Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Not so fast! Renovation backers wrangle new resolution on square

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photos by Gary He
George Vellonakis, designer of the renovation plan, briefly answered questions at the C. B. 2 meeting.
In a stunning reversal, the full board of Community Board 2 last Thursday voted to dump the resolution of its Parks and Waterfront Committee on the Washington Square Park renovation and instead approved a significantly different substitute resolution.

Despite a raucous partisan crowd of more than 250 people overwhelmingly in support of the Parks and Waterfront Committee resolution, the board narrowly passed the substitute resolution, crafted by two board members, Shirley Secunda and Judy Paul, which takes no position on whether the park’s fountain should be moved or the fountain plaza raised to ground level and sticks to the board’s earlier April resolution that a planned new fence around the park should be no higher than 4 feet.

The approval of the substitute resolution meant the failure of the resolution from the Oct. 6 Parks and Waterfront Committee that had sought to modify the full board’s original April resolution in support of the Parks Department’s plan; the resolution of the committee, written by its chairperson, Arthur Schwartz, and which was unanimously approved by the committee, had recommended not moving the fountain 23 feet to align it with the Washington Square Arch, not raising the sunken central plaza and limiting any fence around the park to no more than 30 inches tall. (The C.B. 2 April resolution in support of Parks’ plan had notably refrained from weighing in on the fountain and plaza issues.)

At last Thursday’s full board meeting, Brad Hoylman, the board’s first vice chairperson, proposed yet another substitute resolution, calling on the board to back neither the Secunda-Paul resolution nor the Schwartz resolution, but to simply support the agreement on the renovation crafted by local councilmembers Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn with the Parks Department. Hoylman said that by continuing to revisit its earlier April resolution, the board’s position on the renovation project was becoming convoluted.

“This community has been yanked back and forth over this plan,” he said, showing visible frustration at the process. But Hoylman’s resolution failed to gain support.

The Secunda-Paul resolution passed by a vote of 18 for and 15 against. However, before the vote, there was a flurry of intense lobbying, much of it led by George Vellonakis, the designer of the Parks Department-sponsored renovation project. Doris Diether, a C. B. 2 member, gave The Villager a copy of an e-mail that Vellonakis sent out a few hours before the Oct. 20 full board meeting to community activists and block association leaders. Diether did not say who provided her the e-mail.

“The original resolution approved on April 28 can only be saved if many supporters attend [the meeting] tonight…,” Vellonakis wrote in the e-mail. “A new resolution of the Parks Committee, under its new chairperson, Arthur Schwartz, is dramatically changing the community board’s previous resolution that supported work on Phase One…. To date, Parks has completed contract documents for Phase One. Any radical changes will require new public hearings, Landmarks approval, new contract documents, etc. This will delay construction for another two years or more.”

Vellonakis attended last Thursday’s meeting and stood off to the side near the front, watching the proceedings intently.

In addition, signed postcards from local residents were mailed to Schwartz and C. B. 2 Chairperson Maria Derr that read: “I support the plans for the renovation of Washington Square Park as approved by C. B. 2 in April 2005. Please do not delay the renovations of Washington Square Park.”

Derr kept a tight control on the rowdy Oct. 20 meeting, issuing frequent sharp shouts of “Quiet!” to restore order. The board’s district manager Arthur Strickler, at one point scolded the vociferous crowd, “You’re not supposed to shout out like it’s England or the Israeli parliament.” After one man would not stop back-talking her, Derr ordered him to leave.

Several people were allowed to testify on both sides of the issue. Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, urged the board to give its approval to the renovation.

“It’s very important folks to get it moving now so we don’t jeopardize it from happening,” he said, his words greeted by a sustained “Boo!” from the crowd.

Edy Selman, an outspoken critic of the plan, said her group had collected 7,000 petition signatures from people opposed to moving the fountain.

“What we’re talking about is the key element, which is the fountain and central plaza,” she said. “Say whatever else you want,” she said of the petition signatures. “The people have spoken.”

Advocating for the plan, Gil Horowitz, who lives on Fifth Avenue by the park, called the 1969 renovation of the square “a particularly bad design — what you’re trying to preserve was never a good design,” he told the antis.

Talking against the plan, Susan Goren said she was representing “the people that use the park — not the people who think it’s scruffy and unacceptable.”

Making a case for not fiddling with the fountain, author Luther Harris, said, “That fountain is the main thing that brings people down here.”

Councilmember Alan Gerson was put on the spot, asked whether he supported moving the fountain or not.

“I support the Art Commission to resolve that,” he said, then adding, upon further prodding for a concrete statement, “I would prefer personally to keep the fountain where it is.” But he added that he “wasn’t elected to be a park designer.”

C. B. 2 member Lawrence Goldberg, however, said moving the fountain “is a very key issue and shouldn’t be put off.”

Yet, the board’s new resolution on the park project effectively leaves the decision on whether moving the fountain is appropriate up to the city’s Art Commission.

