Volume 76, Number 4 | June 14 - 20 2006

Talking Point

The battle of Washington Square: Why we’re fighting

By Jonathan Greenberg

My only discussion with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe occurred last September under an event tent in Washington Square Park. In a polite conversation, I told him how many Villagers felt that the park’s sunken central plaza is the center of our community, and the most colorful and diverse public gathering space in New York. Transforming it into a street-level pedestrian pass-through mall, I said, could destroy the heart of our beloved park.

Commissioner Benepe pointed out of an opening in the tent toward a ramp: “We need to bring the center to grade to allow disabled people to access it,” he explained to me. “They can’t use it the way it is now.”

I was immediately reminded of something a columnist wrote about President Bush: “It’s not that Bush is stupid. It’s that he thinks we are stupid.”

But our city’s Parks commissioner is wrong. We are not stupid. In fact, when Jane Jacobs was helping to lead the charge, we were the only community in New York with the savvy and guts to beat Robert Moses, who had wanted to run a highway through the park.

Now we are at it again. It has not been easy. The Parks Department has the power, and the influence. That was seen last year, as Community Board 2 oversaw a rubber-stamp process in which, despite overwhelming public testimony opposed to the plan, they refused to vote down a single one of its highly unpopular critical elements. They listened to members of Disabled in Action say “Not in our name!” to claims that the park’s plaza was being transformed to allow them access. C.B. 2 listened to one outraged park user after another. And with a few notable exceptions, they kept their mouths shut and rubber-stamped the Parks Department plan.

Bringing the central plaza to street level. Shrinking it. Removing every one of our park’s five quiet seating areas. Erecting a 4-foot fence. Closing at least half the park for at least two years, possibly much longer. Creating a reliance on private funds for the first time in the park’s 178-year history. Renaming the fountain Tisch Fountain. Moving the dog runs.

All this was approved by our community board, beginning with C.B. 2 Parks Committee Chairperson Aubrey Lees first describing the radical redesign plan to this newspaper in this deceptive manner: “The emphasis is on refurbishing and making repairs to the park — it’s nothing drastic.”

If only that had been the truth! Making repairs is what the community wants. We surveyed 500 park users: 98 percent want the park’s central plaza to stay the way it is and funding to go to repairs and improvements — like fixing the pavement, new bathrooms and a larger playground. An exhaustive Project for Public Spaces study found that park users like the park the way it is.

The Parks Department never bothered to make a case that there is anything wrong with the current design. Instead, they argued that they had a better design, take it or leave it. When we questioned them about how much it would cost to simply renovate what is there, they refused to answer us. When we asked for engineering reports to prove their contentions that moving the fountain would cost no more money than repairing it, they refused to supply information. They ridiculed our group’s claims that there was enough money on hand to repair the park — while keeping it open — instead of redesigning it, but they refused to provide estimated component costs of a single aspect of their plan.

Then, amazingly, it got worse. After the approvals were completed, we learned that the Parks Department is not just repairing and moving the fountain. They are planning a steady, 45-foot stream of water that will make performing, sitting or wading in it impossible. They are shrinking the central plaza by 33 percent. (They claim 23 percent.) This came out in the bid documents, not in any of the presentations to the community board or the Landmarks Preservation Commission. They have been careful, from the beginning, not to sign their names or leave behind a single written document for independent review. The first time a Parks officials signed a document about this redesign was last month — in the city’s response to our lawsuit, 16 months after the plan was first revealed.

Yes, the Parks officials must think we’re all stupid here in Greenwich Village. But their arrogance, I hope, will be their downfall. We are suing and fighting because our independent judiciary is the only branch of government in this whole process which can actually force this Parks Department to tell the truth about its plans for Washington Square Park. We are fighting because we have had enough of the deception, the withholding of information, the arrogance and the lies.

There are four of us in the Greenberg vs. Benepe lawsuit. Luther Harris, Fusun Atesers, Rebecca Parelman and I each represents a large constituency that uses and loves the park and wants to preserve it. We are suing, and fighting, because this is the only way that our community’s voice is going to be heard.

Greenberg is coordinator of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition and lead plaintiff in the pending Greenberg vs. Benepe lawsuit.

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