Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

Villager photo by Talisman Brolin

Tumbling twins Tic and Tac use Washington Square Park’s fountain as a theater-in-the-round for their performances.

Gerson warns Parks that he could be the –$6 million man

By Lincoln Anderson

Angry over the Parks Department’s recently revealed plans to reduce Washington Square Park’s central plaza area by almost one-quarter of its current size, Councilmember Alan Gerson is threatening to withdraw and block up to $6 million in City Council funds for the contentious renovation project.

Countering project opponents’ claims that the plans would reduce the plaza by 33 percent, a city attorney at a May 18 court hearing on two lawsuits against the project, stated that, in fact, the plans are to reduce the plaza by only 23 percent. However, Gerson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, last fall, reached an agreement with Parks under which the plaza would be reduced no more than 10 percent.

“I’m chagrined. I’m angry,” Gerson said last Friday. “I think the Parks Department has created a mess in the way they’ve handled this.” Gerson said he’s informed Parks that they must show him proof that they aren’t violating the agreement — “documents, a contract, blueprint or signed statements — or else there’ll be no money” for the project in the upcoming budget. He has demanded that Parks show him this proof before June 6, when a budget hearing on park allocations is scheduled at City Hall starting at 1:45 p.m.

“If they don’t, I’m going to make sure the budget does not allow them to continue in any other way,” Gerson vowed.

The Lower Manhattan councilmember — who grew up splashing in the park’s fountain — isn’t just warning that he’ll block up to $2 million to $3 million in the budget for the project for this year and beyond; he said, if he’s not satisfied by Parks’ explanations, he’ll also withdraw about $3 million he and the City Council have already earmarked for the project but which Parks hasn’t spent yet.

Gerson said Parks is claiming the reason figures for the reduction of the plaza don’t agree is because they are measuring different things. Gerson said the 10 percent reduction he and Quinn agreed to with Parks refers to the area between the outer edge of the fountain and the seating area ringing the plaza. On the other hand, he said, Parks is claiming the 23 percent reduction figure they’re citing refers to the area between the fountain’s outer edge and the path around the plaza’s exterior, and that Parks is saying it plans to reduce the width of this path.

“What they’re claming is they’re narrowing the walkway,” Gerson said. “I want to see it in black and white — otherwise we’re not going to proceed. I’m saying that’s O.K. if that’s the way it is — but I want to see it on paper.

“I want that, I want to see the mounds, I want to see the elevated concert space, I want to see keeping the trees,” Gerson added, referring to other stipulations in the agreement on the renovation that he thought he had with Parks.

Asked last week about the conflicting figures for the plaza’s reduction, Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson, cited department policy on not speaking about matters in litigation.

“I can’t talk about it right now,” he said.

However, in court, Parks is saying — and attesting in an affidavit — that all along throughout the public review process, it made the community aware that the plaza would be significantly reduced in size.

Jonathan Greenberg, one of the plaintiffs on one of the two lawsuits against the project currently being considered by State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman, said Gerson is being sorely misled if he thinks the department’s explanation of why the plaza reduction numbers don’t match might possibly hold any water.

“Alan’s not really correct on this,” said Greenberg. “I just wish he had the wherewithal to find someone with a calculator who had some time and could check the facts — they are measuring an apple and an apple. Gerson is bending so far over backwards in trying to will a compromise.”

Furthermore, Greenberg charged, the agreement between Gerson and Quinn with Parks, while signed by the two councilmembers, was never signed by any Parks official.

“Remember — not signed,” Greenberg stressed. “The only thing Parks has ever signed has been the affidavit to our lawsuit and the application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission” to get Landmarks’ approval for the renovation plan.

“I think Alan can’t believe they’re going to do this to him,” Greenberg continued. “I don’t see how he can’t see that the bid document is a much purer manifestation of what they’re doing…. I don’t think they’re playing straight with him — like they haven’t been playing straight with the community,” Greenberg said.

The project’s opponents claim that the plans shown to the community and the ones in the document put out to bid for contractors are widely divergent in such matters as the size of the plaza. Greenberg added that because water jets would be added to the fountain under the renovation, even more public gathering space inside the fountain and along the fountain’s wall will be taken away.

“I think he’s in denial is what I think,” said Luther Harris — a plaintiff on the lawsuit with Greenberg — of Gerson. “I think it was a mistake not to have gotten the agreement signed,” he added.

But Gerson assured that whether the “10 percent agreement” was signed or not, Parks will have to honor it — or face the consequences of losing millions of dollars in funding for the costly $16 million project.

“It was a memorandum of understanding, signed by myself and Chris Quinn, which Parks verbally affirmed on numerous occasions,” Gerson said. “What makes it binding is the budget process.”

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