Volume 75, Number 10 | July 27 - Aug. 2, 2005

Square suit cites ‘hallowed ground,’ theater in round and, um, squirrels

By Lincoln Anderson

Calling the Washington Square Park renovation plan “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and illegal,” opponents of the hotly-debated project have filed a lawsuit to stop it from moving forward.

The plaintiffs, including the ad-hoc Emergency Coalition to Save Washington Square Park, filed the lawsuit, known as an Article 78 proceeding — in which a decision by a government agency is challenged — in State Supreme Court at the end of last week. The lawsuit was first reported on The Villager’s Web site last Friday.

The plaintiffs include the coalition, ECO for short; Village Independent Democrats; Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association; Washington Place Block Association; Ronald Podolsky, who is also the plaintiffs’ attorney; James Brennan, president of Seravalli Playground; Keen Berger, Greenwich Village Democratic district leader; Karen Kramer, whose recently released film, “The Ballad of Greenwich Village,” is currently in movie theaters; Jessie McNab of Westbeth; the West Village Committee; Eliza Nichols, a leading advocate for preserving the park’s play mounds; Robert Nichols, her father, the lead architect on the community redesign of the park 35 years ago; Margie Rubin, founder of Mobility Impaired Artists at Westbeth; and Luther Harris, author of “Around Washington Square,” the definitive history of the square.

The suit is filed against the city; Mayor Bloomberg; and three heads of city agencies: Adrian Benepe, Parks Department commissioner; Robert Tierney, Landmarks Preservation Commission chairperson; and Emily Lloyd, chairperson of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The lawsuit argues that the $16 million, two-year project, slated to begin in August, is ill-conceived on numerous counts. Among the suit’s grounds is that the square is a former burial ground, or “hallowed ground,” as the suit states, that probably contains the remains of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 veterans. Also, the complaint argues, the proposed redesign, by George Vellonakis, which includes moving the park’s fountain 20 feet east to align with the arch along the axis of Fifth Ave., doesn’t respect the park’s original planners’ intent for naturalness and asymmetry. They further contend that elevating the park’s sunken plaza to ground level would rob the square of its famous “theater in the round” for performers — also renowned as a center for political activism and tourist attraction, to boot. Ramps to the sunken plaza could be made more gradual, making them more handicapped accessible, they note. Also, closing half of the park at a time for the two-phase project during peak-use seasons is unfair to the public and unnecessary, and the park isn’t in such bad repair that a massive project is necessary, they maintain. The lawsuit calls the renovation a “vanity project,” slamming the planned renaming of the park’s fountain for the Tisch family, who gave $2.5 million to move and restore the fountain. In addition, the renovation, with jackhammers needed to tear up and move the fountain, would scare off the park’s residents — the squirrels and birds — who are part of the park’s natural ecology. D.E.P.’s Lloyd is singled out for not doing enough to protect trees that would have to be felled for the renovation and squirrels whose habitat would be thrown into turmoil.

The point person of the lawsuit is Sharon Woolums, a public member of Community Board 2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee and one of the organizers of the recent Peoples’ Rally to Save Washington Square.

“As a public member of the Parks [and Waterfront] Committee of Community Board 2 who voted No to the park’s redesign plan, I hope this petition can protect the character of the park as it now is, the creative and diverse urban oasis that we all enjoy,” Woolums said.

The Villager first learned of the lawsuit last Thursday, when Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee, leaked the fact that he had been receiving phone calls from lawyers who were putting together the case who were honing the grounds on which it would be based.

“There are people threatening lawsuits,” said Schwartz last Friday. In fact, other lawsuits against the project may be forthcoming.
The lead lawyer on the ECO suit, Podolsky is known for his history of “fighting City Hall” and is reportedly taking the case pro bono. In an affidavit submitted with the lawsuit, Podolsky notes that he met his wife while playing guitar in the park when he was a student at New York University and still likes to jam there when he can.

