks Department forces tinkered with was lauded by Project for Public Spaces as a great public space.

Plaintiffs for the lawsuits Ratner funded were community advocate Jonathan Greenberg (head of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition), Luther Harris, author of “Around Washington Square,” Rebecca Parelman, a New York University student at the time, and Fusun Ateser, a disabled Thompson Street resident.

These were not the only lawsuits; Emergency Coalition Organization to save Washington Square Park (ECO), which activist and C.B. 2 Parks Committee (Public Member) Sharon Woolums was aligned with, filed as well.

Reading Michael Ratner’s obituaries, I feel such gratitude for his strength and his beliefs and standing up for them and standing up to others when it clearly was not the easy path. And now we know, he did the same and stood up for Washington Square Park.

From The Guardian Obituary:

In the years following 9/11, Michael Ratner, who has died of cancer aged 72, emerged as one of America’s foremost human rights lawyers. He galvanised 500 US lawyers of various political persuasions to challenge the legality of holding hundreds of Muslim men, arrested around the world, without charge or trial in Guantánamo Bay. He served as president and later president emeritus of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), founded in 1966 by the leftwing lawyer William Kunstler and others who represented the civil rights movement in the southern states in its most challenging years. Ratner worked there for 40 years, and his leadership made CCR the focal point for the lawyers who went to Guantánamo to represent unknown prisoners from a dozen countries, and then a leading voice for closing the detention camp.

In recent Westview News, Arthur Schwartz wrote:

… another giant died, Michael Ratner, who at age 72 had shaken the conscience of the world, representing the prisoners at Guantanamo whom the rest of the world didn’t want to see. And, since so few of us knew that he was a local guy, a neighbor, I have to chime in on his glowing obituaries.

Michael Ratner, who so few knew was the brother of Bruce Ratner, one of NYC’s premier developers, made a career out of suing the powerful. He sued Ronald Reagan for funding the contras in Nicaragua, and for invading Grenada, he sued George H. W. Bush for invading Iraq without Congressional authorization, and Donald Rumsfeld for torture. He sued the FBI for spying on activists and the Pentagon for restricting coverage of the Gulf War. In his most important victory, in a case called Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court declared that Guantanamo detainees had a right to seek judicial review of the legality of their detention as “enemy combatants.” Michael was the catalyst and brains behind countless lawsuits launched out of the Center for Constitutional Rights, but rarely took the role of lead counsel, letting others get credit. …

Michael lived on Washington Place, and loved Washington Square Park. And I can now reveal that he was the financier of a lawsuit over the final plan for the park. The lawsuit lost, but one of his key ideas was implemented nevertheless—the low fence around the Park, which keeps it from ever being a space cut off from passersby, like Gramercy Park.

New York Times Obituary:

As head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Michael Ratner oversaw litigation that, in effect, voided New York City’s wholesale stop-and-frisk policing tactic. The center also accused the federal government of complicity in the kidnapping and torture of terrorism suspects and argued against the constitutionality of warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency, the waging of war in Iraq without the consent of Congress, the encouragement of right-wing rebels in Nicaragua and the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war.

“Under his leadership, the center grew from a small but scrappy civil rights organization into one of the leading human rights organizations in the world,” David Cole, a former colleague at the center and a professor at Georgetown Law School, said in an interview this week. “He sued some of the most powerful people in the world on behalf of some of the least powerful.”

History of Bloomberg Admin’s Washington Square Park Redesign Late 2007-Present

Washington Square Park’s redesign construction began late December 2007 and has been plagued with delays. Split up into three phases and four parts, it took 7 1/2 years for the interior of the park to be completed.

All areas of the park were finally open and accessible to the public in 2014 – while technically work is still ongoing with the current (also long-delayed) sidewalk reconstruction around the space making sections of the perimeter paths off-limits.

Budgeted at $16 million, costs for the Bloomberg Administration’s folly have now more than doubled and the extensive work — community members advocated for a renovation of the much-loved space vs. a large-scale transformation — now tallying at least $40 million.

Some of the changes include: moving the historic fountain — after 170 years located in the center of the park — 23 feet east to “align” with the Arch, reducing the public space around the fountain by 23% (but never acknowledging so and fudging the numbers publicly, one of the Ratner-funded lawsuits forced this information to become public), numerous trees were axed including seven 40+ year-old fountain trees (since the Fountain Plaza opened in 2009, the replacement trees have repeatedly died due to the design), other trees dying within the park due to inadequate protection during construction (which one of the lawsuits warned about and tried to prevent), raising the height of the fence that surrounds the park, eliminating the Mounds (which were ultimately put back in due to community pressure but replaced with pseudo-Mounds — which may work but for a different reason) & more.

While the park may look “pretty,” and thankfully, it retains much of its overall “backbone” blueprint from the late 1800s, I have never felt the changes warranted the way it was pushed through and the contentious nature of it all; that has lasting and negative impacts. Bloomberg officials wanted so much to one up the Greenwich Village community because they felt their way was the way, and that was that.

That was how the Bloomberg Parks Department operated all too often under then-Parks Commissioner Adrien Benepe and then-and-now Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro.

Some background on the lawsuits:

In a Washington Square News article about the 2006 lawsuit, Jonathan Greenberg said, “This process has not been open,” said Greenberg. “It’s been marked by an absence of documentation.” The Bloomberg Administration Parks Department (many of the players are still there) did not reveal the extent of the full plans to the bodies charged with reviewing and approving them (including the Community Board, Art Commission, and Landmarks Preservation Commission); in addition, they misrepresented pieces of their plans, and the process was not community-driven as the 1970 redesign/renovation of the park had been. It was intentionally flawed and manipulated. The community was able to get some changes through, but not nearly enough.


A “Talking Point” by Jonathan Greenberg in The Villager in late 2007.

May 9, 2006 Washington Square News article/wire story at New York Times: NYU Student Files Lawsuit Against City

Lawsuit to be filed against Washington Sq. renovation, The Villager, July 2005 (two lawsuits, at least)

One of the original web sites by community activists: Preserve Washington Square Park

From WSP Blog: NYC’s Redesign Plans for Washington Square Park

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Michael Ratner made a donation towards my Kickstarter campaign for a book I have been working on – I feel even more honored now, realizing the full scope of what he admirably did with his life, and also his dedication to Washington Square Park.

Note: This is an updated version of a post published yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

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