Volume 75, Number 27 | November 23 - 29, 2005

Washington Sq. proposals are snuffed out at Board 2

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo
Protesters against the Washington Square renovation project raised their signs at the Community Board 2 meeting last Thursday.
Opponents of the Washington Square Park renovation plan once again turned out in numbers at the Community Board 2 full board meeting last Thursday. They waved their Save the Park signs on green sheets of paper, cheered when incoming Borough President Scott Stringer said a “real debate” on the contentious project is needed and grumbled when Chairperson Maria Passannante Derr ruled that a resolution on the square passed last month by the board’s Parks and Waterfront Committee was out of order. In the end, though, everyone realized: the debate about the renovation project — at least at Community Board 2 — is over.

Two officers from the Sixth Police Precinct were on hand in case there were any disturbances. The previous month’s full board meeting had been heavily attended by opponents of the park plan who were so rowdy that Art Strickler, the board’s district manager, had scolded them that that the board was not the “Israeli Knesset or English Parliament.” Derr said she’d been concerned at that meeting and didn’t want any problems this time.

But the opposition went quietly in defeat and, in fact, the meeting was anticlimactic as far as the park issue was concerned: The resolution that Derr had ruled out of order stayed that way, never coming up for a vote; while Arthur Schwartz, the Parks and Waterfront Committee chairperson — despite having indicated previously that he might do so — did not ask the board to vote on whether it should take a position of “no position” on moving the park’s fountain and raising its plaza.

Rosemary McGrath, a member of the Parks and Waterfront Committee, who had signed onto the Nov. 7 committee resolution that was ruled out of order by Derr last week, made a motion to overturn Derr’s ruling. McGrath had been counting on Doris Diether to second her motion. But Diether had stepped out to the ladies’ room, and thus the resolution failed. Diether later said that she had thought McGrath was going to make the motion later in the meeting, during the “new business” session. The committee resolution called on the board to oppose moving the fountain and raising the plaza — contrary to the board’s position, as stated in its April resolution, of supporting the project’s phase one, which includes moving the fountain and raising the plaza. That no one seconded the motion on the committee resolution, however, showed how little support there was on the board for it — and also probably that no one wanted to rub Derr the wrong way by opposing her.

Incoming Borough President Stringer — who ran on a platform of community board reform — paid his first visit to Board 2 since winning the election.

“There’s a lot that we have to do. We have to work to make sure that the community boards are a center of community debate,” Stringer said, drawing cheers from the audience of about 150. “And nobody does it better than the Village,” he added.

“I see your signs, I know it’s a big meeting,” he said, as the renovation’s opponents hoisted their placards. “Whatever the outcome, we really have to get it together to work cooperatively.”

McGrath asked him what his position on the park was, to which Stringer replied, “We need resolution. We need to begin this by the spring. We need to have real debate,” he said, again sparking applause from the public. “Everyone agrees work needs to be done in the park.”

During the public session, several critics testified against the renovation project, including a woman in a wheelchair who spoke haltingly in gasps into the microphone that was held for her who blasted the idea of raising the sunken plaza to street level.

“As long as we use the north ramp, the plaza is accessible,” she said. “I feel that the disabled are being used as a pawn. The sunken plaza should stay, preserving the tradition of entertainment in the plaza. This park is accessible.”

Jerome Poynton called the square “a classic American park,” adding, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a park as important as Washington Square Park. This park deserves a restoration — not a redesign.”

Councilmember Alan Gerson noted the agreement he and Councilmember Christine Quinn reached with the Parks Department on the renovation project “remains in full force.” Yet, he said, a phase three might have to be added to the project, since no more than half of the park can be closed at any time for the renovations, and since the renovation of the bathrooms, among other things, might have to be done in that extra segment. Gerson reiterated that he personally favors keeping the fountain where it is and not aligning it with the Washington Square Arch.

After the meeting, Derr said she had asked for the small police detail because there had been some concern about two issues before the board — the square renovation and the New York University graduate teaching assistants’ strike. However, she said the square issue was the potentially more explosive of the two.

“Remember the October [full board] meeting?” she asked. “It was very animated. Who knows if it would have gotten worse. I didn’t know what to expect from either — but obviously Washington Square arouses people.” (The board voted not to cross picket lines during the graduate students’ strike — and will hold its meetings in non-N.Y.U. buildings — but did not vote to support the union.)

Derr reiterated that opponents of the fountain and plaza plans can still make their case at the Art Commission hearing and that a task force will be set up to give input from community board members and elected officials on the project.

“I think the process is ongoing and fluid,” she said. “The community’s put in a lot of time — hundreds and thousands of hours — into this project. And the community should be very proud, whether or not they agree [with the outcome so far].”

McGrath, who was the board’s chairperson in 1988-’89, expressed disappointment.

“I don’t remember a board chairperson overruling a resolution from the committee,” McGrath said, adding, “People are afraid to go against the chairperson. The community did not support moving the fountain — they supported renovating the park.”

Schwartz said he didn’t bring up his “no-position-on-the-fountain” resolution because he didn’t want to cross Derr — and risk having two Parks and Waterfront Committee resolutions being ruled out of order in one night — and because he got the sense the board members opposing moving the fountain didn’t feel Schwartz’s resolution went far enough. And he said he didn’t second McGrath’s motion to overrule Derr on her ruling on the Nov. 7 committee resolution, because he knew the resolution would never pass the full board anyway.

(Both Schwartz and McGrath said they didn’t write the Nov. 7 resolution. McGrath said she believed it was written by a public member of the committee, while Schwartz said it could have been written by a public member or someone else from the opposition.)

“I’m sort of not into exercises in futility,” Schwartz said. “Anyone who reads my not supporting Rosemary as a sellout is ridiculous. Having been removed as a [Parks Committee] chairperson before [several years ago when Aubrey Lees was chairperson], I’m not into fighting publicly with Maria right now. I think if people want to fight moving the fountain, they should focus on the Art Commission and bringing a good strategy there — and just move on from the community board.

“I’m not going to entertain any more resolutions about Washington Square Park for a while,” Schwartz continued, “because I don’t think it’s going to serve any purpose.” Schwartz said he’ll focus on helping get the task force organized and operating. He said if Gerson, as the councilmember representing the park, speaks out against moving the fountain at the Art Commission it would have an impact on the commission.

Meanwhile, the opponents, in frustration, said they, too, are moving on. One of them said they are now looking ahead to “the big one,” apparently referring to the lawsuit against the project by the Environmental Coalition Organization to Save Washington Square Park.

Reached by cell phone on Monday, Sharon Woolums, ECO’s point person on the lawsuit and a public member of the C.B. 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee, said she was in a meeting with the coalition. She at first indicated that they were discussing the lawsuit at that very moment, then declined to say whether they were or not.

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