Until 1825 Washington Square was a potters’ field and contains 20,000 bodies. The suit notes that the plans to move the park’s fountain might dig up and disturb the ancient corpses.

Plaintiff Harris said that the paupers’ burial ground was filled primarily with poor people — both whites and blacks — from the state prison on Gansevoort Peninsula and the Alms House by City Hall. Parts of the square were also used for burial plots by a synagogue and an African Methodist church. The remains may be from 8 feet to 13 feet beneath the surface, Harris said.

A Parks spokesperson said the department couldn’t comment on matters in litigation.

Another leading opponent of the park plan, Jonathan Greenberg, head of the Open Community Washington Square Park Coalition, is not a party to ECO’s lawsuit. However, Greenberg indicated more than one group might be suing to stop the plan.

“Our group — with other groups…. There are a number of groups looking into that right now,” Greenberg said last Thursday of possible litigation. “It might be a few lawsuits that might be consolidated into one by a judge.”

Greenberg and some other opponents, including Mary Johnson and Harris, addressed Community Board 2’s full board meeting on Thursday night, asking them to revisit their approval of the renovation.

“I was lied to, and this board was lied to,” Harris said of the plans for Washington Square.

“On behalf of all the Villagers and the citizens who feel this was handled in a very underhanded way, we ask you to reopen this issue,” Johnson implored of the board. Citing “subterfuge, newspaper revelations,” Johnson said the fact that the Parks Department did not publicly disclose that the park’s fountain was being renamed for the Tisches typified the project’s secretiveness.

But the board decided not to revisit its resolution. Schwartz, in an interview with The Villager, claimed it was “too soon” to revisit the resolution — just three months after the board took a position — but that he hoped to work with Councilmember Alan Gerson on pushing the department to make changes to the design.

“Whatever is going to happen is really going to come down to his [Gerson’s] negotiations with the Parks Department,” Schwartz said.

However, Schwartz said, Parks doesn’t seem very open to talking about any changes. “I asked the Parks Department to come down to the [July 11 Parks Committee] meeting and they were annoyed,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re not coming. The board already has a resolution.’ I didn’t try to reopen the whole issue before the board. There’s a part of me that wants to do that. But it would require more public hearings and I’m not sure I want to do that. — In the end, I think any change is going to come because of Alan.”

Schwartz said Gerson told his committee meeting that Parks is set on moving the fountain and raising the plaza area to street level.

“Alan reported that they’re adamant about the fountain — so maybe we should focus on other areas,” Schwartz said.

Harris noted — as is stated in the lawsuit — that the fountain is at the location of the former hanging gallows. He noted that Peter Cooper recalled seeing a hanging there as a teenager, and that Mayor Edward Cooper, his son, recollected his father having witnessed the lynching at the current site of the fountain.

“That makes that spot the most historic spot in the Village,” Harris said.

(Although an old English elm at the square’s northwest corner is known as “The Hanging Tree,” there were no actual hangings there, according to Harris. It once had a branch that looked like it would have been perfect for hanging, which may have given rise to the myth, said Harris.)

Beyond the lawsuit, both Schwartz and Harris said the upcoming hearing by the Art Commission on Aug. 3 could determine whether the project is allowed to proceed. The commission — which reviews issues affecting art and architecture on city property — will weigh in on the plans to move the fountain and the park’s two statues of Garibaldi and Holley.

Schwartz recalled how in the past the Art Commission killed a plan for a fence around the Bleecker Playground seating area because it would have been within 40 feet of a statue called “The Family.”

“They can throw a major monkey wrench into things,” he said.

Harris noted that the two Washington Square statues were placed in their current positions in the 1880s by Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons Jr. and have only been slightly moved, if anything, since then. He said that, under the renovation plan, moving the statues to the north of their ovals and facing them south would make them “lose their prominence. He just doesn’t understand the history,” Harris said of the renovation’s designer Vellonakis. “He doesn’t understand the significance of it.

Regarding the Art Commission’s review of the plan, Harris said, “I think it has a good chance of killing it.”

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