Volume 76, Number 1 | May 24 - 30, 2006

Villager photo Q. Sakamaki

Reading in the fountain will be harder with nine water plumes.

Plaza size matters; judge extends

By Albert Amateau

In a courtroom packed with opponents of the Washington Square Park renovation plan, State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman last Thursday extended her previous order preventing the city from beginning work or entering contracts for the project until she rules on two separate but related lawsuits.

The gallery at the May 18 hearing reacted like the audience at a melodrama, cheering when things seemed bright for those seeking to stop the project and groaning at statements by those seeking to move the hotly debated project forward.

Goodman did not say when she would hand down her decision on the city’s move to dismiss both actions but she said she appreciated the importance of the issue.

Among the most unpopular features of the plan are proposals to reduce the size and raise the level of the sunken central plaza around the fountain, move the fountain 22 feet to the east to align it with the center of the Washington Square Arch and provide a central water plume that rises 45 feet, as well as eight arcing side water jets.

Both suits challenge the validity of the approval process for the plans, which twice narrowly passed Community Board 2 and were modified as they went through the Landmarks Preservation Commission and finally the Art Commission in January.

One of the actions, filed May 1 by Arlene Boop, the attorney representing Jonathan Greenberg and three other residents living near Washington Square, seeks to cancel the approvals of the two agencies and the community board on the grounds that the final plans were significantly different from plans submitted for review. This suit by Greenberg, Luther Harris, Rebecca Parelman and Fusun Ateser, a handicapped park user, seeks to have the final plan go through the approval process again from the beginning.

The other action, filed in January by attorney Ronald Podolsky, seeks to annul the Art Commission’s approval on the grounds that a Freedom of Information Law request for the Parks Department plans submitted to the Art Commission was ignored. As a consequence, Podolsky asserts, the Art Commission approval was the result of an “arbitrary and capricious withholding of information.”

The injunction against beginning work on the project appears to be superfluous at present because the Parks Department has acknowledged that contractors’ bids significantly exceeded the estimated budget for the first phase of construction and, as a result, the project must be rebid. Moreover, the City Environmental Quality Review of the renovation is still underway and must be completed and shown to the petitioners of both lawsuits before construction can begin.

Nevertheless, for neighbors and for the city, the issues are real.

Goodman drew applause from the gallery when she remarked, “What’s the point of having public comment if it doesn’t have to be considered?” during an argument over the community board’s advisory role and the Art Commission’s obligation to consider testimony. The public gallery also applauded Podolsky’s urging that the Parks Department “should not be allowed to tear up the fountain” as soon as it completes the environmental study.

The plan as it exists now, Boop said, has two significant changes from the plan that went through the review process. The petitioners contend the fountain plaza is 33 percent smaller — with a radius 9 feet smaller — than the one that passed the review. Parks acknowledges a 23 percent reduction, but the department insists that it publicly proposed from the beginning that there would be a reduction in paved space and a corresponding increase in green space.

The second change is the 45-foot-high water plume and the eight side jets in the fountain, which would alter the traditional use of the fountain and plaza as a place of public performance, Boop said.

“You should have brought Bob Dylan here to testify,” Goodman quipped.

“We would have if we could,” Boop replied.

Chris Reo, attorney for the city, insisted that the reduced size of the plaza was made public from the beginning. The point provoked groans from the gallery, and Goodman appeared unsatisfied when she asked when the specific reduction was presented to Community Board 2. The judge also asked if there was any issue of privatizing the park, but Reo said there was none. Goodman also noted that the water plume would prevent toddlers from wading in the fountain.

Boop noted that an agreement between Parks and City Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn during the design phase called for a reduction of the central plaza of no more than 10 percent. She also said that George Vellonakis, the landscape architect who designed the renovation project, had stated at one meeting that the fountain and plaza “would all be the same.”

The difference between the plan presented to the agencies and the final plan was like the “difference between a skyscraper and a cottage,” said Boop.

But Reo insisted that the final plan was essentially the same as the one approved and “it is still a cottage.”

Reo also pointed out photographs of the fountain in the more distant past showing it had been at grade rather than sunken. Responding to the groans of the gallery at one point, Reo acknowledged some of the city’s points were unpopular, but he insisted that the changes in the plan were minor and within the discretion of the Parks Department.

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