In speaking for his committee’s resolution, Schwartz said he realized it would cause a delay of the project and that it would cost Parks extra money.

“But there was no indication funding would disappear or the project wouldn’t happen,” he added.

Secunda said they put together their substitute resolution after being approached by “so many people who want this to go forward.” Although she is a member of the Parks and Waterfront Committee meeting, Secunda was absent at the Oct. 6 committee meeting at which Schwartz’s resolution was passed unanimously. Speaking last Friday, she said she missed the committee meeting because she hadn’t realized its date had been changed because of the Jewish high holidays. Schwartz later told The Villager that the committee meeting’s date had been made known in September and wasn’t changed.

After last week’s full board meeting — at which Derr voted for the Secunda/Paul resolution — Derr said she had changed her policy on her own voting. She had previously publicly stated that she would refrain from voting, in an effort to remain impartial and avoid any perceived conflicts of interest. But last Thursday she told The Villager that people in the community had subsequently encouraged her to weigh in on issues, feeling it was incumbent upon her as a community leader.

As for why she voted for the Secunda/Paul resolution, Derr said Vellonakis had shown her “over 60 documents” pertaining to the renovation — including ones concerning plumbing and electrical layouts, stone restoration and a plan to enlarge the piers of the fountain. She said she had asked Vellonakis to show her the documents.

“Those drawings must have cost $125,000 to $150,000,” Derr noted, saying it had swayed her vote.

Speaking on Friday at the dedication of Canal Park, after being asked why she had done a separate resolution, Secunda said Schwartz’s resolution had gone “a little too far” and she further contended it was inconsistent with Gerson and Quinn’s agreement with Parks. However, Gerson, who was also at the Canal Park dedication, said Schwartz’s resolution was consistent with his agreement. In fact, the Secunda-Paul agreement is inconsistent with Gerson’s agreement in that it makes no mention of saving the park’s three play mounds — despite the fact that the C. B. 2 April resolution supported saving them.

But both Secunda, an urban planner, and Paul, C.E.O. of North Square restaurant in the Washington Square Hotel, noted that the area of the park with the mounds is in Phase Two of the renovation project, so there is time to consider the mounds’ fate. Paul said she personally is no fan of the mounds, which she said are “rat infested. Most people in the park don’t use them,” she noted.

Although their resolution makes no recommendation on raising the park’s central plaza, Secunda said, “I have never been for that sunken plaza. For anyone over 20 it’s just not accessible.

Defending the board’s abnegating its say on moving the fountain, Secunda said, “It isn’t in our ballpark to decide the movement of the fountain.”

Paul said she’d gotten calls “from block associations and neighborhood and park associations” expressing concern after Schwartz’s committee resolution was passed. Yet, Paul voted for the Schwartz resolution, but she said she did so because she was afraid the project would be slowed down otherwise. She, too, defended the board’s having no opinion on the fountain and plaza.

“We’re just an advisory board,” she said. “So, ultimately, it’s not going to be our decision. It’s going to be Landmarks and the Art Commission that decide a lot of this.”

Paul said she doesn’t have an opinion on the plaza and fountain.

Some speculated that Schwartz’s resolution had been a “revenge resolution” against former Parks Committee chairperson Aubrey Lees, former co-chairperson of the Washington Square Task Force — an advisory body that worked with Parks on the renovation project — who led the effort to get C. B. 2 to approve the plan in April. Schwartz and Lees had a major falling out when they were co-Democratic district leaders about five years ago, and, a few years ago, she also removed him as Waterfront Committee chairperson over his handling of the Pier 40 redevelopment process. But Schwartz denied his resolution was politically motivated, and said the committee had simply been responding to “overwhelming community sentiment.”

Asked later by The Villager about his lobbying efforts, Vellonakis referred questions to the Parks press office.

Carli Smith, a Parks spokesperson, issued the following statement: “We are extremely gratified that the community board has voted to approve the redesign plan twice under two different chairpersons [Jim Smith and then Derr]. We look forward to moving ahead with the plans in the near future.”

Parks’ Smith said Vellonakis is currently retooling the renovation design to bring it into line with the Gerson/Quinn agreement with Parks, so the design is not yet publicly available.

Hoylman, meanwhile, said the community has been disserved by how the community board has handled the overall public process on the renovation.

“My concern was that the public that complained about the renovation of Washington Square Park participated in a committee meeting where the resolution was unanimously approved,” Hoylman said. “I don’t know how it went from that to the resolution that was approved Thursday night. I strongly feel the community board should represent the opinion of the public at large. It isn’t a deliberative body where it should come to its own conclusion. It’s there to reflect public opinion. That’s its function. It’s difficult to gauge public opinion. But in this case, I don’t think it was. I do get a strong sense that we have not done our job on this issue very well. No matter what your opinion is on Washington Square Park — the process has been unfair and mismanaged.”

Regarding the board’s decision not to opine on the divisive fountain issue, Hoylman stated, “The community board has forfeited its opportunity to comment.”

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