Volume 75, Number 50 | May 3 - 9 2006

Third suit is filed against Wash. Sq. renovation

By Albert Amateau

Four Villagers who live around Washington Square Park filed a lawsuit on May 1 to stop the proposed renovation of the park scheduled to begin in July.

The suit is the third legal action to stop the project, whose most controversial provisions call for moving the central fountain so that it may be seen through the arch from Fifth Ave. and for rebuilding the sunken central plaza to grade level. The previous two suits are still pending.

The new action was filed by Arlene Boop, attorney with Alterman & Boop, on behalf of Jonathan Greenberg, founder of the Washington Square Park Coalition; Luther Harris, author of a highly regarded history of the park; Rebecca Parelman, who lives in a New York University residence on the park and is completing her first year at N.Y.U., and Fusun Ateser, a Thompson St. resident who uses a wheelchair when visiting the park.

According to court papers signed by State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman, the city has agreed that no work on the project will be done prior to a 3:30 p.m. May 18 hearing on the coalition’s lawsuit.

The suit challenges the approval process for the Department of Parks and Recreation plan that involved Community Board 2, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Art Commission.

“The plan that was approved by the Art Commission was materially different from the one that went through the community board twice and the Landmarks Commission,” said Greenberg.

The suit under Article 78 of the New York State Constitution, which allows challenges to government decisions, characterizes the design as “radical and expensive” and charges the Parks Department with failure to follow lawful procedure and legal processes.

The Department of Parks and Recreation declined to comment on May 2, citing department practice to refrain from commenting on pending legislation.

“The destruction of the historic fountain and fountain circle, designed to foster community gathering and public expression, will cause irreparable damage to the park and the petitioners as persons who use the park,” the lawsuit says.

“According to the present plans, the fountain itself and the seating wall surrounding it will be rendered inhospitable to performing, sitting or wading, the large sunken plaza will be raised to street grade losing its identity as a gathering place rather than a mere … walkway,” the suit says. Indeed the area of the fountain circle would be diminished by one-third of its current size, the suit says.

Moreover, the Parks Department has not yet complied with state and city environmental review procedures that the department had stipulated in connection with one of the two previous court challenges filed last year, the suit says.

In an affidavit filed with the suit, Greenberg denounced the naming of the redesigned fountain to honor the $2.5 million donation to the project by the Tisch family.

“The projected $16 million price tag of radically redesigning the park instead of repairing it in its current configuration will likely force reliance on private funding, for the first time in the park’s 178-year history,” the affidavit says.

The Parks Department has justified the plan to raise the sunken central plaza to ground level to make it accessible to disabled persons. But Ateser, who uses a wheelchair, said in an affidavit that the plaza is already accessible by wheelchair and the only improvement would be to make the plaza ramps more gradual.

The law firm representing the petitioners last year represented Friends of Hudson River Park, which last year sued the Department of Sanitation and won an agreement that sanitation uses would get off Gansevoort Peninsula in 2012.

Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Waterfront and Parks Committee, said this third lawsuit is potentially the strongest of the three filed against the park project to date. He said Parks would have been wise to adopt the modifications to the plan that his committee proposed last October.

“It was shortsighted, because there’s a potential now that there will be a longer delay than that resolution,” Schwartz said.

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